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Caution guides today's military leaders

| Friday, May 22, 2015, 8:57 p.m.

National Geographic last winter aired an important piece of 20th-century Americana on its TV channel. It was called simply “American War Generals.”

The names involved were famous ones — legendary four-star generals Colin Powell, Barry McCaffrey and Jack Keane, among others. Almost without exception, all six or so of the generals condemned not only the Vietnam War but also those more recent disasters — the Iraq and Afghan wars.

“Where were those generals,” you may well ask, “when those wars were being waged above our heads? Why do they complain only now, when there is nothing we can do about it?”

Well, one of the main reasons is that, had they not supported these wars when they were waged, they would have had to retire. Thus, we see this saga of leading military men now putting down the very wars they led.

But America often changes in quiet ways, and perhaps we can hope that is what's happening now.

This spring began the winding down of Gen. Martin Dempsey's tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This short, fit, bulldog of an officer has altered the underlying principles of war in the 21st century — much for the better. Quietly, but with the conviction of the sensible man, Dempsey has changed the military's approach from the crazy wastefulness of the past to, as The Wall Street Journal put it, “one of caution about U.S. military engagements and reliance on local partners.”

The next man who will walk in Dempsey's shoes is Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. This slim man from Boston will take over the chairmanship on Oct. 1 and, wonder of wonders, Dunford, too, is a cautious general.

He has served in Afghanistan, speeding up the transition to American troops spending the greatest amount of their time training Afghans. In contrast to the generals who marched into Iraq and Baghdad in 2003 and quickly wiped out the Iraqi army, taking all the responsibility on themselves, the Dunford “way” is to attempt to empower local forces.

But it is not going to be easy. We say we cannot bear the presence on Earth of the barbaric savages of ISIS; we say ISIS must be destroyed, under any circumstance; we say wars are not won only by air power but by “boots on the ground.”

Yet the American public is sensible enough to know this is the one thing it does not want. And at the same time, it is the one thing the Islamic State does want. These terrorists have told the rare visitor from the civilized world, repeated in their speeches and propaganda, that they want above all to fight American troops on the sands of Iraq.

How this new military leadership will deny ISIS fighters their wish, and at the same time defeat them, is the conundrum we face.

Yes, we are fighting a war over there — and we should never forget that. But at least this time, we have men in charge who appear to have their heads on very straight.

Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years (gigi_geyer@juno.com).

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