By James Kitfield
May 5, 2006The matter of Rumsfeld v. the Generals bears close scrutiny. The controversy represents the worst breach in civil-military relations since Harry Truman dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for his conduct and his criticism of the president during the Korean War. It has proven an unwelcome distraction for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs, and has added to the already considerable woes of President Bush in his role as a wartime commander-in-chief.
Notably, the calls from a group of recently retired generals that Rumsfeld should resign has also thrust senior military leaders and, by proxy, the uniformed services into the middle of a hyperpartisan political argument -- territory from which the U.S. military rarely escapes unscathed.
Given the nearly unprecedented nature of the controversy, what is perhaps most remarkable is how utterly unsurprising it is to anyone who has spent time with senior military officers, in the field, over drinks at the officers' club, or especially on the ground in Iraq. The fact that the Army chief of staff came out of retirement to take the job after sources say at least three active-duty generals declined it, and reports that the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, may retire before his term is up, speak volumes about the frayed state of civil-military relations in today's Pentagon.
Practically from the moment they first occupied the E Ring, Rumsfeld and his tight circle of senior aides demonstrated a dismissive attitude that has grated on uniformed leaders. In the view of Bush's civilian team, President Clinton had allowed the generals and the admirals to run roughshod. Rumsfeld and his band of reformers were a rude awakening for senior military leaders conditioned to expect a measure of courtesy from civilian bosses as a privilege of their rank; instead, Bush's team set out to show the generals who was boss.
Rumsfeld's incessant needling of the Army, in particular, to more rapidly reshape itself into an expeditionary force, at a time when the service has been run nearly ragged by back-to-back-to-back deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, added insult to injury. From the beginning, the Rumsfeld reformers have also considered themselves bold revolutionaries who deal only in transformative ideas, and their "roll the dice" spirit in nearly all things has often been at odds with the more cautious nature of a uniformed military pledged to securing the Republic.
In response to Pentagon policies -- set by Rumsfeld and his inner circle -- pushing the envelope on prisoner treatment, for instance, eight retired generals and admirals have written to Bush asking for an independent, 9/11-type commission to investigate detainee abuse. Two of those senior officers, including the Navy's former judge advocate general, have joined a lawsuit seeking to hold Rumsfeld directly accountable for policies that gave rise to torture and abuse of U.S.-held prisoners.
Above all, the other eight (and counting) retired generals who have called for Rumsfeld's resignation are wrestling to win the narrative of the Iraq war. Privately, most generals will tell you that a new Defense secretary is unlikely to change the dynamics of an Iraqi campaign now mostly defined by missed opportunities and foreclosed options. Notably, two of the eight served as division commanders in Iraq and saw firsthand how decisions made by their civilian bosses limited their military choices.
Whatever the final outcome of the conflict, they and a large number of senior officers on active duty believe that the Office of the Secretary of Defense -- Rumsfeld and his top civilian advisers -- is responsible for the most poorly analyzed and mismanaged U.S. military intervention since Vietnam.
For these commanders, who have returned home with 2,400 fewer troops than they led into Iraq, that calls for some accountability.
"My primary issue with Secretary Rumsfeld's leadership is accountability, because I grew up in a culture where the captain of the ship or the commander of the unit is held responsible, and Rumsfeld has committed acts of gross negligence and incompetence," retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni told National Journal.
As head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees all American troops in the Middle East, Zinni and his staff planned and war-gamed an invasion of Iraq for years, plans that active-duty officers assured him were constantly updated right up to the moment that Rumsfeld discarded them.
"We knew that you would need a lot of troops to establish law and order over a traumatized population, and to combat all kinds of troublemaking elements coming from outside Iraq," Zinni said.
"We knew that you had to secure the infrastructure and that reconstruction would be a huge and expensive task. We knew that Iraqi exiles like Ahmad Chalabi had zero credibility in the region. All of that was foreseeable, and yet our warnings were brushed aside and we were personally attacked," the general continued. "Rumsfeld said our planning was 'old and stale.' That this was going to be a 'cakewalk,' with 'shock and awe' and flowers in the streets, and Iraqi oil paying for reconstruction. Those were wild-eyed and patently ridiculous ideas."
