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The Life and Legacy of Lt. Gen. William Odom
While other top brass played press agents for the administration’s war, William Odom told the truth about Iraq—though few listened.
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Much as the capital loves ceremony, Washington won’t pause on Sept. 8 when Lt. Gen. William Odom is laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery. While he is worthy of his laurels, he did not court the favor of the Beltway political class. Instead, he disdained their blindness to history, their partisan fixations, their herd mentality. Brave men often stand alone.

Those with knowledge of military affairs recognize different types of courage. There is combat courage—the resolve to storm a position or hold a trench against heavy odds. There is command courage—the willingness of officers to take decisive action and sustain losses to secure victory. And there is a third variety, crucial at the topmost ranks of America’s officer corps but increasingly rare—political courage, the willingness to speak truth to political power. Bill Odom, whom I greatly admired and respected, exemplified this last, most elusive kind of courage, which is why his death of a heart attack on May 30 leaves such a void in America’s foreign-policy debate.

He passed away too soon, but in some ways Odom had already lived past his time, the era of Cold War liberal internationalism. After graduating from West Point in 1954, he served in Germany and Vietnam and was later posted to the Moscow embassy. Following several years of teaching at West Point, he came to Washington as an aide to Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser. There, he gained a reputation as “Zbig’s superhawk” for his staunch opposition to détente and his prescient speculations about the possible break-up of the Soviet Union before the end of the century. He went on to serve as assistant chief of staff of the Army for Intelligence and director of the National Security Agency under President Reagan.

In the wake of Sept. 11, this retired three-star general, long a pillar of the foreign-policy establishment, seemed uniquely qualified to be heard. Indeed, he was one of the earliest senior military figures to issue public warnings as the hysterical drive to invade Iraq eventually became a calamitous occupation, an outcome that he later described as “the greatest strategic disaster in U.S. history.”

But since Odom first arrived in D.C.—and especially after the fall of the Soviet Union—the town has become more and more an Imperial City, whose Imperial Court rules a global empire, albeit an increasingly beleaguered and bankrupt one. Competence is far less important to advancement than glibness, media intrigue, and the flattery of wealthy patrons. Sober views of military and geopolitical limits have little place in an administration whose courtiers deride their opponents as members of the “reality-based community.” Therefore, after 9/11, America’s most prestigious newspapers—the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal—virtually closed their pages to Odom’s discordant views.

Reduced to publishing on small websites like, he refused to blunt his critique. Odom’s web columns had titles like “Six brutal truths about Iraq,” “Iraq through the prism of Vietnam,” and “What’s wrong with cutting and running?” Other national columnists said similar things —if more cautiously—but most were liberal pundits with negligible military credentials. Odom had served as one of Ronald Reagan’s highest-ranking national security officials, and his words should have carried enormous weight.

Yet who did the mainstream media select to inform the American public? An endless stream of youthful neocons, almost none of whom had ever worn an American uniform, but who had instead chosen to make their careers in the gilded cocoon of “conservative” think tanks and punditry. Ironically, some of the loudest might have had their closest encounter with military service when they took Odom’s courses in strategy at Yale, though they obviously learned nothing.

There lies another telling contrast. Odom was a career military man. His ancestor Col. George Waller had served with George Washington at Yorktown; two of his great-grandfathers fought for the Confederacy. His only son, Mark, led dangerous field operations in Iraq before being injured last year in an insurgent bombing. Odom was also a serious scholar, with a Columbia Ph.D. in political science, a long list of academic books and journal articles, and an adjunct professorship at Yale.

But to the editors of the major dailies, the proper experts were neocon wordmongers, whose only books were shallow diatribes on subjects ranging from abortion to tax policy to defense, all written with equally zestful ignorance. They knew little about the Mideast or the military, but held advanced degrees in networking, doctorates in self-promotion, and had paid their dues by courting every editor on the cocktail-party circuit. After all, if reality doesn’t exist, why not hire your friends to analyze it?

