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Retired U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, during an interview this week at Stars and Stripes' office in Washington, D.C.

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, during an interview this week at Stars and Stripes' office in Washington, D.C. (Joe Gromelski / S&S)

WASHINGTON — Tommy Franks wants young commanders on the ground in Iraq to remember one thing: The desire to protect your troops is noble, but you cannot forget the mission.

Franks sat down with Stars and Stripes reporters Monday during a stop in Washington to promote his book, “American Soldier.”

The former head of the U.S. Central Command and retired Army four-star thinks balance is the key — the U.S. military simply cannot lapse back into a mind-set common in the wake of the 1996 Khobar Towers attack, in which 19 U.S. airmen were killed by truck bombers in a military housing complex in Saudi Arabia.

“There was such a reaction inside the military to that,” Franks said Monday, “that pretty soon, we had commanders payin’ more attention to how to protect the troops — whether they were Army or Air Force or Navy — over in the region, than they were to doin’ their jobs.

“I think it would be easy to say that actually, the behavior in Iraq is so fractious right now that the mission is force protection. That would be a mistake.

“I think the balance of, ‘How can we protect troops — to go down the road, over the hill, through the village, and do what has to be done’ — if we’re going to move forward in Iraq, with the need to secure those kids as they’re goin’ through the village, that’s a very, very difficult thing.

“And if I were counseling young commanders about to be on the ground in Iraq, I would tell them to soul-search, and to pay very close attention to their own view of how to balance force protection and accomplishment of the mission in this most dangerous place. Because you have to do both.”

Franks said the continuing instability in Iraq is the inevitable result of quick action that prevented even greater hardships for troops and for the Iraqi people.

He said that it is impossible to tell, without the benefit of a few years’ hindsight, whether postwar planning or the sheer enormousness of the task is the reason for the continuing security problems.

“There are people who say, ‘Well, if we just had’ — as (retired Army Chief of Staff) Gen. [Eric] Shinseki said — ‘If we’d just had a quarter of a million people on the ground, we wouldn’t have had a problem.’ That might be right, but I don’t know that.

“But I do know this: We would never have gotten a quarter of a million people staged for operation in Iraq and been able to get the job done through major combat as quickly as we did, because the Iraqis would’ve had at least the chance to destroy their own water infrastructure and flood the south, to destroy their own oil infrastructure, to shoot missiles into Saudi Arabia, into Israel, into Jordan, and so it’s very difficult to say, ‘Well, ya just shoulda had more people.’”

But more people seems to be a recurring theme in the Iraq situation. Critics have castigated the Pentagon for calling up high numbers of Guard and Reserves, extending tours for those in Iraq and even calling up troops from the Individual Ready Reserve.

Franks said, however, that while extensions are resisted, and when they happen, regrettable, even more painful to servicemembers and families would be the feeling that nothing good was coming of it.

“That’s a sad thing, but wouldn’t it be really sad if we were getting our people hurt and killed, and not accomplishing something?”

Franks praised the media’s coverage of events in Iraq, citing Abu Ghraib as a particularly embarrassing but crucial story.

“If you’re gonna go to war, you get it complete with mistakes, I mean they actually happen, and you see people make mistakes at every level, during military operations. That however … does not mean that America doesn’t have the right to know.”

Franks held court on a range of topics, including Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

Franks said he intends to see the film, and said, “I do not believe that commanders should deny their troops the ability to see it.”

Franks told The Associated Press that the recent criticism of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry by former Vietnam compatriots was hyperbole, saying Kerry was “absolutely” qualified to be commander in chief.

Kerry told Stripes on Friday that he believed that repairing the Bush administration’s “broken relationships” would be key to fighting the war on terror.

Franks acknowledged the importance of diplomacy, but said practical considerations sometimes determine the nation’s course of action.

“I believe relationships have been broken, and I guess if I’m notorious for anything, I believe it’s the comment where I said: It’s multiple choice. Fight ’em over there, or fight ’em here.

“And reporters on several occasions have asked me, ‘General, what do you think about being perceived as a bully? Not only you personally, but what do you think about the United States of America being perceived as a bully?’ And I’ve said, and I’ll continue to say, when it comes to protecting my liberty and my grandkids, it works for me.”

Click here for a transcript of the conversation with Tommy Franks.

Franks easy on Letterman’s eyes

Tommy Franks is in the early stages of a 42-day press tour to support his book, which is currently No. 3 on Amazon’s bestseller list (updated hourly!).

Asked if she was tired from all the traveling and interviews, Franks’ wife, Cathy, said, “This is nowhere near as tiring as a war.”

Franks himself is just as upbeat.

“This is great! Isn’t this great?” he asked no one in particular.

Franks went on “Late Night with David Letterman” on Friday. Cathy said Letterman was kind and very respectful, but at the very end, Letterman said, “Let me say one thing — we’re nearly out of time — but you have beautiful eyes.”

Franks looked as if he was deep in thought for a moment, then burst out laughing.

That’s life with a best-selling book.

— Pat Dickson


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