Why Won’t Tommy Franks Talk About the Turmoil in Iraq?

Why won’t Tommy Franks talk about the turmoil in Iraq?

This illustration can only be used with the Daniel Libit story that ran in the 8/2/2014 magazine. 
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Daniel Libit
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Daniel Libit
Aug. 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

A one-lane road winds through the red-rock Wichita Moun­tains of south­west­ern Ok­lahoma, past cattle and buf­falo ranches to the city of Hobart, pop­u­la­tion 4,000. On Main Street, across from the county’s his­tory mu­seum and right next to the farm bur­eau, is a store­front bear­ing a sign that says, “Gen­er­al Tommy Franks Lead­er­ship In­sti­tute and Mu­seum.”

I enter with some 50 stu­dents rep­res­ent­ing 30 states and the coun­try of Jordan. They are at­tend­ing Four Star Lead­er­ship with Gen­er­al Tommy Franks, a weeklong pro­gram that is free to par­ti­cipants, who have been hand­picked by their high school ad­visers for their lead­er­ship po­ten­tial. The stu­dents are black, white, Latino, Asi­an, male, and fe­male; di­versity, as they’ve already learned, is a ma­jor theme of the week. We im­me­di­ately find ourselves fa­cing the gift shop, which sells polo shirts and cof­fee mugs bear­ing the in­sti­tute’s in­signia, as well as hard­back cop­ies of Amer­ic­an Sol­dier, the auto­bi­o­graphy of the former head of the U.S. Cent­ral Com­mand. Past the gift shop is a room filled with chal­lenge coins and mil­it­ary awards. In­side the main hall, the first thing we see is Franks’s com­bat uni­form, com­plete with boots on the ground.

There are ex­hib­its ded­ic­ated to Franks’s early years in Ok­lahoma, and to his teens in Texas. There’s a copy of his tran­script from the Uni­versity of Texas (Aus­tin), which re­veals him to have been a tre­mend­ously me­diocre stu­dent. He got four F’s, in­clud­ing one in PE. These are fail­ures Franks hap­pily ac­know­ledges. He is will­ing, even eager, to tell the world what a lousy stu­dent he was, be­cause it sets up what happened next: He be­came a lead­er in spite of it. Hard to ar­gue with that.

The dis­play de­voted to Franks’s ca­reer up un­til Septem­ber 11 could be titled the Hall of Swag: gifts he re­ceived as an of­ficer in Europe and Asia, start­ing with the ob­lig­at­ory ce­re­mo­ni­al swords and build­ing to a side­car mo­tor­cycle that once be­longed to Jordan’s King Ab­dul­lah II. Nearby, some stock video of the burn­ing twin towers and the Pentagon runs on a loop.

What there isn’t, in this small-town mu­seum built by the man who led the Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan wars, is any­thing about either cam­paign that one wouldn’t ex­pect to find in a col­or­ing book on the con­flicts. The Ir­aq War is sum­mar­ized on a three-para­graph plac­ard, sup­ple­men­ted with ob­jects that are meant to speak for them­selves: a pin­stripe suit Don­ald Rums­feld wore as De­fense sec­ret­ary; a dress Con­doleezza Rice donned as sec­ret­ary of State; the Car­hartt jack­et Pres­id­ent George W. Bush of­ten spor­ted while clear­ing brush on his Craw­ford ranch; a video called The De­cision, which shows Bush con­fer­ring for a fi­nal pre­war sign-off with his mil­it­ary lead­ers and ad­visers, in­clud­ing Franks, Rums­feld, Colin Pow­ell, and Dick Cheney.

He is will­ing, even eager, to tell the world what a lousy stu­dent he was, be­cause it sets up what happened next: He be­came a lead­er in spite of it.

The latest round of tur­moil in Ir­aq has led some of the ori­gin­al cast mem­bers from the Glob­al War on Ter­ror to re­in­sert them­selves in­to the na­tion­al for­eign policy de­bate. Their theme, with vari­ations, has gone something like this: We did the right thing, and Pres­id­ent Obama squandered our ef­forts. Cheney, with his no-re­grets tour of Wash­ing­ton last month, has been the most vis­ible and vo­cal of the group, but there have also been note­worthy cameos from Rums­feld, Paul Wolfow­itz, Paul Bremer, and Doug Feith — the man whom Franks, ac­cord­ing to Bob Wood­ward’s 2002 book, Bush at War, openly re­garded as the “stu­pid­est fuck­ing guy in the world.” Franks, however, hasn’t come for­ward to de­fend The De­cision or its af­ter­math. He’s been here in Hobart, far from the fray.