Yet with America at war, pasty-faced, 30-something Heritage alumni writing endless newspaper columns on grand strategy—and gay marriage—would inspire no confidence on television. The public needed to see high-ranking veterans, solemn and stern-faced, validating the actions of the Bush administration.

That’s exactly what they got. From the moment the planes hit the World Trade Center, the networks, and the cable news channels in particular, developed an insatiable hunger for military commentators, graying former generals heavy on brass and ribbons. Their judgments could not easily be dismissed, given their professional expertise and lifetimes of service, and almost invariably, they supported the views of the White House. The public trusted them and followed where they led—into Afghanistan and then Iraq.


We discovered how much their credibility was worth on April 20, when the New York Times—at long last—published an exposé, based on 8,000 pages of Pentagon e-mail and transcripts, about the business activities and financial ties of these supposedly dispassionate experts. CNN paid them as much as \$1,000 per appearance, but most were simultaneously receiving vastly greater sums from their military procurement and government contracting work. For example, Gen. James Marks appeared regularly on cable news throughout 2006, even as he was involved in bidding, through his work with McNeil Technologies, for a \$4.6 billion contract to provide translators in Iraq.

One might crudely say that the government owned 99 percent of these men while the news channels rented 1 percent—and then asked them their opinion of the government. Their financial futures were in the hands of the administration officials they were evaluating on television.

The White House played this relationship to full advantage. Bush officials routinely organized briefings to provide inside information to these pundits and to tailor their commentary. The New York Times uncovered Pentagon documents describing the talking-head generals as “message force multipliers” or “surrogates,” who could be counted on to propagate the administration’s message “in the form of their opinions.” The Pentagon even hired Omnitec Solutions, a consulting company, to watch the television appearances and grade the performances of these purportedly neutral commentators. The reviews were then passed on to Bush appointees at the Pentagon who controlled the flow of procurement funding.

There are documented examples of retired generals believing that the situation in Iraq was an absolute disaster, but providing only the requested Happy News to millions of Americans seeking their wisdom on television. After returning from a government-sponsored trip to Iraq, Gen. Paul E. Vallely, a Fox News analyst, told Alan Colmes, “You can’t believe the progress,” predicting that the insurgency would be reduced “to a few numbers” within months. But he later told the New York Times, “I saw immediately that things were going south in 2003.”

Many of these former high-ranking American military officers should have every right to request membership in the Screen Actors Guild, and in some cases their theatrical pay might place them near the upper end of the Hollywood wage scale. There is a particular word for military officers who trade away their own country’s national security interests for large financial payments, and it is not a pleasant one.

Bill Odom instead held to the code of traditional military honor. He had not entered the Armed Forces in hopes of acquiring a huge Loudoun County mansion. When he left his home in rural Appalachia to enroll at West Point, his reasons were patriotism and public service—as was almost universally true among members of his generation.

These selfless motives persist in today’s military—but perhaps to a lesser degree. Social and financial corruption frequently start at the top, and when American generals leverage their military careers to become multi-millionaires, many colonels, majors, and captains may begin thinking along similar lines.

Indeed, America’s explicit doctrine of substituting payment for public spirit and personal integrity has reached new levels of absurdity in our Iraq policies. One-fifth—some \$100 billion—of our military spending in Iraq has gone to private contractors. This category includes the many tens of thousands of “security contractors”—private mercenaries—who constitute an important fraction of the occupation forces.

Many of these are South Africans, Brazilians, or French, the traditional “wild geese” who have long traveled the world in search of lucrative wars to fight. But a disturbingly high number are American. When experienced soldiers can quit the Army and immediately return to Iraq as hired guns, making five or six times their previous salaries, they might easily conclude that national military service is merely for the gullible. Thus some fraction of today’s bloated Pentagon budget is actually spent to lure America’s best troops into abandoning their military careers, thereby hollowing out our ground forces.