Regardless of the emotional content of the generals' arguments, the stakes of the controversy could hardly be greater. On a strategic level, the issues raised go to the fundamental judgment and competence of those entrusted with the nation's most lethal levers of power at a time of great uncertainty. The dangers include a potential confrontation with Iran over its supposed pursuit of nuclear weapons, while North Korea is waiting in the wings. And the war on terrorism continues.
The U.S. military is also poised to attempt the delicate process of extricating itself from Iraq within the next two years without setting the scene for that country, and the region, to descend into sectarian war. Meanwhile, another military manpower crunch is coming late this year and early next as planners search for soldiers and marines to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan for their third -- and in some cases fourth -- combat tours, an effort necessitated by Rumsfeld's stubborn refusal to increase the size of U.S. infantry forces from pre-9/11 levels permanently, despite wars on multiple fronts and urgings from some in Congress.
In breaking with two centuries of military tradition, the retired generals asking for the head of Donald Rumsfeld have essentially gone around their former civilian bosses to put the question directly to the American people: Do you want to confront the crises ahead led by the person who brought you Iraq? "My own decision to speak out goes back to watching firsthand the arrogant and contemptuous attitude of Rumsfeld as he ignored the advice of military experts during preparations for war, and then living with the impact of those strategic blunders as a division commander in Iraq," retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste said in an interview.
After serving in the Pentagon as chief military aide to then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz -- where he was privy to many high-level meetings -- and then commanding the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, Batiste declined promotion to lieutenant general and command of an Army corps.
"That was a gut-wrenching decision for me, but at some point I realized that in order to try and change course and have this debate, I had to retire," he said. "Secretary Rumsfeld and his team turned what should have been a deliberate victory in Iraq into a prolonged challenge. My concern now is that we still have a long way to go in the Iraq war, and other monumental decisions are coming just around the corner. Don't the American people deserve senior leaders whose instincts and judgments they can trust?"
Not surprisingly, Bush has vigorously defended his Defense secretary, having already declined the resignations that Rumsfeld tendered in 2004 over the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The era when President Clinton's Defense secretary, Les Aspin, resigned over a single bad day in Somalia and a controversy over gays in the military now seems almost quaint.
One irony of the current controversy, however, is that in speaking out the generals may have actually helped secure Rumsfeld's job. No wartime president can bow to such public pressure from senior military voices without appearing weak, and firing Rumsfeld would also amount to an admission by Bush that the defining issue of his presidency was fraught with strategic mistakes.
Yet the seriousness of the controversy warrants at least an examination of the generals' writ. It's not just that the military leaders have called for Rumsfeld's resignation, it's that they cite specific decisions that they say he got terribly, terribly wrong. The list of particulars was perhaps best summarized by retired Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, the top operations officer on the Joint Staff in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Before he stepped down, Newbold was a strong candidate for future commandant of the Marine Corps. "What we are living with now is the consequences of successive policy failures," Newbold wrote in Time magazine. "Some of the missteps include: the distortion of intelligence in the buildup to the war, McNamara-like micromanagement that kept our forces from having enough resources to do the job, the failure to retain and reconstitute the Iraqi military in time to help quell civil disorder, initial denial that insurgency was at the heart of the opposition to occupation, alienation of allies who could have helped in a more robust way to rebuild Iraq, and the continuing failure of other agencies of U.S. government to commit themselves to the same degree as the Defense Department."
Here are the details behind the generals' specific complaints.
The failure to find Saddam Hussein's stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, President Bush's casus belli for the invasion, still tops many after-action assessments. As was detailed in the bipartisan Robb-Silberman report on intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction, an intelligence failure of that magnitude has many fathers. The question posed by the generals is whether Rumsfeld and his top aides were prominent among them.
In fact, despite the general assumption within the vast U.S. intelligence network that Saddam almost certainly retained some residual or reconstituted chemical and biological (but not nuclear) weapons capabilities, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were not satisfied with the often qualified and inconclusive intelligence on Iraq's WMD programs that filtered up through the intelligence bureaucracy.