Mi­chael Hayes, who served as Franks’s chief of staff at CENT­COM and con­tin­ues to func­tion as his right-hand man, tells me that he de­clines mul­tiple in­ter­view re­quests each week on Franks’s be­half. He says the re­tired gen­er­al sees no value in weigh­ing in from the side­lines (al­though, dur­ing the 2012 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, Franks did en­dorse Mitt Rom­ney and pub­licly cri­ti­cize Obama’s for­eign policy ap­proach). When I con­tac­ted Hayes earli­er this sum­mer, ex­press­ing my in­terest in writ­ing about the gen­er­al’s life in Ok­lahoma, Hayes told me I was wel­come to vis­it, but that Franks would not speak with me.

Franks, like Bush, is among the few Ir­aq War prot­ag­on­ists who seem to have taken to heart a key piece of their crit­ics’ ad­vice: Shut up and go home. Later today, in a part of the coun­try where no Code Pink pro­test­er is likely to roam, Franks will speak about lead­er­ship to an audi­ence that was in kinder­garten when the ground in­va­sion began. His leg­acy-build­ing ef­forts are fo­cused on the fu­ture, not the past. Is the path he’s chosen simply easi­er, or is it ac­tu­ally no­bler than the route many of his peers have taken? I want to find out what he thinks about that.

Franks, as much as any­body in­volved in Bush’s Mideast cam­paigns, de­par­ted the na­tion­al scene with his lead­er­ship in ques­tion. He was blamed for blow­ing the chance to kill Osama bin Laden in the moun­tains of Tora Bora, and later for fail­ing to prop­erly pre­pare for the post­war re­con­struc­tion ef­fort in Ir­aq. Tom Ricks, the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning war cor­res­pond­ent, con­cluded that Franks was one of the worst Amer­ic­an gen­er­als ever, the pro­to­type for the mil­it­ary brass’s post-9/11 my­opia. “In fair­ness to Tommy — he did ex­actly what the U.S. Army trained him to do — he de­ployed planes and tanks and took ground,” Ricks once wrote. “He had zero train­ing in any­thing else.”

Fol­low­ing his re­tire­ment in 2003, Franks cowrote the best­selling Amer­ic­an Sol­dier — the one book he had in him, ac­cord­ing to Hayes — which did little to push back against his crit­ics. (Tora Bora is barely men­tioned.) He then moved with his wife to the Ok­lahoma cattle ranch she in­her­ited from her fam­ily. They built a big house. They raise or­gan­ic live­stock. They sell some of the beef to Whole Foods. Un­like a num­ber of oth­er re­tired mil­it­ary of­ficers, Franks has ab­stained from the luc­rat­ive work of de­fense con­tract­ing, but he’s made money in oth­er ways. He has served on the boards of dir­ect­ors for Bank of Amer­ica (from which he resigned in the wake of the bank bail­outs), Chuck E. Cheese, and, most re­cently, U.S. Rare Earths, a min­er­al-ex­trac­tion firm that paid him $1.46 mil­lion in stock. He is most in­volved these days with Mus­co Light­ing, a privately held com­pany based in Iowa that il­lu­min­ates ma­jor sport­ing ven­ues. Hayes told me that Franks has used his Middle East con­nec­tions to ush­er in new busi­ness op­por­tun­it­ies for the com­pany, such as its light­ing work for the For­mula 1 racetrack in Abu Dh­abi.

