Recently, a number of retired general officers have called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. Basically, they claim the Pentagon’s political class is incompetent. So why didn’t these decorated heroes speak out in 2003, before the Iraq war?
It’s simple: Washington makes generals into cowards and this must be fixed.
There must be something in the Pentagon water that turns star-studded generals into weak-kneed cowards. These generals fight wars, but they can’t find their voices when they think politicians are taking the military and the nation in the wrong direction. This is a sad commentary on our military’s culture and Washington’s political climate.
Years ago, I was the chief of leadership and ethics at the Army’s Infantry Center. We taught warriors that they have a moral obligation to confront seniors with bad news and to challenge morally wrong decisions. We used historical illustrations about men of character falling on their swords over principles. Apparently, the likes of the newly retired generals — who, just now, with their pensions secured, are publicly voicing their criticisms of our president and his Pentagon appointees — didn’t listen in class.
Since 2002, I’ve been privileged to attend meetings with Mr. Rumsfeld and his staff. As part of a group of retired officers who now work as media consultants, we have free rein to ask tough questions. Mr. Rumsfeld is always frank, tough and receptive. You have to stand your ground, but Mr. Rumsfeld listens and reasons.
Typically at these meetings, I was the lowest-ranking retired officer. It was amazing how hypocritical some now-retired generals were. They had plenty of opportunity and encouragement to ask tough questions of Pentagon staff, Mr. Rumsfeld included. Behind the scenes some were critical, but at our meetings, only a few shot back.
Three years after the war commenced, hindsight is easy. However, in the actual lead-up to the war, or during initial operations, I seldom heard tough, confrontational questions from the retired group, much less from the more responsible active duty generals. True, I learned politicians can be very defensive. That’s to be expected. But that’s no excuse for refusing to tangle with them until safely on the retired list.
Our active duty generals tend to be accustomed to getting their way because the military is about giving and taking orders. They become unused to getting much push-back when they voice an opinion. So they feel shocked, slighted and silenced when someone such as Mr. Rumsfeld requires them to justify their views.
As uncomfortable as it may be to those accustomed to great deference, Mr. Rumsfeld’s approach actually helps to ensure that robust debate occurs. If, that is, the secretary’s “debate partners” do their part.
The nation needs military executives who will push back, who will tangle with civilian leaders when they feel it is in the best interest of national security. Title 10, the law governing the Armed Forces, mandates “The members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, individually or collectively… shall provide advice to the president” and others as requested and may “submit advice or opinion in disagreement.”
In a different era, former Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson decided to resign over President Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. The general, however, backed down. Vietnam continued. No one will know whether a senior general’s resignation would have altered history.
In 1986, Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The intent of the law was to realign the services into a more joint force and encourage more frankness from our uniformed officers. It’s time for Congress to amend that act to include a provision for the general who becomes a principled whistleblower.
I serve as a Pentagon consultant. I’m thoroughly impressed with the commitment, long hours of hard work and professionalism demonstrated by our general officer corps. These officers give their all to their profession and country. However, we must insist they do one more thing. They must be willing to sacrifice — retire, resign the position, or resign from the service — for principle and the right cause.
But resignation from the service, the strongest statement, could mean the officer loses his hard-earned pension. Generals have spent decades wedded to the military, often without building financial resources to face retirement without their military pension. They are truly out on a limb if they abandon their pension, even if a principle is at risk. There is no parachute for those who might resign in the best interests of the country.
Our Founders rightly placed the military subordinate to the elected government. That system has served our country well, and it must continue. It’s equally critical, however, that our military’s general officer corps exercise their Title 10 right to “disagree.” They must feel free to be heard before critical decisions are made — and even when dissenting is politically unpopular.
Of course, resigning is a last resort. Nothing actually is stopping any one of any rank from speaking truth to the Pentagon’s civilian leaders. And America requires the best military advice from our general officers — while they are in uniform. But in the rare case where an officer does speak up and concludes principle requires the final statement of resignation, that officer should not be required to give up his pension. Congress should see to it these heroes are protected.
Robert Maginnis is a retired U.S. Army officer and a television and radio analyst.