Nor was Rumsfeld's confidant, Vice President Cheney. So Wolfowitz had the Pentagon's No. 3 civilian, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, establish a new intelligence shop on Iraq called the Office of Special Plans.
OSP operated outside normal intelligence channels and was known to have very close ties to Cheney's office and to Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi and his network of Iraqi defectors, who had a vested interest in overthrowing Saddam. The vice president's chief of staff and top national security adviser, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, was a former protege of Wolfowitz's, having worked with him in the Pentagon in the early 1990s on issues involving weapons of mass destruction.
Many experts believe that OSP circumvented the normal vetting and filtering process by which intelligence made its way up the pyramid of collection and analysis, and instead relayed essentially raw intelligence gathered from Chalabi's defectors directly to the vice president's office, where it found its way into Cheney's speeches.
In August 2002, for instance, Cheney proclaimed, "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction" and is pursuing "an aggressive nuclear weapons program" that Cheney surmised would soon produce a weapon. Nor was there any doubt, Cheney said, that "he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." In his address to the United Nations in October 2002, Bush thus posited the case for pre-emptive war against Iraq: "We cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
Notably, at the time of Cheney's speech the Pentagon, and not the CIA, was circulating a detailed intelligence briefing on Baghdad's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs to key allies and members of Congress, and was reportedly working on a report that would show links between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The Pentagon official spearheading that briefing was J.D. Crouch, Rumsfeld's assistant secretary of Defense for international security policy.
The Robb-Silberman report concluded that two Chalabi-supplied Iraqi defectors were "fabricators." The use of another serial liar, a source code-named "Curveball," who was behind reports of Iraqi mobile biological weapons labs, was, the report noted, "at bottom, a story of Defense Department collectors who abdicated their responsibility to vet a critical source...." The 9/11 commission report, meanwhile, found no credible operational links between Al Qaeda and Saddam's regime. Since the reports' release, both Bill Luti, who ran the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, and Crouch have gone on to work for the National Security Council, in the White House.
"As someone doing consulting work for the CIA right up until the war started, I saw the intelligence on Iraq's WMD, and I can tell you that the administration's talk of an imminent danger of 'mushroom clouds' wasn't just a stretch," Zinni said. "Quite frankly, it was outright bullshit. I asked the CIA analysts where that was coming from, and they just stared at their shoes."
Did Rumsfeld micromanage the Iraq operation to the degree that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Johnson did with Vietnam? ("I won't let those Air Force generals bomb even the smallest outhouse without checking with me!" Johnson used to brag.)
Bush asked about Rumsfeld's management approach when talking to the Pentagon's top civilian in Iraq, Paul Bremer, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003-2004. "I like Don, Mr. President. I've known him for 30 years, admire him, and consider him highly intelligent. But he does micromanage," Bremer recalls in his book My Year in Iraq. "Don terrifies his subordinates, so that I can rarely get any decisions out of anyone but him."
From a military standpoint, Exhibit A in the micromanagement charge is Rumsfeld's insistence in the critical period leading up to the Iraq invasion that the Joint Staff and the Central Command jettison the Time Phased Force and Deployment List. What the military calls the "Tip Fid" is the matrix by which theater commanders identify the forces needed for a specific campaign and the services prioritize the deployment of those forces and requisite support units.
The methodical, timed, and phased nature of such a deployment scheme assaulted Rumsfeld's notions of "transformational war," and he derided the Tip Fid as part of the military's "Industrial Age" thinking. Rumsfeld and his aides favored a "just in time" buildup to war fashioned more on the FedEx model -- hold everything back until you absolutely need it.
War is not package delivery, however, and the Pentagon civilians' insistence on scuttling the Tip Fid infuriated commanders in the Middle East, who were ordered to move into Iraq even as units needed to guard their exposed supply lines were still pouring off ships in Kuwait. Often those forces arrived in the wrong order of priority and with inadequate supplies and transport.
