Generals and Politicians

Military history portrays an abundance of incidents and situations where rifts between the ruling government and some of its generals have cast a shadow on the principle of authority definitions and separation of governing branches. This phenomena exists not only under dictatorships where often the military leads to a change of government, but also in democracies.

The recent vocal protest of six retired U.S. generals against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld should not be considered as a rare or unique event in U.S. military history.

From the War of Independence through the Civil War, the two World Wars and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a number of generals did not see eye to eye with administration policies. However, the current criticism of Donald Rumsfeld and his navigation of the war in Iraq, smacks of hypocrisy.

The group of six vocal officers failed to raise their voice against their Commander in Chief, namely the president, and preferred not to ruffle feathers in the military chain of command. They by-passed General Richard Myers who was the Joint Chief of Staff at the time of their service on the front, neither did they criticize the commanding officers of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). They also refrained from criticizing their colleagues in command of divisions or theatres of operations.

The sheer reality of this distasteful picture is that, if there were a medal for “after service cowardice” these officers would deserve to be awarded one. At the same time it should be stressed that this has nothing to do with their own performance in the field but rather with their sudden impulse of criticism expressed from the comfort and safety of their retirement.

When conflicting ideas of policies or over a particular strategy, arose between the officers and their governing civil establishment, the honorable thing would have been to voice their objections to serving an incompetent secretary during their service. Instead they opted to remain in their positions while many of their men were being killed or wounded and scarred, performing what they now suggest were illogical and unprofessional orders.

Being division level commanders prevented them from having any influence over the overall strategy handed down by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as agreed upon with the Secretary and the Commander in Chief. It was Confederate General Robert E. Lee who on the eve of the decisive battle of Gettysburg told his most competent commander General Longstreet who questioned the wisdom of the attack by saying that if you love the army sometimes you have to sacrifice the thing you love most.

Until his last days of the campaign critics questioned General Longstreet’s objection to the battle plan and some even suggested he should have resigned and not just voice his concerns to his superior officer and refrain from any further action.

Brave generals such as Army Air Corp Commander Billy Mitchell risked their career by challenging the U.S. military establishment. Mitchell criticized his superiors for not understanding the full scope and advantages of air power causing them to plan and execute the wrong strategies in the Pacific. Demoted and humiliated Mitchell became a national hero for his brave stand and vision, which ultimately resulted in the U.S. military force becoming the most dominant during WWII.

Obviously the generals criticizing the current strategies of the war in Iraq are not made of Billy Mitchell material. By keeping silent while still in uniform they too are morally responsible for the numbers of U.S. casualties. In any case they could not do much to change tactics on the ground since strategy decisions were not theirs to make. They could, however, have voiced their criticism through the appropriate channels and be brave enough to bear the consequences if need be.

It is much more effective, honest and certainly more courageous, to resign a commission rather than obey what are perceived as wrongful orders and continue to participate as active players in a vast strategic game.

The reality is that most generals, retired or in service, continue to accept for better or for worse, the military’s hierarchal chain of command. Most understand that a demand to dismiss an appointed Secretary posted between the military and the Commander in Chief is a dangerous precedent. It is an act, which carries the scent of mutiny against an elected authority. Should this trend continue and should more of the retired or active generals’ corps be drawn into a debate over what has without doubt become an unpopular war, the entire defense system will be plagued by anarchy with zealous generals “who know better” taking control over the military.

This would endanger the most prestigious and costly symbol of the U.S. position as a leading world super power. After all it is the military, which gives meaning to the term “super power.” Those who support the generals in their call to sack the Secretary of Defense are playing with fire, probably without realizing the potential ramifications of this action.

Yoram East
Yoram East is a retired Israeli colonel born in Jerusalem, who writes about foreign policy and goings-on in the Middle East. Sadly, Yoram passed away in October 2010.