In my fruitless attempt to keep up with at least some of the major stories that have come out while I've been busy (and I am still busy), here are three thoughts on the generals who have called for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, and the response to them.
[Update at end.]
First, I find the various writers who have taken it upon themselves to smear these generals and impugn their motives reprehensible. It's always worth remembering, when writing about a news story, that the people the story is about are, well, actual people. They might have all sorts of motives, and most of us probably don't know what those motives are. It never ceases to amaze me how many people are absolutely certain that they know the motives of complete strangers.
How, exactly, do all these bloggers know that these generals are really motivated by secret loyalty to Clinton, or resistance to military transformation, or some minor gripe with Rumsfeld that they've blown out of proportion? Telepathy? A Vulcan mind meld? Divination? A report in the Weekly World News? If they don't know, why are they willing to talk as though they do? Don't they realize that impugning someone's motives without justification is wrong?
One charge in particular bothers me: the claim that these soldiers should have spoken up before they resigned, and that they are speaking up now only because, being out of the service, it's safe for them to do so. First, I don't agree that they should have spoken up while in uniform. I think that as long as you are employed by an organization, especially in a public role, you should make your criticisms known internally, through the system. You should object, vehemently if necessary, when decisions are taken, and you should be prepared to resign if necessary, but I think it's very rarely appropriate to speak out publicly while you're still employed.
Second, before we criticize the generals for speaking out only now that they've resigned, we need to ask why they resigned, and in particular whether they resigned because of the complaints they are now voicing. This is especially true if you're going to say things like this:
"Instead of literally putting their stars on the desk, they chose to wait until they were safely retired to take a stand. It's too late then. When they gripe from retirement, many people are going to take that criticism less seriously. How many times in the past have we seen "sour grapes" cloaked as serious criticism from the safety of retirement?"
As it happens, we do know why one of the generals resigned:
"MARK SHIELDS: (...) And I thought perhaps the hardest shot of all was fired (INAUDIBLE) General Batiste on this show last night, who actually turned down a third star. And I don't know if people really understand what that means, in military terms. He turned down a third star. A three-star general is accorded a respect and a deference that a two-star isn't, quite frankly.
JIM LEHRER: And it's a huge jump.
MARK SHIELDS: It's a huge jump.
JIM LEHRER: In the military, it's a huge jump.
MARK SHIELDS: Huge jump. It means he's on his way to a four, probably to a four.
JIM LEHRER: It's like going from lieutenant colonel to colonel. There is a huge, huge difference.
MARK SHIELDS: A huge gulf. And the point is: He paid. In other words, he was willing to pay with his retirement, with his stature, with his status, because he disagreed with that policy."
Yep: that's what I call 'waiting until you're safely retired.'
Second, my sense of the culture in the senior officer corps is that it is very conservative, and very, very averse to speaking out. Michael Gordon, a NYT military reporter for whom I have a lot of respect, puts it this way:
"In going public with their criticism, the generals have broken an informal code of silence among officers that is rooted in the longstanding reluctance of the military to openly challenge the civilian leadership of the Defense Department. That tradition has been questioned since the Vietnam War, a conflict in which generals who doubted Pentagon leaders did not oppose decisions that they thought were ill-advised. (...)
American military officers have a deep respect for civilian authority and a tradition of keeping their differences over policy within the family. They tend to believe that operating within the system is a more effective means of influencing major military decisions than resigning in protest."
This is one of the reasons I find the fact that they are speaking out so striking: it is a deeply uncharacteristic thing for generals, retired or otherwise, to do.
Which brings me to my third point. One of the reasons why senior military officers are normally averse to taking political positions is that they are taught, at length, about the importance of civilian control of the military, and (in my experience) tend to take the idea of civilian control very seriously.
I agree with them on this. I think it's incredibly important that civilian leadership, not the military, have the final say in decisions about war. And civilian leadership has served us well over the years: without it, we might have ended up prosecuting the Vietnam war the way Curtis LeMay wanted to:
"My solution to the problem would be to tell the North Vietnamese Communists frankly that they've got to drawn in their horns and stop their aggression or we're going to bomb them into the stone age."
However, it is, of course, possible for civilian leadership to be completely inept; and it's worth asking what, exactly, soldiers who are committed to civilian control ought to do in those circumstances. I think that what they are doing now is probably right. They should be very reluctant to speak out, and should resign before they do so.
However, when the civilian leadership that is prosecuting a war is flatly incompetent, and that incompetence is getting soldiers killed needlessly and doing serious damage to our national interests, they should be willing to say so. They have real expertise that most of the rest of us lack, and when their civilian leadership is bad enough, I think they should be prepared to say so.
That said, I'm not at all happy about this, and not just for the obvious reason that I wish the war in Iraq was actually going well. I really wish the military didn't have to speak out, because their speaking out is one of those things, like deciding to try to have someone you know involuntarily committed or disowning your child, that should be reserved for very, very rare circumstances, and that I'd hate to see someone get used to.
The senior officer corps of the military have spent their lives learning how to fight and win wars. Most politicians and most Secretaries of defense, have not. This being so, there would have to be something badly wrong with our military training if the senior officer corps was not routinely better at deciding on strategy and tactics than the civilian leadership, and if (at least in wartime) they did not often find themselves thinking, correctly, that they knew better than their bosses how to fight a war. After all, the reason civilian control is important is not that civilians are better at fighting wars; it's that it matters immensely that the people who have the final say about matters of war and peace be accountable to the voters, or to someone else who is.
A good Secretary of Defense will recognize this fact, and will defer to the military on most questions of strategy and tactics. (Most of the exceptions that leap to mind involve questions that involve non-military values, from whether to bomb architectural treasures to how brutal a war the nation is prepared to wage.) A bad Secretary of Defense will not defer to them. But the military should be prepared, in general, to defer to them anyways, because of the importance of civilian control.
For this reason, I'd think that a Secretary of Defense would have to be disastrous before it would be appropriate for members of the military to speak out, at least in a very public way, and using their military experience to make their case. The problem is deciding just where that line should be drawn, and which side of it any particular civilian leader falls on. I'm glad that our military leaders are reluctant to criticize the civilian leadership. I think they should be. I also think that Donald Rumsfeld's leadership has been sufficiently disastrous that they are right to overcome their resistance in this particular case. But, as I said, I really, really hope they don't get used to it.
UPDATE: A clarification, and then a thought I meant to include last night, but didn't.
The clarification: I was only talking about generals speaking out about military issues, and those that are closely related to them. I have no problem at all with a retired general taking a public position in support of, say, raising CAFE standards, or pension reform.
The further thought: The fact that it's undesirable, in general, for military officers to take public positions on military matters doesn't just mean that the senior officer corps should be reluctant to speak out on such issues. It also means that Secretaries of Defense, and Presidents, should recognize a responsibility not to create a situation in which this is appropriate. Obviously, there are more important reasons not to be a disastrous SecDef or President, or to wage wars incompetently. All those dead people and the damage to the national interest leap to mind. But the fact that not encouraging the erosion of the military's normal restraint in these matters comes fairly far down the list of reasons not to completely screw up the prosecution of a war isn't because it's not important; it's because all the others are so much more important that they take precedence over even a fairly weighty consideration.