The Magazine

Let the Generals Speak

It's not a problem for civil-military relations.

May 8, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 32 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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TIMES OF GREAT NATIONAL STRESS can create tensions between the senior civilian leaders of the nation and the general officers who serve them. This tension sometimes leads to open conflict, as between Lincoln and McClellan; Truman and MacArthur; and the "revolt of the admirals" in 1949. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell publicly criticized Bill Clinton's determination to open the military ranks to homosexuals, a cottage industry sprang up warning of the imminent demise of civilian control over the military.

The recent spate of retired generals calling for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to step down has raised the red flag once again. Critics of these generals have called them "fools," "disloyal," and self-serving careerists. One calls their actions "wrong, destructive of good order and discipline in the armed forces, and prejudicial to functional civil-military relations." Another places them on a spectrum that leads to the sort of military factions one finds in "places such as Hussein's Iraq, Pinochet's Chile or your run-of-the-mill banana republic." Harsh words, indeed.

These attacks on the outspoken generals are misguided. They reflect an incorrect understanding of healthy civil-military relations, one that draws too heavily on traditional American fears of a standing army and too little on the need to ensure that the people of a democracy are sufficiently well informed to make sound decisions about their leaders in a time of war. There is no danger to the republic in a handful of retired generals speaking their minds. There is great danger in making vital decisions about an ongoing armed struggle without hearing the views of all available experts.

Many experts in the field of civil-military relations think harmony is the goal. Uniformed military should offer advice when it is sought, and do what it is told without demur whether or not that advice is accepted. Above all, disputes must be kept in-house. Some argue that officers should not even speak freely before Congress; others recognize the need for honest testimony when sought by Congress, but claim that officers should not put their views before the American people in any other fashion. Some go so far as to intimate that it may be wrong for officers to vote in elections--such voting makes them "partisans" and therefore restricts their ability to give impartial advice. For those in this camp, the demand of several generals that Rumsfeld step down--even though these generals are retired--represents a severe blow to good civil-military relations and a usurpation of power that should rest in the hands of the civilian leadership.

There is another way to look at this issue. America's senior civilian leaders are rarely experts in the art of war. Even Donald Rumsfeld, despite two tours as secretary of defense, has infinitely more expertise managing a large and complex bureaucratic corporation than he does planning or executing military operations. Few of the senior civilian leaders in the Pentagon have experience at high levels of military command; some have no military experience at all. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the numbers of congressmen with military experience is rapidly dwindling. Increasingly these days, only the uniformed military, a few senior civilian leaders, and a small number of civilian experts have made the study of war (as opposed to military bureaucracy) their primary occupation. If this compartmentalization of expertise in war is combined with efforts to stifle the speech even of retired officers, it runs the serious risk of depriving the American people and their leaders of the critical advice and information they need to make sound decisions.

Regrettable as it might seem from this second perspective, it remains essential to curtail the speech of serving officers. An officer charged with executing a policy cannot publicly criticize that policy. He or she must understand that, after advice has been rendered and a decision is taken, the only options that remain are to "salute and move out smartly" and to resign. American officers do understand this fact. Truman fired MacArthur precisely because MacArthur had begun a campaign to undermine a decision Truman had already taken and which MacArthur was under orders to execute. The U.S. officer corps has internalized that lesson very deeply.