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HEIDELBERG, Germany — Senior tactical commanders fresh from the war in Iraq say they were routinely taking questions directly from top political leaders — from the president to foreign ministers of defense — on the day-to-day conduct of the war.

“There is this thing we call the 6,000-mile screwdriver, where they will fine-tune operations from 6,000 miles away. It exists,” Maj. Gen Martin Dempsey told a gathering of mostly senior officers and enlisted soldiers during his keynote address during the Land Combat Expo on Wednesday afternoon.

Dempsey is commander of the Germany-based 1st Armored Division, which just returned from Iraq after 15 months in combat, the longest combat deployment for an entire division since World War II.

While Dempsey said he was routinely peppered with questions and visits from congressional leaders and top Pentagon officials during his tour, his boss, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, “did a marvelous job of shielding me” from too much distraction from the fight.

Asked about the amount of pressure exerted from inside the Washington Beltway, Dempsey said, “I didn’t feel too much. But if you ask Gen. Sanchez that question I think you’ll get a far different answer.”

Sanchez hinted at those pressures during own presentation Thursday.

“We were interfacing with the [National Security Council] and the president on an almost weekly basis, two [to] three times a month, with advice pertinent to the theater of operation,” said Sanchez.

By calling Sanchez, President Bush and his staff regularly jumped at least three rungs of the chain of command — the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the head of the U.S. Central Command — with guidance for the war.

Sanchez, now based in Germany and still the commander of V Corps, declined to be interviewed and avoided any direct allegation of actual interference from political leaders.

Dempsey was less shy.

Dempsey pointed to a recent book making the rounds among military thinkers, Elliot Cohen’s “Supreme Command.”

“The theme of which is, that war is too important to be left to the generals. That in a democracy the political leader, in this case the president, needs to take an active role in the conduct of the war,” said Dempsey. “I don’t know if I agree with that or not.”

Dempsey said there has been long-standing concern that technology would come to a point where leaders could micromanage even individual soldiers on the battlefield.

“That was always the fear when I was a young officer, that some day someone was going to have so much information that they’d be telling you which way to turn and how to fight,” said Dempsey.

“I haven’t seen that, honestly,” he said, but added quickly, “I think the kind of interference that does exist, and the kind that Gen. Sanchez experienced, is this idea of momentum.”

Dempsey said it was difficult but possible to take stock of his units’ progress as the insurgency dragged on in Iraq.

“That’s the kind of measuring you can do at the tactical level that you can’t do at the strategic level. The frustration in Washington, I think, is the enduring question, ‘Are we winning?’ That’s a hard question to answer,” said Dempsey.

“The answer is yes, by the way. But you can’t quantify it right now.”

Telling indicators, he said, was the successful return of sovereignty this summer and the upcoming elections.

“Those are measures of we-are-winning,” said Dempsey, “but they’re balanced in the negative with press reports of car bombings going off in Baghdad. So the frustration in Washington is how do we measure whether or not we’re winning. I had a difficult time doing that myself.”

Meanwhile, Dempsey told Stars and Stripes, Sanchez was often busy taking “phone calls from the chiefs of defense from the 34 like-minded nations, I guess we call them. And then, of course, he’d have the issue of defining momentum. Which frankly is a fascinating question that persists even today.

“I felt like in Baghdad and subsequently in the southern part of Iraq that we had momentum. I don’t how that question is answered at the national level,” Dempsey said.

“But Gen. Sanchez was clearly in the position of having that question asked of him and asked of him by any number of organizations — military and civilian.”

—Charlie Coon in Heidelberg contributed to this story.


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