When Donald Rumsfeld entered the office of Secretary of Defense, he had a clear agenda. He envisioned an extremely mobile military capable of defeating enemy forces with high efficiency. He proposed that our most valuable asset was technology on the battlefield, which would spare lives, time, and cost. He wanted an Army capable of cleanly defeating any enemy at any time. And he worked hard, frequently against entrenched military resistance, to make this vision a reality. Clearly in doing so, he generated considerable opposition amongst his generals. Now the generals are speaking out.
Is this good for the United States?
The question is complicated. First, none of the retired generals speaking out discuss Mr. Rumsfeld’s long-standing attempt to coax military strategists from what the Army calls "Tipfid." This acronym TPPFDD stands for "Time-phased Force and Deployment Data." Translated from military jargon, this represents a strategy of methodical, careful, and sure preparation before engagement. What this means to Rumsfeld is delay, stall, and loss of initiative.
Instead, the generals address the specific processes of how Mr. Rumsfeld entered the war in Iraq and how he conducted it after a military victory was declared. Even if we attribute to the generals subliminal resentment at Mr. Rumsfeld’s strategic revisions which long predate the Iraq war, their objections are valid on their own terms.
Second, it is difficult to weigh the spoken opinions of six retired generals versus the unspoken opinions of several thousand other retired generals. In statistical terms, we lack a denominator. If these six are the only ones who find Rumsfeld’s conduct objectionable while thousands of others do not, the impact of these objections is reduced. And what do the active generals, currently running the war in Iraq, think of our Defense Secretary?
It is notable that while several high-ranking generals have questioned the appropriateness of generals criticizing civilians, General Peter Pace, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remains the only active General to dispute the content of the objections. No active duty general has supported the objections, but we would be surprised if that happened. Criticizing one’s superiors publicly is tantamount to insubordination for active officers. Their silence should not be over-interpreted.
Among other retired generals, only Gen. Michael DeLong, deputy to Gen. Tommy Franks during the invasion, came to the defense of Mr. Rumsfeld. Of note, he did not dispute that Mr. Rumsfeld made decisions contrary to the recommendations of high-ranking Army officers; he made the point that Mr. Rumsfeld at least listened to the officers first.
Given the professional constraints among our military against public criticism, we ought to give considerable credibility to the objections of these retired generals who dared to speak out.
Third, is it at all appropriate for military leaders to go public with criticism of civilian leaders? The issue has powerful implications. Is there a difference between retired generals publicly criticizing the Secretary of Defense for the conduct of war and active generals criticizing the President for the conduct of domestic policies? If not, then we open our country to the possibility that our military will become a domestic political force, much like our major political parties. The difference is that our major political parties do not have millions of armed service people trained to obey orders without question stationed at bases across the entire country. A military coup d’etat has never happened in this country. But crossing this line brings us one step closer.
But there is a difference between retired military personnel and active personnel. Retired generals do not command troops or hold positions of official influence nor do they speak for anyone else within the active Army. Their opinions, like any those of any citizen, are their own. What sets their opinions apart from the average civilian speaking out on the conduct of war is that retired military may have first hand experience, experience not available to civilians.
Additionally, it is inappropriate to insist on a cult of infallibility among our military leaders. Like anyone making life and death decisions, our leaders, both military and civilian make errors. It is the responsibility of the organization to detect, analyze, and correct errors, be they personal errors or flaws in the system. If critical errors go unaddressed, especially those endangering lives, it is essential that someone point that out.
And it is appropriate that active duty military leaders let retired leaders assume that unpleasant task. These retired generals perform a thankless but critical function. It is also essential that they restrict their comments to matters of specific military import, which they have done so far. While it is tempting to interpret any criticism of Secretary Rumsfeld as a non-specific attack on the entire beleaguered Bush administration, the generals have, apparently with great care, kept their comments to specific aspects of Mr. Rumsfeld’s management of the war. For this they deserve credit.
Taking all the issues together, we can make some conclusions.
1. The objections of the six retired generals should be given considerable weight. We do not know how many other retired general agree with them, but their comments have value even without outside corroboration.
2. It is appropriate that retired rather than active generals speak on issues that concern the leadership of our military. It is also appropriate that civilian listeners independently determine the validity of their objections, just as we should with anyone denouncing our civilian leaders.
3. The fact that no active duty general has voiced public support should be taken as respect for the chain of command from civilian directors, not as tacit agreement or objection. We expect our military to carry out the orders of our civilian leaders, whether they agree or not, and then voice any objections privately.
4. And Mr. Rumsfeld should absolutely not resign, nor should President Bush ask for it. We come too close to reversing our traditional civilian control over military to allow generals, even if retired, to dictate which civilians run our Defense Department.
Instead, Secretary Rumsfeld and President should pay close attention to absolutely every comment from these generals, and others. If we are to correct the errors that led us into Iraq and keep us there long after an apparent military victory, we must weigh opinions from all directions.
Especially from the generals who have been there.
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