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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Are the generals revolting?

There's a really interesting opinion piece in today's Washington Post by British journalist and historian Max Hastings which places the sudden outspokenness of retired generals in some historical context.

There's been a lot of debate over the past couple of weeks regarding the propriety of retired senior officers speaking out against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. (See my take here and here, and a link to Point Five's Donald Rumsfeld Resignation Advisory System here.) As Hastings says, even "many people who oppose the Iraq war and deplore Rumsfeld are nonetheless troubled by the notion of senior officers, even retired ones, openly criticizing political leadership."

He notes that in principle this is nothing new:

In truth, retired soldiers have always been outspoken about the alleged blunders of successor warlords, uniformed and otherwise. During Britain's colonial conflicts and in both world wars, through Korea and Vietnam, hoary old American and British warriors wrote frequently to newspapers, deploring this decision or that, exploiting their credentials to criticize governments and commanders.

During the Iraq campaigns of 1991 and 2003, I heard British chiefs of staff express their fervent desire for veterans to get themselves off television screens. We may assume that, as chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff today, Gen. Peter Pace feels the same way.

Winston Churchill's wartime chief of staff, Gen. Hastings "Pug" Ismay, charmingly described in his memoirs how, in 1940, lunches at his old army club in London became intolerable because at every mouthful, he was beset by veterans explaining how his master should properly be running the war. In self-defense, Ismay resorted to lunching at White's, a venerable aristocratic institution where few members had noticed that a conflict was taking place.

But according to Hastings, there is something that separates the current volubility from past conduct: the way we now wage war and assign responsibility for failures both perceived and real. It used to be that elected governments were responsible for the "who, where and why" of war - who are we fighting, where are we fighting them, why are we fighting them - and the generals and admirals, working with the officers and troops below them, handled the "how." In this system, assigning responsibility seemed relatively easy: Vietnam is perceived as a bad war , Lyndon Johnson takes the fall. Little Big Horn doesn't turn out quite the way we hoped, General Custer gets the blame. FDR is hailed for his leadership during World War II, and Ike, Bradley, Nimitz, Patton, etc., get the glory for battles won and campaigns well-executed.

Post-WWII, however, and particularly after winning the Cold War, the West increasingly finds itself involved in a different kind of war:

The great progressive change since 1945 is that the conduct of limited wars has become intensely political. The interventions of civilian leaders are ever more detailed and explicit in matters that were once deemed military turf. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was sacked in Korea in 1951 for conduct no more imperious than his World War II norm in the Pacific. The general failed to understand that the principle on which he had always justified his own mandate -- when wars start, politicians must leave soldiers to run them -- was a dead letter in the nuclear age.

Coupled with this increased desire of civilians to encroach on what was historically the militiary's bailiwick is their ability to do so. Secure phones, real time satellite imagery and other technological advancements have made it very easy - too easy, many in the military might say - for officials in Washington to monitor, influence, and even direct events happening thousands of miles away.

All of these things can lead to a frustrated military that is unable to achieve the broad strategic objectives given to it, and an officer corps that may wonder why, when they would never infringe upon the right (indeed the necessity) of an elected government to set policy, an official of this same government shows no compunction about constantly meddling in their areas of expertise, and then tops it off by refusing to accept any responsibility when his meddling leads to notable failures. As Hastings puts it:

If commanders are denied the power to manage campaigns as they think right, it is unjust to allow them to accept blame when these go awry. In the new world, the generals' revolt seems a legitimate response to political mismanagement of operations. If a civilian such as Donald Rumsfeld seeks to exercise from Washington functions that were traditionally those of soldiers, he should take the customary consequences.

I worked for a guy like Rumsfeld once. (Not in the Army.) The guy would hire people, like me, to perform duties they were well qualified for (in my case, communications and PR), and then wouldn't let them do their jobs the way they knew how. He was a micromanager of the worst sort, and was convinced he knew how to do your job better than you did, even though he had no training and, more importantly, no native ability at it. You would try to convince him that you knew what you were doing, and explain to him why his ideas were disastrous, only to have him overrule you. But then - and here's the kicker - when his decisions turned out to be wrong, guess who got the blame?

This may be why I feel so strongly about Rumsfeld being removed as SecDef, but I suppose that's a question for my shrink.

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