Some adventuresome neocon pundits have even suggested opening the American Armed Forces to any foreigners willing to join. In return for high pay and automatic citizenship, they need only march wherever their officers tell them to march and shoot whomever their officers tell them to shoot. There is a long record of ugly precedents for countries that choose to replace their national militaries with foreign mercenaries, but history experts who have never read a history book might remain unaware of this.

Although such massive corruption is without modern American precedent, the Iraq War’s parallels to Vietnam are obvious. Liberal pundits are reluctant to note the similarities, lest they be denounced as “unpatriotic” by their bellicose conservative colleagues. But Bill Odom suffered no such qualms. When he saw Vietnam recurring, he said so— and dared anyone to contradict him.

As a staff officer in Saigon, he witnessed firsthand the utter futility and disastrous consequences of that war, both for that country and for the cohesion of the American military. Years later, he pointed out that since the strategic rationale had been to contain China, our war with Hanoi made no sense, given that the Vietnamese were traditionally the strongest local adversaries of the Chinese and indeed fought a bloody border war with China almost immediately after America’s departure. Also, Soviet Russia was America’s great antagonist during that period, and containing China was a key Russian objective, so our war was actually fought on behalf of our leading international adversary. The true reason we spent so many years sacrificing vast quantities of American blood, money, and credibility in the jungles of Southeast Asia was that ending the war would be an admission that American leaders had made a horrible mistake in beginning it.

Following 9/11, our Mideast strategy became similarly irrational. Odom noted that Saddam Hussein, a secular Arab nationalist, had for decades been the greatest regional enemy of both the Iranians and radical Islamists such as Osama bin Laden. Therefore, our Iraq War was serving the interests of these hostile, anti-American powers. And for several years now, it has been obvious that the single greatest reason America does not withdraw from Iraq is the fear of acknowledging our blunder.


When I first met Bill Odom in the early 1990s, shortly after the Cold War ended and he had become director of the National Security Program at the Hudson Institute, he was hopeful that America would become more of a “normal country.” His last book, begun at the end of the 1990s with Robert Dujarric, one of my college roommates, was entitled America’s Inadvertent Empire. It analyzed the United States’ enormous military, economic, technological, and cultural power but never considered that those assets might be turned to wars of imperial conquest and occupation.

Of course, Sept. 11 changed everything. Since that date America has begun behaving as an exceptionally abnormal country, and Odom’s disappearance means our leaders’ dangerous course is even less likely to receive honest analysis. Days before his death, Odom had co-authored a Washington Post piece with Brzezinski, urging an immediate strategic rapprochement with Iran as a means of stabilizing Iraq pursuant to an American withdrawal. The Post had finally become willing to publish Odom’s views, but his counsel seemed to fall on deaf ears. The danger of an American attack on Iran may have since faded—presumably being embroiled in two wars makes the Pentagon cautious about starting another —but belligerent rhetoric continues to issue from all major political candidates. America has 200,000 troops occupying Iraq on the other side of the world and has already caused the deaths of over 1 million Iraqi civilians, but American leaders still regularly denounce Iran for its “interference” in its next-door neighbor. Bill Odom smiled at politicians who demonstrate such political blindness.

The most chilling of his public pronouncements has received little attention, though it might be regarded as his last will and testament to the country he loved. In early April, he and a number of other prominent military critics of the Iraq War were called to give Congressional testimony. All criticized the occupation and urged a rapid American withdrawal, but Odom went farther. He said that without prompt action, Baghdad could become America’s Dien Bien Phu, where superior French forces were surrounded, trapped, cut off from supplies, and ultimately destroyed by Vietnamese guerrillas.

The comparison is not as absurd as it might seem. America possesses a powerful force in Iraq, but, as military analyst William Lind has repeatedly emphasized, that force is almost entirely dependent on a long and slender supply line from Kuwait, which runs through territory controlled by Shi’ite forces friendly to Iran. Some 500 tanker trucks of fuel must reach the American Army each day for it to maintain operational mobility. If widespread guerrilla action were to reduce substantially the number or transit speed of those convoys, America’s advantage in advanced hardware—our primary strength—would become increasingly irrelevant.

