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.
Does that mean that after they retire they shouldn't criticize policies with which they had been involved--but are no longer? That case is harder to see. Some argue that retired generals remain part of the corporate body of generals--that, one critic writes, is why we still call them "general." And it is true that sitting generals (and civilian leaders) frequently seek the advice of their retired predecessors. It is no doubt also true that retired generals who enter the field of politics, either by siding with political candidates or by calling for the resignations of senior officials, reduce their impartiality and even, perhaps, their credibility for participating in subsequent policy discussions. Such interventions may therefore be imprudent from a personal perspective, but they do not harm good order and discipline within the military or civil-military relations.
Critics of today's outspoken retired generals argue that their example of taking sides in political debates encourages their active-duty comrades to do the same; some claim this might lead to the creation of the sorts of military cliques and factions that can lead to coups. Neither fear is convincing. Military officers at all levels are deeply indoctrinated with the primacy of civilian control. They are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the statements of their active-duty superiors and retired generals. There is considerable evidence, furthermore--as anyone who has spent a lot of time talking with military officers privately knows--that disagreements, arguments, and strong feelings about the worthiness of the current civilian leadership long predated the public comments of a handful of retired generals. There is no evidence whatsoever that these feelings of officers at any level have led to failures to offer honest advice, failures to execute orders faithfully, or problems of any sort. There is no disease to treat here; there are not even any symptoms.
THE CLAIM THAT RETIRED GENERALS must not involve themselves in "partisan political" questions is even more problematic today than usual, because President Bush and Rumsfeld have repeatedly deflected criticism of their policies in Iraq onto the generals themselves. They have stated over and over that troop levels in Iraq and the strategies being pursued there are those recommended by the generals, and that more troops would be forthcoming and different strategies would be approved if the generals requested or offered them. When Rumsfeld testifies before Congress on Iraq or the defense budget, a general sits beside him, in his dress uniform, his stars gleaming under the lights. The presence of that general next to the secretary goes beyond tacit support. He is expected to offer verbal support to the secretary's policies as well, in the guise of impartial, professional advice. But what advice in such a situation could really be impartial and professional, unless the secretary and his general were in complete agreement? And how likely is it that there will be no serious disagreements between civilian leaders and generals?
In truth, it is not likely at all, except in two cases: that the civilian leaders promote only those they know to agree with them, or that the military officers prioritize loyalty to their civilian masters above giving them honest and impartial advice. Many of the critics of the outspoken retired generals today do blame them for disloyalty, even as those generals and other critics assert that Rumsfeld's Pentagon has been characterized by excessive groupthink and selective promotions.
The question of loyalty becomes critical here. Presidents and secretaries of defense always want their generals to be loyal to them. Generals frequently feel that they should be loyal to their civilian leaders in the same way that they expect their military subordinates to show them loyalty. But the oath of office of an American officer is to "protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," not to "be loyal to the present occupants of the executive branch." Even junior officers, moreover, are required to show discretion in their loyalty. They are forbidden, for instance, to carry out orders that they believe to be unlawful. Loyalty of officers to their superiors is not and cannot be unconditional.
Confusion in this matter helped lead to the disasters of the Vietnam war, as H.R. McMaster has pointed out so eloquently in his book Dereliction of Duty. The Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1960s prioritized their loyalty to President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara to such an extent that they allowed their own views to be distorted, in their presence, before congressional committees. In truth, nothing so destroys the impartiality of advice essential to wise decisionmaking as the notion that senior officers must be first and foremost loyal to their civilian bosses.
THE SUBSTANCE OF THE CRITICISMS made by retired generals John Batiste, Charles Swannack, Anthony Zinni, and others is neither novel, nor entirely accurate, nor in every case very constructive. They have tended to focus on blaming Rumsfeld for past actions, rather than discussing current operations or offering concrete suggestions for improving American strategy in Iraq. But the quality of these statements is not really what is at issue. The current crisis comes from the fact that these officers have not merely condemned Rumsfeld's policies, but called for his resignation. That demand, some say, crosses the line.
No active-duty general, it goes without saying, would ever be allowed publicly to demand the resignation of his superior officer--and any who did would likely be court-martialed. Officers are not even permitted to make derogatory comments about their superiors, according to statutes of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Retired officers are not subject to the UCMJ; there is no statutory restriction on their speech. But should there not be some customary inhibition that restricts their advice to the bounds of their own professional expertise?
The answer is no. In the first place, retired generals are citizens in good standing with all the rights of their fellow citizens--rights that they have laid their lives on the line to protect. They should on no account be stripped of any of those rights, however wisely or foolishly they use them. In the second place, as we have learned many times in other contexts, free speech is not partable. Once we decide the retired generals can say some things and not others, the door is open to assail them for saying anything at all. And that would be a grave error, because, in the third place, we need their thoughts.
The United States is at war, as the president and the secretary of defense never tire of reminding us. But it is a complicated and confusing war. Rumsfeld himself has argued forcefully that traditional approaches will not solve the unique problems we face. In such a circumstance, it is the height of arrogance and folly to assume that the handful of military and civilian leaders who happen to be at the top of the power pyramid for the moment have all the answers.
Debates about strategy and policy in the global war on terror and in Iraq cannot be confined to polite discussions in the halls of the Pentagon. Not in a democracy. The American people and their elected representatives--not only the president and his subordinates--must be directly involved in these debates. They can only make informed decisions if they understand the issues. They can only understand the issues if those with the most expertise, knowledge, and experience share their wisdom freely.
No one will be pleased with everything retired generals have to say. No one is under any obligation to follow their advice, or even to take it seriously--generals are human, after all, and just as prone to mistakes of judgment as anyone else. But no one benefits from silencing them in the name of civilian control of the military. That solution to this nonproblem, in fact, can hurt us all.
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming book, The End of the Old Order: Napoleon and Europe, 1801-1805 (Da Capo).