"Rumsfeld insists that the Tip Fid process is too ponderous and slow, and it may well be, but it's the only process we have for managing the flow of forces into theater and matching them with needed lift and support," a senior general involved in planning the invasion told National Journal at the time. "Since we've been ordered to abandon the Tip Fid, it would be really nice if those of us responsible for executing this campaign knew and understood what the hell is supposed to replace it. And we don't!"
Too Few Troops
When then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki told Congress before the Iraq war that it would take on the order of "several hundred thousand" troops to stabilize the country, the general was actually being conservative. Central Command's war plan for Iraq originally called for a minimum of 380,000 troops to topple the regime and secure the country.
Studying force-to-population ratios in seven previous occupations, ranging from Germany and Japan in the 1940s all the way to Somalia and the Balkans in the 1990s, the Rand think tank prepared a report shortly before the Iraq war that was brought to Rumsfeld's attention. Rand put the number of troops needed to stabilize Iraq at 500,000.
Yet Wolfowitz derided Shinseki's "notion of hundreds of thousands of American troops" as "way off the mark," and OSD made Shinseki a lame duck by naming his replacement more than a year before his scheduled retirement. After constant pressure from Rumsfeld prompted Central Command's Gen. Tommy Franks to whittle the invasion force down to roughly 140,000 U.S. troops, it became clear that in their overriding focus on transformation and bold new ideas, Pentagon civilians had ignored the lessons of even recent history.
Rumsfeld has never acknowledged that those forces proved manifestly inadequate to the task of taming an ethnically fractious country of 27 million inhabitants. Ultimately, there were too few troops to stop the looting and the growing sense of anarchy and lawlessness that took hold in the weeks and months after Saddam's regime fell, or to guard abandoned Iraqi army ammo dumps from raids by the nascent insurgency. As a result, the U.S. military saw its critical honeymoon of liberation cut short in Iraq, and some senior commanders have never forgotten it.
The generals are, however, at least partly responsible for the lack of sufficient troops in Iraq. Knowing after the Shinseki affair that OSD would deem a request for more troops most unwelcome, and understanding that if a larger force were committed to Iraq it would hasten the day when deployments would break the back of their Army and National Guard combat and support units, the generals kept mum or played word games in public.
In early September 2003, for instance, the senior commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, insisted that he had enough troops for the mission "currently assigned." At the time that mission did not include fighting an all-out insurgency, confronting renegade militias, training a new Iraqi army, securing the porous border against terrorist infiltration, or holding ground cleared of insurgents by U.S. military sweeps. "If a militia or internal conflict of some nature were to erupt ... that would be a challenge out there that I do not have sufficient force for," Sanchez said then.
When those challenges and more arose in the fateful spring of 2004, however, the generals still bit their tongues in public about the need for more troops. They did so even after Rumsfeld pulled what many of them saw as a bait and switch. He originally assured uniformed leaders that the Army's 1st Cavalry Division was in the pipeline to reinforce the U.S. invasion force, and then he abruptly canceled the deployment.
So, did Rumsfeld fail to supply his generals with adequate forces in Iraq? The Bush administration's top man there certainly thought so. As early as July 2003, well before the insurgency had fully coalesced, Bremer spoke with then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, as he recalls in his book. "In my view, the coalition's got about half the number of soldiers we need here," Bremer told her. "And we run the risk of having this thing go south on us."
Disbanding Iraq's Army
When Bremer signed Coalition Provisional Authority Order No. 2 on May 23, 2003, formally dissolving all Iraqi military formations, he had some compelling reasons. Iraqi security forces were an instrument of Saddam's brutal repression; they were viewed as a threat by both the Kurds and the Shiite Iraqi exiles like Chalabi who were so favored by OSD; and, anyway, those uniformed forces had largely melted away after the regime collapsed. After discussing the idea with his civilian staff, Bremer vetted his plan to abolish all Iraqi intelligence, security, and military forces with Rumsfeld and Feith. Both approved the idea.