Under such a scenario, any American president who finally issued a command to withdraw would be forced to abandon vast amounts of military hardware, thereby publicly formalizing the greatest defeat in American history. But any president who did not issue such a humiliating withdrawal order would risk the total loss of America’s huge expeditionary force. That result would rank with the greatest military disasters in all history—enormously worse than Dien Bien Phu, and comparable in scale to the doomed Sicilian Expedition of the Athenians.

As a serious scholar, Bill Odom knew his Thucydides. But the country he leaves behind does not.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Rurik says: • Website

    great article

    General Odom tried to point out the terrible folly of the war and occupation of Iraq to a government and MIC and whore media that didn’t want to listen. The similarities to Viet Nam, and the feckless cowardice of our government is beyond tragic.

    I wonder if he ever spoke to Mr. Unz about the events of 1967 involving certain NSA victims of treachery.

    great read, with a certain melancholy nostalgia for actual American patriots with character and integrity. Gone if not forgotten. RIP general.

  2. Ron Unz says:

    I wonder if he ever spoke to Mr. Unz about the events of 1967 involving certain NSA victims of treachery.

    • Replies: @Rurik
  3. Whoever says: • Website

    Thanks for reprinting this. Much to think about.
    Since you mention Thucydides, one of his more famous statements, Thucydides 2. 63, one Lieut. Gen. Odam probably knew well, seems appropriate to our current situation:

    [D]o not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery: there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred which we have incurred in administering it. Nor is it any longer possible for you to give up this empire, though there may be some people who … think that this would be a fine and noble thing to do.
    Your empire is now like a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.

    I don’t assert that Odam would agree with Thucydides on this point, but I suspect that a lot of those in power do. We are riding the tiger.

    • Replies: @lysias
  4. Too long an article, but then I’m not into hagiography, especially when it comes to government pampered careerists.

    Standing armies are un-Ameerican, bureaucrats stink, and the higher one goes in the military the more odious they get.

    Here’s part of the reason why:

    CNN paid them as much as \$1,000 per appearance, but most were simultaneously receiving vastly greater sums from their military procurement and government contracting work. For example, Gen. James Marks appeared regularly on cable news throughout 2006, even as he was involved in bidding, through his work with McNeil Technologies, for a \$4.6 billion contract to provide translators in Iraq.

    Little more than a bunch of filthy, narcissistic, money grubbing parasites, especially the prancing pretty boys from West point. To know some is to despise ’em.

    Bill Odom knew his Thucydides

    Then why the hell did he continue in a military career?

    • Replies: @Rurik
  5. Rurik says:
    @Ron Unz

    yea, I guess I kind of remembered that. Couldn’t quite remember if it was gen. Odom specifically or not.

    I’d be curious of your opinion of the enigmatic late Zbigniew Brzezinski. He surely had an effect on the global trajectory we find ourselves on now, no?

    From what I’ve read, he always harbored a tenacious hatred of all things Russian. At least from what I’ve glimmered. But I’ve never delved too deeply into his career, either overt or covert.

    • Replies: @Rurik
  6. Rurik says:
    @jacques sheete

    Too long an article

    you always complain about that. A pet peeve of yours I guess.

    Then why the hell did he continue in a military career?

    are soldiers deplorable by definition?

    You must agree that under certain circumstances, there are legitimate reasons to go to war. The American revolutionary war and the War of 1812 being among two that ring a bell for me. All the people fighting to get the US out of their countries today for instance surely are fighting the good fight, at least as far as I can see. The Russian military should be lauded for what they’re doing in Syria, even if it’s ultimately for dubious motivations. Defending the sovereign integrity of Syria seems like a very noble reason to take to arms, from my perch.

