General dissent: When less isn’t more


The generals are speaking, and many Americans are squirming
By Nathaniel Fick

(Pic)- General Peter Pace (L), Chariman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks at a joint news briefing with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon in Washington April 11, 2006.

As a growing circle of retired officers publicly criticizes the conduct of the Iraq war, widespread misconceptions of the military contribute to public unease over whether and when officers should speak out, and what effect they might have if they do. Two arguments are particularly misleading.

Some critics of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy laud the generals’ candor but ask why they didn’t go public while on active duty, when their arguments could presumably have had a more beneficial effect on policy. According to this view, our military has nurtured sycophants prepared to give their lives for their country but not their careers. Supporters of the administration fire back that public criticism of civilian leaders by military officers, even in retirement, is wrong…


They claim that it undercuts the tradition of civilian control of the military and hurts troop morale by exposing fissures in a nation at war.

The truth is somewhere between these two extremes. Given the special trust and confidence vested in them, these officers were right not to revolt while in uniform, but their return to the fray as private citizens fulfills a moral obligation and should hearten the troops in harm’s way.

Members of America’s professional, volunteer military swear no oath to the president or his policies, but rather “to support and defend the Constitution” and to “faithfully discharge the duties” of their office. The first and second articles of the Constitution place military control firmly in civilian hands, and the discharge of those duties is codified in a federal law called the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Its Article 88 prescribes punishment by court-martial for using “contemptuous words against the president, the vice president, Congress, the secretary of defense” or other officials. Article 92 likewise threatens court-martial for failing to obey a lawful order. This is why the generals did not speak publicly while on active duty, and why no one should expect those now serving to do so: The law forbids such action.

Public opinion polls consistently rank the U.S. military as the most trusted organ of our government, precisely because military leaders are seen as above the political fray. Those who suggest that serving officers should have risen up in protest before the Iraq invasion ought to consider how the last showdown between a president and a general turned out. In 1951, President Truman fired Douglas MacArthur for publicly questioning U.S. strategy in Korea. Truman suffered in the polls, but history has sided with him.

The culture of service also opposes resignation. Falling on one’s sword forfeits influence and is often viewed as abandoning troops in the field, for whom resigning is not an option. Furthermore, one officer’s departure can be dismissed as an anomaly. Group resignations, however, run up against the military’s unique personnel challenge: Because its leaders are grown organically within the services, they take decades to develop, and the pool of those qualified for the most senior positions is both tiny and slow to replenish.

Having kept their disagreements behind closed doors while on active duty, vocal generals now find themselves under assault. Supporters of the administration have consistently claimed that criticism of the Iraq war undermines morale and dishonors the sacrifices of U.S. servicemembers. This is simply wrong. Troops on the ground execute the lawful orders of our democratically elected government, and political debates at home will not erode this dedication to duty. Our soldiers and Marines are focused, quite rightly, on more immediate concerns: accomplishing their missions and taking care of each other.

If there exists a real culprit in undermining morale and dishonoring sacrifice, it isn’t the war’s critics but rather the majority of Americans who “kept shopping” after 9/11, and now seem not to realize that 155,000 of their fellow citizens are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is not a nation at war. The Army and Marines are at war, and many military leaders are furious that our government has done nothing to share their burden of sacrifice. They speak out because the consequences of failure in Iraq are catastrophic, because our leadership has resisted making the changes needed to win, and because they know we’re losing the battle to keep Americans engaged in this fight.

The troubling link between these responses to the generals thatactive-duty officers should have revolted, and that their criticism of the war hurts our troops is a civil-military divide in the USA that has grown over the past half-century. ROTC programs are now unwelcome on elite campuses, which once sent legions of graduates into public service. Fewer and fewer elected officials are veterans.

Military service is not a prerequisite for individual expertise in foreign affairs. Two of America’s greatest wartime presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt never served in uniform (although Lincoln spent three months in an Illinois militia). In the aggregate, however, we benefit from having veterans in every corner of our society: as presidential advisers, members of Congress and active citizens. Their experience enables them to ask the right questions, explode specious arguments, and strike a balance between reaffirming civilian leadership and evaluating military advice.

Having aided and abetted the growth of this schism, some might say we deserve what befalls us. But active citizenship is the salvation of democratic government. I hope we hear more from the generals, and soon.

Former Marine captain Nathaniel Fick served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is the author of One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer.


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