The Military Mind

It's tough to speak truth to willful civilian leaders.

The men who command the Army, Navy and Air Force are expected to be inspirational and business leaders of the nation's largest institutions. Each must direct and motivate hundreds of thousands of personnel and oversee the spending of well over $100 million a year to equip, train and deploy their forces.

These are difficult, but perhaps not as tough as their other key role: providing advice to the government's civilian leadership on matters of war and peace. Here, they are in hot water, accused of timidity, of failure to stand up to policies that have spelled trouble in Iraq.

The importance that the uniformed services play in these times of war and terrorist threats is the reason we cover them closely. This issue and the May 15 issue as well have carried cover photographs of military men: first, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chief of naval operations, and now Adm. Thad W. Allen, Coast Guard commandant. Each has seen his service's roles and missions change in ways that do not readily match up with ongoing procurement and operational plans. Mullen voiced deep concern about the cost of upgrading his inventory of ships and planes. Allen expressed similar worries about the ambitious Deepwater program. As we report in this issue, the Air Force's F-22 fighter procurement program likewise is caught up in a deadly spiral: cost escalation resulting in radical cuts in the number of aircraft the service can afford.

Such challenges are at the heart of what we write about in Government Executive, choosing to focus on management instead of the policy debates that consume other media, including our sister magazine, National Journal.

Still, with Mullen as my guest at the National Press Club on April 24, I could not avoid asking: Have military leaders spoken up about flaws in the planning for the invasion and occupation of Iraq? The 20-year-old Goldwater-Nichols reforms empowered them to speak their minds. But observers say they have not: For example, my colleague, veteran defense correspondent George Wilson, recently wrote that Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "looks like a potted plant as he stands beside the secretary of Defense month after month, seemingly agreeing with everything he says." Mullen told me that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld invites opinions "and has gotten them," but added that his own did not travel beyond the Pentagon.

There's a strong code of respect for civilian authority in the military that brooks no public dissent from active-duty military leaders and precious little from retired officers. Yet today, senior leaders who planned for and fought the war in Iraq are voicing strong criticism of Bush-Rumsfeld policies. As National Journal's James Kitfield writes, they fault our political leadership in six key areas: intelligence distortions, micromanagement of the invasion, failure to provide enough troops, the decision to disband Iraq's army, the failure to reconstitute a new Iraqi military force and actions that alienated U.S. allies. Kitfield's analysis, well worth reading, can be found on GovExec.com.

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