    I of course agree that our recent zio-wars and most of the wars America has engaged in over the last hundred years or so have been abominations and sins against reason and humanity, but I don’t consider all soldiers and officers to be reprehensible by default. And more to the point, officers like Gen. Odom used their pulpits to decry moral atrocities like the war on Iraq.

    that doesn’t count for much on your ledger?

  7. Eagle Eye says:

    But to the editors of the major dailies, the proper experts were neocon wordmongers, whose only books were shallow diatribes on subjects ranging from abortion to tax policy to defense, all written with equally zestful ignorance. They knew little about the Mideast or the military, but held advanced degrees in networking, doctorates in self-promotion, and had paid their dues by courting every editor on the cocktail-party circuit. After all, if reality doesn’t exist, why not hire your friends to analyze it?

    Thanks for a great and, sadly, still timely piece.

  8. Rurik says:

    the enigmatic late Zbigniew Brzezinski.

    interesting read

    and if you follow the link from the link, you can read more about the treacherous and cowardly act of war by our bestest little ally ever. An act of war and US government treason that must have racked General Odom’s soul

    from the Counterpunch link:

    16 hours after the attack two US destroyers reached the Liberty. By that time, 34 US sailors were dead and 174 injured, many seriously. As the wounded were being evacuated, an officer with the Office of Naval Intelligence instructed the men not to talk about their ordeal with the press.

    The following morning Israel launched a surprise invasion of Syria, breaching the new cease-fire agreement and seizing control of the Golan Heights.

    Within three weeks, the Navy put out a 700-page report, exonerating the Israelis


    It gets worse. There’s plenty of evidence that US intelligence agencies learned on June 7 that Israel intended to attack the Liberty on the following day and that the strike had been personally ordered by Moshe Dayan.

  9. Thank you for making this article available.

  10. Then why the hell did he continue in a military career?

    You have to know what happened to Thucydides to understand my comment.

    are soldiers deplorable by definition?

    Pretty much. It’s both philosophically correct as well as correct in a practical sense. Soldiers are tools of governments and thus are used as violent agents of theft and coercion. You could read Maj Gen Butler’s monograph on the subject “War is a Racket” if yer interested in details.

    What I mean by “practical” is that the idea is pretty obvious to anyone who has spent time in the military, especially if he’s had close association with grads from the military schools. It ain’t a pretty picture.

    “Military life in general depraves men. It places them in conditions of complete idleness, that is, absence of all rational and useful work; frees them from their common human duties, … also puts them into conditions of servile obedience to those of higher ranks than themselves.”

    ― Leo Tolstoy Resurrection Or, The Awakening, 1899

    Tolstoy started out with youthful patriotism, volunteered for combat and served on the front lines for Russia and was known and decorated for bravery under fire. His experiences changed his mind about war and patriotism. He’s well worth listening to.

    • Replies: @jack ryan
  11. Rurik says:

    what happened to Thucydides

    I’m not a scholar, so I took a cursory look at this fellow when I read of him here recently. Just now, I perused his extraordinary influence on our notions of the human condition and war in particular.

    “My recreation, my predilection, my cure, after all Platonism, has always been Thucydides. Thucydides and perhaps Machiavelli’s Principe are most closely related to me owing to the absolute determination which they show of refusing to deceive themselves and of seeing reason in reality – not in “rationality,” and still less in “morality.” There is no more radical cure than Thucydides for the lamentably rose-coloured idealisation of the Greeks… His writings must be carefully studied line by line, and his unuttered thoughts must be read as distinctly as what he actually says. There are few thinkers so rich in unuttered thoughts… Thucydides is the great summing up, the final manifestation of that strong, severe positivism which lay in the instincts of the ancient Hellene. After all, it is courage in the face of reality that distinguishes such natures as Thucydides from Plato: Plato is a coward in the face of reality – consequently he takes refuge in the ideal: Thucydides is a master of himself – consequently he is able to master life.”

