Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Yesterday, The Washington Post published three quarters of an exceptionally fine editorial titled “The Generals’ Revolt.” Referring to the retired generals who are speaking out, the key paragraph reads: “Much of their analysis strikes us as solid — but the rebellion is problematic nonetheless. It threatens the essential democratic principle of military subordination to civilian control — the more so because a couple of the officers claim they are speaking for some still on active duty. Anyone who protested the pushback of uniformed military against President Bill Clinton’s attempt to allow gays to serve ought to also object to generals who criticize the decisions of a president and his defense secretary in wartime. If they are successful in forcing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, they will set an ugly precedent. Will future defense secretaries have to worry about potential rebellions by their brass, and will they start to choose commanders according to calculations of political loyalty? In our view Mr. Rumsfeld’s failures should have led to his departure long ago. But he should not be driven out by a revolt of generals, retired or not.” As I wrote a column yesterday that also harshly criticized the revolting generals — retired and active (“Seven Days in April — Generals prepare to ‘revolt’ against Rumsfeld”) — obviously I heartily agreed with the Post’s similar stance.

But the reason I argue that the Post editorial is only three-fourths fine is that it does not recommend any curative action. All it calls for is that people should “object.” But an editorial from the newspaper of record in our capital that has identified the rebellion as “[threatening] the essential democratic principle of military subordination to civilian control” is shirking its responsibility by stopping short of recommending necessary action.

Because, if The Washington Post thinks — as I do — that we are seeing before our eyes a coordinated act of multiple insubordination by a group of generals, then such action should not go unsanctioned. The dangerous precedent must not be permitted to stand — whether or not one agrees with their substantive criticism of their civilian superiors.

When the United States teaches Third World militaries how to be professional, one of the key instructions is that the officer corps should be taught to be loyal to their government and its constitution — never personally loyal to the current leader. (Hitler famously required an oath of personal loyalty to him from the Wermacht officer corps.) And it is on exactly that point that The Post correctly fears a dangerous precedent is in the process of being set. They rightly fear that based on what is currently happening to Mr. Rumsfeld, “will future defense secretaries have to worry about potential rebellions by their brass, and will they start choosing commanders according to calculations of political loyalty?”

The obvious answer to their question is yes — unless the current insubordinations (if that is what they be) are promptly and severely sanctioned. Once generals start getting selected for their personal loyalty to a president, we are a dangerous step closer to the plague of Caesarism that not only corrupts governments around the world today but ended the Roman Republic and brought on Rome’s Imperial Age.

Overwrought? Can’t happen here? Take a chill pill? Maybe. But bad habits start very innocently and slowly corrupt a person or a country. For example, who would have thought 20 years ago that if a congressman stood up and said that our laws regarding our border and immigration should be enforced, he would be broadly accused of racism? And yet today, after 20 years of incrementally increasing indifference to our border laws, such is the case.

Things have been getting increasingly verbally sloppy in the military for some time. In the lead up to the Iraq war, senior officers were on background in major newspaper articles leaking bits and pieces of then currently debated secret war plans. In our intelligence services — NSA, CIA, DIA, ONI, etc. — similar loose lips have gone on unsanctioned so long that it is now virtually standard operating procedure.

Rome was neither built nor destroyed in a day. But it was destroyed.

Of course, sitting around the bar at the officer’s mess and letting off steam about the SecDef or the president is a time-honored practice. But coordinated attacks on the Secretary of Defense from active-duty generals to retired generals to cable television and the New York Times is not a time-honored practice — not yet.

And while I would have wished that The Washington Post editorial had given action guidance (and thus political cover) to our government, the real responsibility for vindicating the principle of military subordination to the civilian government lies with the president and secretary of defense.

Politically unpleasant as it may be, they should promptly order a court of inquiry pursuant to Article 135 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice to determine if, as is widely suspected — or if not — the current military clamor for Mr. Rumsfeld to be fired involves any acts of insubordination.

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