For many military commanders in Iraq, however, the idea was pure folly. As opposed to Saddam's brutal Republican Guard, the regular Iraqi army was a relatively respected institution into which many Iraqis had been conscripted and had served honorably, especially during the Iraq-Iran war. Because the Iraqi army also had its own command-and-control systems and mobility, U.S. military experts believed that if the force were reconstituted quickly, it could prove critical in establishing security and helping with reconstruction.
Did military experts share their concerns with Bremer? One who did was retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the initial American postwar overseer in Baghdad. Bremer later replaced Garner. The retired general advised Bremer that abolishing the Iraqi army would be a huge mistake. Once again, however, military advice went unheeded. With Iraq's long, hot summer of occupation just beginning in 2003, the second edict of Bremer's Pentagon-led occupational authority threw hundreds of thousands of military-age Iraqi men out of work, with every last one of them nursing a grudge and trained to bear arms.
The CPA's first edict? Feith's "De-Baathification of Iraqi Society" order. Perhaps not surprisingly, the process was eventually entrusted to Chalabi, who predictably took the purge to draconian levels and further inflamed the Sunni-based insurgency. That may be why Franks, the top U.S. commander of the Iraq war, wrote in his autobiography that Feith was "getting a reputation around here as the dumbest [expletive] guy on the planet."
"Why de-Baathification was handed to Chalabi was one of the great mysteries to all of us, because it was absolutely the wrong thing to do," said a senior active-duty general who was in Iraq at the time. "Chalabi had a vested interest in the total elimination of the Baathist structure in Iraq as a way of clearing the political field. To say that his de-Baathification efforts undercut our attempts to bring the Sunnis into the political process would be an understatement."
No New Iraqi Army
If U.S. military commanders in Iraq were outraged at the formal dissolution of the Iraqi army, they were absolutely confounded by the CPA's noted lack of urgency in training a force to take its place. Because Saddam had used the Republican Guard to keep his boot on the necks of the Iraqi people, Bremer believed that any new army should have only external security responsibilities -- guarding borders and the like.
With the old Iraqi army formally dissolved, no new one on the horizon, and growing signs of an organized insurgency by fall 2003, however, U.S. commanders viewed that plan as sentencing U.S. troops to indefinite service in Iraq.
U.S. commanders in Iraq understood better than most that raising an army from scratch was a mammoth enterprise likely to take years. In the end, they won approval to create a small number of "Iraqi National Guard" battalions, but the training and equipping of even these units had to come out of the hides of coalition forces in Iraq, already stretched thin. A year after the invasion, there were not enough personal weapons for even the new Iraqi National Guard battalions.
Meanwhile, Bremer assigned responsibility for overseeing creation of the New Iraqi Army to a civilian on his staff, Walter Slocombe, who announced the rather modest first-year objective of forming a single army division of roughly 12,000 troops. Even that effort, according to U.S. military commanders, was plagued by chronic underfunding and a lack of adequate manpower, resources, and high-level attention.
"History will have to sort out the pros and cons of disbanding the Iraqi army, but even proponents of the idea understood that you would have to immediately devote a lot of resources and manpower to replacing it, and the fact that never happened is a damning indictment of Secretary Rumsfeld's leadership," retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who led the initial effort to create a New Iraqi Army, told National Journal. "Instead, I fell in on a staff of five guys borrowed from Central Command's staff, and we were supposed to build an army for a country of 27 million people. And I never did get the people and money that were promised to execute the mission, and that same lack of urgency persists even today."
When some of the Iraqi National Guard battalions and units of the New Iraqi Army were thrown into battle in the simultaneous Sunni and Shiite uprisings in spring 2004 -- what Bremer called "the most critical crisis of the occupation" -- most of the poorly trained and ill-equipped Iraqis went AWOL or refused to fight. That left the mission of quelling the uprisings to U.S. forces in Iraq. At the time, those forces included one of Paul Eaton's two sons in uniform.
"Some people have criticized my comments as counterproductive to the war effort, but with two children in uniform this is very personal for me," said Eaton, who called for Rumsfeld's resignation in a recent op-ed in The New York Times. "I looked at the terrible path Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has led us down, and I thought two and a half more years of that leadership was too long for my nation, for my Army, and for my family."