And then there’s the in­sti­tute, a labor of love for which Franks is un­paid. It con­ducts work­shops and sem­inars year-round, and is built on the premise that Franks was, and is, more than a mil­it­ary lead­er — that what he has to teach on the sub­ject of lead­er­ship ap­plies to every­one from cor­por­ate CEOs to JV quar­ter­backs. The Four Star sum­mer pro­gram is co­sponsored by the Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Policy Ana­lys­is, a Dal­las-based right-wing think tank. Most of the classes and lec­tures take place at Ok­lahoma Chris­ti­an Uni­versity, out­side Ok­lahoma City. The stu­dents get policy brief­ings from NCPA ex­perts and pep talks from politi­cians and minor celebrit­ies. Al­len West, the former tea-party House mem­ber, gave the key­note ad­dress this year, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Karl Rove and King Ab­dul­lah. The teens write op-eds and per­suas­ive speeches; they de­bate. And they vis­it the mu­seum in Hobart. Friends of the former gen­er­al offered to build a mu­seum for him in Los Angeles or New York , but Franks de­clined.

Out­side the mu­seum is a large trail­er that serves as a mo­bile classroom, dis­play­ing a ro­tat­ing col­lec­tion of items Franks ac­quired in the Mideast. The in­sti­tute takes it to middle schools throughout the state to teach the vir­tues of di­versity — a top­ic that also turns out to be the theme of today’s lunch. As the stu­dents eat bar­be­cue in a nearby as­sembly hall, a group of loc­al Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans, dressed in tri­bal garb, lead the audi­ence in a Chris­ti­an pray­er and then dance to Lee Green­wood’s “God Bless the USA.” Then the stu­dents gath­er for a Q&A ses­sion with Franks, who sits on­stage in front of a floor-to-ceil­ing Amer­ic­an flag, at ease in blue jeans and short sleeves.

“Do any of you have a good idea why I thought it would be good to have those In­di­an dan­cers?” he asks. “It’s kind of like, [any] amount of work we do that can show us that every­body is not the same is good for us, right? I mean, we can like In­di­an dan­cing or not like it — it doesn’t make any dif­fer­ence. The idea be­hind that is not to im­press you; the idea be­hind that is to build your tol­er­ance.”

There are more les­sons in store — about Franks’s “mis­spent youth,” the Amer­ic­an Dream, the in­genu­ity of Mus­co light­ing. He of­fers an­ec­dotes. He tells jokes. He teaches mne­mon­ics, such as FEISTY: F (fo­cus) E (en­ergy) I (in­teg­rity) S (“solve the prob­lem, don’t be the prob­lem”) T (take the blame) Y (“Yes, I’ll do win­dows”). He speaks to an audi­ence of young people who will know him as he presents him­self today, not as he was in the past, or has been por­trayed by oth­ers.

“Aside from cap­tur­ing me­dia at­ten­tion, aside from at­tempt­ing to per­petu­ate the leg­acy of something, what value does that have? I really am not in­ter­ested in self-ag­grand­ize­ment.”

Tommy Franks

After the speech, I ap­proach Franks to in­tro­duce my­self. He smiles as he shakes my hand and agrees to take a few ques­tions. I ask why he’s been avoid­ing the press. Doesn’t he have something to add to the con­ver­sa­tion?

“What would that do for my coun­try?” he re­sponds, in a tone at once avun­cu­lar and scorn­ful. “You are a bright young man, and you can come up with an an­swer just as read­ily as I — and that is, it would serve no pur­pose,” he con­tin­ues. “Aside from cap­tur­ing me­dia at­ten­tion, aside from at­tempt­ing to per­petu­ate the leg­acy of something, what value does that have? I really am not in­ter­ested in self-ag­grand­ize­ment.”

What, then, does that say of Cheney and the oth­ers? I ask. “There are large per­son­al­it­ies in­volved in Amer­ica, in our gov­ern­ment, and Vice Pres­id­ent Cheney and a num­ber of oth­er people rightly be­lieve that they had it right. And they rightly be­lieve — well, I won’t say rightly — I’ll say they also be­lieve that many of the ac­tions that are on­go­ing right now are not the right ac­tions to take, so they feel an ob­lig­a­tion to straight­en out the world and to of­fer al­tern­at­ives to what is be­ing done right now.”

A queue has formed be­hind me, and Hayes is giv­ing me the wrap-it-up look, so I sneak in a fi­nal ques­tion (about Ed­ward Snowden, who Franks says he thinks ac­ted more for per­son­al gain than for coun­try), and Franks bids me farewell. Then he turns his at­ten­tion to the stu­dents who have lined up to shake his hand.

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