    ~ Nietzsche

    I too am a behaviorist, but was surprised to read that a man so long ago came to the same conclusions sans the tools of science. A remarkable man.

    are soldiers deplorable by definition?

    Pretty much. … Soldiers are tools of governments and thus are used as violent agents of theft and coercion. You could read Maj Gen Butler’s monograph on the subject “War is a Racket” if yer interested in details.

    Yes, I’m quite familiar with General Butler’s works. When ever an pro-war email was circulating among family or friends, I’d often reply with General Butlers’ War is a Racket in response.

    And I agree that modern war is a racket and any soldier who mindlessly follows orders to kill for reasons he doesn’t understand, is deplorable. My contention however is that on occasion, there seems to me to be circumstances that make being a soldier a valid response to a threat. As I’ve mentioned, during the American revolutionary war for instance, or if you’re a Syrian patriot trying to keep the Zionists/CIA/ISIS/stone age Wahabists from descending on your village and crucifying your family- that it might be prudent to join with the Syrian army and do what you could to kill as many of them as possible. No?

    It ain’t a pretty picture.

    Yes I agree. The modern military, especially in the West, demands that you forfeit your volition and morality and your very identity. It demands of you the negation of your very soul, and to see men giving that up, and without so much as a peep of protest, is not a pretty picture, to be sure.

    “Military life in general depraves men. … , … into conditions of servile obedience to those of higher ranks than themselves.”

    He’s well worth listening to


    Thanks Jacques, your perspective and comments/quotes are very much appreciated.

  12. Anonym says:

    You run a great site, Ron. This article, and the comments, are more commendation for it. Props to you.

    Is there a military figure like Odom who is still alive and giving advice that you similarly respect?

  13. TG says:

    Well said! Kudos.

  14. In his famous 1917 essay, The State, Randolph Bourne had this to say about State sponsored wars:

    “The manner in which they [the State] operate this machinery may be freely discussed and objected to by their political opponents. The Governmental machinery may also be discussed and legitimately altered, in case of necessity. What may not be discussed or criticized is the mystical policy itself or the motives of the State in inaugurating such a policy.” Randolph Bourne – War is the Health of the State (explanation of why the conduct of State sponsored wars may be openly discussed, while the legitimacy of the war itself cannot be discussed.)

    In addition to Gen Odom, Phil Donahue could also attest to the hazards of questioning the legitimacy of a war.

  15. “Gen. Paul E. Vallely”

    A particularly odious man, partnered with a literal, self-described “Satanist,” and a co-inventor of what they called “Mind War,” a nasty form of psychological warfare that targets Americans as much as, if not more than, the enemy.

    Vallely was also a collaborator with torturers and an apologist for torturing civilians in the most hideous and sexually perverse ways.

  16. jack ryan says: • Website
    @jacques sheete

    Please pi** off.

    No healthy Russian can be anti army, pacifist, Christian universalist. There are hordes of Tartars, Chetnian Islamist rapist, throat cutters, Turks, Huns or Zionist Bolsheviks ready, willing and able to flood in rape and loot or do worse, take over.

    Russia, Poland, Hungary and the Serbs will be the last to ever give in to the degenerate or pacifist forces in the collapsing West.

  17. lysias says:

    The words you quote were put by Thucydides into the mouth of Pericles. Even though Thucydides admired Pericles, he did not necessarily agree with every opinion he attributed to him.

    It is no doubt true that it would have been dangerous for Athens to give up its empire, but Thucydides, at any rate with the advantage of hindsight, might well have thought that a wiser course for Athens would have been to avoid the outbreak of war by making concessions.

    It is notable that Pericles’ funeral oration is immediately followed in Thucydides by the plague in Athens. I think that implies a certain distancing.

  18. Mishko says:

    He got the cold shoulder but was respected enough not to be suicided?
    Good for him, could have been worse a la defenestration or some such.

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