When soldiers speak out

The newspaper headlines alone are jolting: "Revolt of the Generals," "The Generals' Dangerous Whispers," "Seven days in April," "Behind the Military Revolt."

They are the sort of headlines you might expect to find in a troubled Latin America country where military coups and ruling juntas are common, but not in the United States, where civilian control of the armed forces and a politically-neutral officer corps are taken for granted.

So when six retired generals recently called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation because of his handling of the military and the war in Iraq–producing those somewhat over-blown headlines–it stirred concern across the political spectrum. President Bush quickly indicated his continued support for Rumsfeld, and other retired generals and government officials came to the controversial Secretary's defense.

That these former soldiers spoke up at all suggests the seriousness of the situation. Many argued that they did not want to see the mistakes of Vietnam repeated again, where the Joint Chiefs and top generals did not actively challenge policies they believed to be flawed. The American military has a tradition of non-involvement in political matters, backed up by specific guidelines in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (Article 88) against "contempuous words against the President, Vice President, Congress…" and other government officials and a Defense Department Directive (1344.10) against partisan political activity.

While retired officers are free legally to speak their minds, the apparent coordination of the campaign against Rumsfeld, and statements by some of the generals that they were reflecting the thinking of their active-duty colleagues, raised eyebrows and elevated blood pressures among Bush Administration supporters.

Several conservative columnists warned of a dangerous precedent in the dissent. Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post saw an anti-democratic cast to the criticism: "The civilian leadership of the Pentagon is decided on Election Day, not by the secret whispering of generals."

Tony Blankley of the Washington Times went further, railing against a "military cabal" and wondering aloud whether "secret agreements" for mass resignations by Army generals would constitute "a felonious conspiracy to make a mutiny."

It wasn't just those on the Right who worried. The generally liberal Washington Post editorial board was disturbed enough to editorialize against the "revolt of the generals:"

It threatens the essential democratic principle of military subordination to civilian control — the more so because a couple of the officers claim they are speaking for some still on active duty. Anyone who protested the pushback of uniformed military against President Bill Clinton's attempt to allow gays to serve ought to also object to generals who criticize the decisions of a president and his defense secretary in wartime. If they are successful in forcing Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation, they will set an ugly precedent. Will future defense secretaries have to worry about potential rebellions by their brass, and will they start to choose commanders according to calculations of political loyalty?

Krauthammer also raised the question of what continued military dissent could mean in the future, noting that: "It is precisely this kind of division that our tradition of military deference to democratically elected civilian superiors was meant to prevent. Today it suits the anti-war left to applaud the rupture of that tradition. But it is a disturbing and very dangerous precedent that even the left will one day regret."

How worried should we be about these former soldiers speaking out? Is the tradition of military political neutrality at risk? I think that Krauthammer, Blankley and the Post are over-reacting (as is former President Ford, who issued a statement that the generals' criticism represented "a dangerous precedent that would severely undermine our country's long tradition of civilian control of the military.") In truth, we are far from any credible threat to civilian control of the armed forces, although there are disturbing signs that many in the military command structure, especially in the Army, feel "a two-way street of respect and dialogue" is lacking (to quote John Batiste, one of the complaining generals.)

At the same time, the situation is considerably less serious than the confrontation between President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur, (settled by Truman's dismissal of an insubordinate MacArthur in 1951), or even, I would maintain, than the widespread hostility President Clinton faced over the gays in the military issue in his first year of office. Other chain-of-command disputes have occasionally surfaced. For example, in 1977 President Jimmy Carter dismissed Army General John Singlaub when he publicly disagreed with Administration plans to phase out U.S. ground troops in South Korea.

Some important distinctions need to be made. First, these are retired generals. They are exercising their constitutionally-protected First Amendment rights; no longer on active duty, they are free to speak their minds. (A number of veterans of the Iraqi conflict are seeking seats in Congress; many are highly critical of the conduct of the war. Should they be barred from elective politics?)

That's not to say the retired generals are without blame. Their comments characterizing the views of active-duty officers on Rumsfeld and Iraq war policy are out of line. Further, it's unclear whether they spoke up against Defense Department decisions they disliked at the time; that leaves them open to charges of being "sunshine soldiers" or careerists who waited until the safety of retirement to attack the Secretary of Defense.

Congressman Rob Simmons (R, CT), a Vietnam veteran and retired colonel who has been at odds with Rumsfeld on Iraq and other matters, told the Hartford Courant that, in constrast to the retired generals' approach, General Singlaub's public criticism had its merits. "He did not whisper in the corridors of power and then wait till he was safe and secure in retirement to speak his mind."

Another option exists for disgruntled military leaders: they can resign their commissions and then go public with their opposition to given policies. This should clearly be a last resort, but it does show that the officer in question has the courage of his or her convictions and feels strongly enough to sacrifice his or her career.

There is a greater danger, I would argue, in military discontent being pushed underground than in its public airing. It is actually a healthy sign, as reported in the New York Times, that junior and midlevel officers are now engaged in an "extraordinary debate… in military academies, in the armed services' staff colleges and even in command posts and mess halls in Iraq" about "whether the war plans for Iraq reflected unvarnished military advice, whether the retired generals should have spoken out, whether active-duty generals will feel free to state their views in private sessions with the civilian leaders and, most divisive of all, whether Mr. Rumsfeld should resign."

This debate should be joined. It appears that the American military will be occupying Iraq in some fashion for the forseeable future and these issues aren't going away. While Krauthammer is right to warn of the potential for dangerous precedents, stifling dissent and discouraging open discussion of the difficult choices ahead presents dangers as well. There will be significant morale and retention issues if the officer corps is effectively silenced about the strategic and political policies that put the lives of their soldiers at risk. In an all-volunteer military, with an Army stretched to the limit and needful of experienced officers, that is asking for trouble.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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