From the beginning, the Rumsfeld team viewed NATO and other venerable U.S. alliances in a suspect light. A multilateral alliance might be useful for nation-building operations in the Balkans and for keeping the peace in Europe, but such mundane missions held no allure for the Rumsfeld reformers.
Certainly in terms of combat, OSD viewed such alliances as too much of a constraint on its vision of transformational warfare. This opinion comported with some air-power advocates in uniform who derided the "war by committee" character of NATO's 1999 campaign in Kosovo.
So when NATO proudly invoked its collective defense clause for the first time in history to come to America's aid after the 9/11 attacks, allied nations were stunned by the Pentagon's reply of "thanks, but no thanks." As Rumsfeld memorably told NATO members when the U.S. set out unilaterally to topple the Taliban and take the fight to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, "The mission will define the coalition."
Even when that mission entailed invading and occupying a country of 27 million people, however, OSD seemed remarkably cavalier about the need for a broad coalition. Rumsfeld infuriated European allies when he responded to German and French reluctance to invade Iraq by rhetorically dividing the Continent into "old Europe" and "new Europe."
Wolfowitz's suggestion that the Turkish military should help overcome civilian resistance there to the war upset many civilians in the Ankara government, which eventually denied a U.S. request to launch a northern front in Iraq from Turkish territory. After Saddam's regime fell, the Pentagon further alienated allies by suggesting that French and German contractors would be barred from the anticipated spoils of Iraqi reconstruction.
Did the Pentagon's incursions into prewar diplomacy help alienate venerable U.S. allies? One person who thought so was the official frequently tasked with trying to mend those frayed relations. "Terms like 'old Europe' didn't exactly have a confidence-building effect, and clearly helped turn public opinion in Europe against us," former Secretary of State Colin Powell told the German magazine Stern in an interview last year.
Although the Bush administration eventually cobbled together a coalition of some 30 nations in Iraq, the generals have always understood that their support from allies is a mile wide and an inch deep. The lack of allied help denied them the much-desired northern front during the invasion, cost them a multinational division planned for fall 2003, and left them without the legitimacy that major Arab allies might have bestowed on a genuine coalition operation.
Several key allies have announced plans to pull their forces out of Iraq this year. Perhaps most important, polls taken before the war clearly showed that the American public would have been much more supportive of the war if the U.S. were perceived as being part of a broad coalition.
None of that would have mattered if OSD's optimistic assumptions going into Iraq -- that U.S. forces would be viewed overwhelmingly and lastingly as liberators, that the basic structures of government would remain intact, that Iraqi oil would pay for the country's reconstruction, that democratic reforms could surmount long-standing ethnic divisions -- had proven true. But because those assumptions proved wrong, and with the U.S. military entering its fourth year in Iraq, that lack of broad and deep support at home and abroad matters a lot.
"I have nothing personal against Rumsfeld; I've never even met him," said Zinni, who has a son in uniform serving in Afghanistan. "But how can we change course, move forward, and win allies back to our cause when the same person who put us on this disastrous path and burned those allies in the past is still at the helm, saying nothing has changed and no mistakes have been made? I just don't think you can be open to new ideas and courses of action if you have a vested interest in constantly defending old decisions."
Not Fading Away
Rumsfeld is reportedly worried that the revolt of the generals has weakened the principle of civilian control of the military, and in that concern he has much company. Whatever blame Rumsfeld shares for a civil-military relationship in tatters, the active-duty and retired flag officers who have rushed to his defense recognize that their comrades have violated an important tradition. One reason that the U.S. military consistently polls as the most respected institution in America is that it's viewed as being above politics.
In particular, the Joint Chiefs, hand-picked by Rumsfeld, understand the implied criticism in the generals' writ against their boss: that the chiefs have too often acted as "yes men," insulating Rumsfeld in an echo chamber.
"I haven't noticed any shrinking lilies among the Joint Chiefs, and we all understand our responsibility to state our advice, and for the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs] to take that advice to the secretary of Defense and the president," Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, said recently to defense reporters.
