The Military January/February 2011

The Last Stand of Ricardo Sanchez

The ex-commander of troops in Iraq thinks some of his superiors should go to hell.
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Sarah Wilson

Last November, days after the release of George W. Bush’s memoir Decision Points, the founder of the Agenda Project, a left-leaning, New York–based advocacy group, telephoned Ricardo Sanchez, the retired Army lieutenant general who once led all coalition ground forces in Iraq, at his home in Texas. Would Sanchez be willing to publicly rebut the former president’s published version of the war?

“I told her absolutely not,” Sanchez says. “I had no intention of going out and buying a copy of Bush’s book.”

In his own book, Wiser in Battle: A Soldier’s Story, Sanchez condemned Bush’s rush to war as “a strategic blunder of historic proportions” that risked the lives of poorly trained and ill-equipped U.S. troops. But Sanchez, who prior to his retirement was the highest-ranking Latino to have served in the Army, has his own burden to bear. His year directing military operations in Iraq soon after the fall of Baghdad saw low-level enemy resistance erupt into full-blown insurgency and virtual civil war. And revelations of detainee abuse that occurred on his watch at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison forced him to retire from the Army in 2006.

Although an Army inspector general’s report cleared Sanchez of any wrongdoing, it found failures of oversight and execution at all levels, as did congressional and news-media investigations. Sanchez says his former superiors dodged his repeated requests for guidelines that could have helped to avert the Abu Ghraib scandal. Now, in a remarkable turn for a general who helped lead the prosecution of the war, he is calling for the creation of a “truth commission” to probe possible crimes involving waterboarding and other torturous interrogation techniques put into practice during the Bush years. For someone who has lived by the military code since joining the junior ROTC at the age of 15, it is something of a quixotic quest.

The teetotaling son of a hard-drinking welder, Sanchez grew up on the banks of the Rio Grande in a house without indoor plumbing. “I still consider myself a poor Mexican kid who was blessed to have some unbelievable responsibilities and successes in my life,” Sanchez tells me over coffee, “and I am still firmly grounded in the values and principles my parents instilled in me growing up in South Texas.” We’re at the kitchen table in the brick colonial home he shares with his wife of 37 years in a gated enclave of San Antonio, but his plebeian roots are easy to see. The last Army lieutenant general I met with sipped coffee from a blue mug emblazoned with three gold stars. The mug Sanchez hands me has a dishwasher-faded photo of his boyhood pal, Chuy Trevino, posing in deer-hunter camouflage with a trophy buck.

Before deciding to lambaste the White House’s prosecution of the war, Sanchez tells me, he went through three years of “tremendous soul-searching.” He sought advice from several four-star officers, who, he says, supported his decision to come forward and even helped him shape his message. But after he first delivered that message in a speech to military journalists in October 2007, when he accused the Bush administration, Congress, and the State Department of incompetence and of engaging in partisan politics at the risk of troop safety, “nobody wanted to get involved, because of potential fratricide across the board, and they began to very quickly walk away.”

Sanchez was working part-time as a paid consultant to the military, mentoring other generals in joint and interagency war-fighting operations as well as senior noncommissioned officers assigned to top leadership positions. The Joint Forces Command stopped calling Sanchez after this speech, he says, and his mentoring contract was not renewed—a decision he believes came straight from Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen’s spokesman, Captain John F. Kirby, said that his boss “was, in fact, troubled by some of the public positions” Sanchez took after leaving the service, but denied that Mullen played any role in ending Sanchez’s contract.

The lucrative consulting jobs that have come to many of his retired peers have eluded Sanchez: not a single company doing business with the federal government has ever contacted him about full-time employment. Fellow flag officers he once considered friends have shunned him, he says, as “radioactive.” The only general to lend him a hand in retirement, according to Sanchez, has been Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general and 2004 Democratic candidate for president, who helped him land a seat on the board of Asynchrony Solutions, an information-technology consulting firm headquartered in St. Louis.

“As a Christian, I must do what’s right regardless of what my personal consequences are, and that’s what I have embarked on,” he tells me. “It’s not just a duty for me as a believer. It’s also a duty to my subordinates and to all those young men and women who sacrificed their lives for this nation. And it’s just appalling to me that I have fellow general officers and superiors who’ve not had the courage to do that.”

In May of 2009, surrounded by the likes of Rachel Maddow and Ron Suskind at an event billed as a “Blueprint for Accountability,” Sanchez upped the ante by launching his call for a truth commission about the Iraq War. “If we do not find out what happened,” he told a reporter at the event, “we are doomed to repeat it.”

But given the political climate, Sanchez tells me in his kitchen, he doubts that any senior members of the Bush administration will be made to answer for their transgressions anytime soon. If they won’t be held accountable in this life, I ask, what about the next? “Are they going to hell?,” Sanchez chuckles. “I’ve had thoughts that they should.” I press him for names. He smiles and shakes his head.

After Sanchez came back from the war, his wife would sometimes wake up in the night and find him in front of his office computer, reading over the biographies of the 843 servicemen and servicewomen who died under his command. He knows that his name will forever be linked with Abu Ghraib, and when I ask him about it, he laments his failure to impose his own restrictive interrogation directives sooner. “We simply were not aggressive enough in implementing the controls,” he says. For now, he divides his time between volunteering with the Texas Veterans Commission, working with a religious support group ministering to teens, and serving on the board of his alma mater, Texas A&M University at Kingsville. He also does security consulting work in Mexico.

I notice a chain around his neck and ask him if he still wears his dog tags. Sanchez gazes at me for a long moment, as though surprised anyone would notice, then reaches inside his shirt and produces them, jangling.

“I will always be a soldier,” he says, eyes misting. “I will go to my grave with these dog tags around my neck. It’s my whole life.”

David Freed is a screenwriter and former investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, where he shared in a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1992 Rodney King riots.
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