The Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal is exposing a Pentagon increasingly at war with itself, leading to a crisis of leadership even as tens of thousands of US troops risk their lives battling insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For months, discord has been growing in Pentagon corridors over the Iraq war, as senior US military officers criticize what they see as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's risky war plan and the lack of a clear political end game.
Mr. Rumsfeld, in turn, has often chastised what he sees as hidebound, overly conservative military thinking.
Now, the clash between Rumsfeld's push-the-envelope approach and inherent military conservatism is again in full display over allegations that Pentagon policymakers blurred the traditional military chain of command in order to better gather intelligence.
In a dramatic surprise visit to Baghdad on Thursday, Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a direct attempt to demonstrate leadership and bolster morale of the 135,000 troops there.
Amid growing domestic concern that the United States could be losing the war in Iraq, and a string of shocking violence including what he called the "body blow" of prisoner abuse, Rumsfeld upheld a vision of certain victory.
"One day you're gonna look back, and you're gonna be proud of your service, and you're gonna say it was worth it," said Rumsfeld in a voice solemn with emotion. Drawing a historical analogy, he spoke of the "horrendous casualties" and "vicious" debate over the Civil War and attacks on President Lincoln, assuring troops that today, as then, steadfastness would bring success.
In a moment that was vintage Rumsfeld, the former cold warrior evoked his long-standing belief in American world leadership that critics have attacked as arrogance, declaring that "the United States is the ... best hope of humankind."
The embattled Defense secretary also used the friendly Baghdad troop rally to defy US lawmakers and others in Washington who are clamoring for his resignation: "I'm a survivor," he said. He brushed aside media criticism as shortsighted. "I've stopped reading newspapers," he said to a round of applause.
Still, critics doubted whether such efforts would be able to repair the deep divides that already exist within the Pentagon over the execution of the war.
Among senior US military officers in Iraq and at the Pentagon, there is a feeling that military gains on the battlefield have been consistently undercut by policy miscalculations.
These include decisions about the number and types of troops needed to stabilize Iraq after the war, the ongoing lack of a clear political goal for Iraq, as well as the prison abuse scandal that many see as losing the vital fight to win Iraqi "hearts and minds."
For example, one US commander, Army Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr., who commanded 82nd Airborne Division troops in Fallujah, told the Washington Post this week that while the US is still winning the counterinsurgency at the tactical level of fighting, it is loosing the war strategically because of a lack of coherent policy.
The fact that such a senior commander is speaking out reflects a regret expressed by other high-ranking officers that they did not openly oppose what many earlier saw as poor Pentagon planning for postwar Iraq.
"Shame on us," says one senior Army officer. He says that while Army planners knew of the potential pitfalls, they and their advice were essentially shut out of the postwar planning effort and they were told instead to focus on defeating the Iraqi Army and toppling the Saddam Hussein regime.
In many cases, the tension between military brass and Rumsfeld centers around efforts by the secretary's inner circle to shake up longstanding military practices and assume greater risks in an approach he has summarized as "leaning forward."
This has included using smaller numbers of troops, streamling what he sees as a slow, cumbersome military planning process, and also placing a high emphasis on gathering "actionable intelligence."
Rumsfeld named one of his most trusted aides, Stephen Cambone, as undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, a new office that has stirred controversey for allegedly skewing prewar intelligence and now promoting the use of aggressive interrogation techniques.
In testimony before Congress this week, it was an Army general who investigated abuses at Abu Ghraib prison who publicly contradicted Mr. Cambone by asserting that military police should not have been involved in preparing Iraqi detainees for interrogation.
Such conflict - some critics would say chaos - at the upper levels of the Pentagon illustrates a lack of leadership that many say is hurting morale among the military rank and file.
"People don't think they are well led at the highest civilian leadership," says retired Air Force Lt. Col Karen Kwiatowski, who left the Pentagon's policy office just before the war started and has emerged as one of a few from the military who have publicly criticized the Pentagon leadership. "The credibility of [deputy defense secretary Paul] Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld is lower than it ever was," she says.