"That doesn't mean our bosses always agree with our advice," he said. "At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself: Is a decision legal, ethical, and can I live with the consequences? If you can't, then you do have a responsibility to do something about it; but in my opinion, you should do it while still in uniform. If you've gone through the debate and lived with the decision, I think it's inappropriate to go around cleansing your conscience in public after the fact. I certainly don't want civil authorities distrusting military advice because they're worried about what someone is going to say publicly down the road."
By tradition, old soldiers who can no longer in good conscience obey their civilian masters are supposed to state their case in private, offer their resignation, and then quietly fade away. Air Force Chief of Staff Ron Fogleman did that in 1997 over disagreement with the Clinton administration's military drawdown and OSD's disciplining of one of his generals over the Khobar Towers terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia.
Despite being treated shabbily, Shinseki in retirement has largely declined to publicly criticize Rumsfeld. Ever the old soldier, Colin Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has refused to directly criticize Rumsfeld and Cheney for their largely successful efforts to marginalize him in the Iraq debate.
Especially for the post-Vietnam generations of officers, however, this burden of silence weighs uneasily. Nearly all of them have read Dereliction of Duty, a seminal book by Army Col. H.R. McMaster, published in 1997, that was once on the chairman of the Joint Chiefs' required reading list.
In it, McMaster excoriates the Vietnam-era Joint Chiefs and other senior military leaders for not speaking out more forcefully against misguided policies that many in uniform believed cost them a war and the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers. President Johnson's "plan of deception depended on the tacit approval or silence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," McMaster wrote. "LBJ had misrepresented the mission of U.S. ground forces in Vietnam, distorted the views of the chiefs to lend credibility to his decision against mobilization, grossly understated the numbers of troops General [William] Westmoreland had requested, and lied to the Congress about the monetary cost of actions already approved and of those awaiting final decision.... The 'five silent men' on the Joint Chiefs made possible the way the United States went to war in Vietnam."
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey was one of the most decorated combat veterans of Vietnam and a division commander in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "You know, when people ask me whether Secretary Rumsfeld should resign, I tell them it would be inappropriate for me to comment on such a personal matter, but I will provide my objective view on some of his policies that have gotten this country and our military into serious trouble," he told National Journal. "I still think our national leadership has the unquestioned loyalty of our senior military leaders in uniform. These retired generals who are speaking out, however, I view as combat veterans with the full rights of U.S. citizens to talk about the security challenges they see facing the country."
For the Vietnam generation of officers and those who mentored at their shoulder, the quintessential model of a leader struggling with the dilemma of divided loyalties is not Gen. George Catlett Marshall, but rather Gen. Edward (Shy) Meyer. Given that the Senate Armed Services Committee recently announced possible hearings on the matter of Rumsfeld v. the Generals, his case is worth contemplating.
In the spring of 1980, the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, U.S. diplomats were still being held hostage in Iran, and the U.S. military was reeling from a post-Vietnam decade of poor morale and defense cutbacks. As Army chief of staff, Meyer knew that speaking out publicly on that sorry state of affairs would be viewed as an act of disloyalty by his civilian bosses in the Pentagon and by President Carter, who was entering a difficult re-election campaign.
A veteran of Vietnam, Meyer was also mindful that the United States military was nearly unique in taking its oath of allegiance not to an individual leader, political party, or monarch, but rather to the principles and ideals in the Constitution.
The Constitution prescribed not only civilian control of the military but also a separation of powers, establishing the president as commander-in-chief but giving Congress the responsibility for the raising of armies. So when members of Congress asked the general in public testimony about the state of their army, Meyer told them that the United States had a "hollow Army."
Pointedly, Meyer did not directly criticize the commander-in-chief or call for the resignation of the secretary of Defense. He privately offered his own resignation. It was not accepted. When the secretary of the Army, his civilian boss, demanded that Meyer rescind his comments about a "hollow Army," however, he flatly refused. Gen. Shy Meyer just told the truth and trusted in the Constitution. The American people did the rest.
By James Kitfield
May 5, 2006