« Does United States Policy Know Its Tools In Iraq? | Main | Strategy In An Age Of Devolution »

When Generals Speak Out

Civilian control over the military has been a staple of the United States Constitution for more than 200 years, since the forming days of the Republic. It is one of the guiding principles which has allowed the American form of government to remain free from fear of military attempts to overthrow it, yet to maintain a military strong enough to respond to external threats.

Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of professional American military officers to recommend appropriate military strategies to civilian decision-makers. As former Army Chief of Staff, General Fred C. Weyand once said on the subject,

“As military professionals we must speak out, we must counsel our political leaders and alert the American public that there is no such thing as a ‘splendid little war.’ There is no such thing as a war fought on the cheap. War is death and destruction. The American way of war is particularly violent, deadly and dreadful…The Army must make the price of involvement clear before we get involved, so that America can weigh the probable costs of involvement against the dangers of noninvolvement…for there are things worse than war.”

This issue has come to the public’s attention as a chorus of retired generals has made known its opposition to the war in Iraq. A year ago a half dozen retired generals, men of renowned accomplishments, publicly called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a result of his handling, or in their opinions mishandling, of the War in Iraq.

Unlike former Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinsecki, who was essentially sacked by Rumsfeld in 2003 for testifying before Congress and publicly questioning the adequacy of the Bush Administration’s preparations for the War in Iraq, these former generals have made their comments from the safety and security of retirement. The question for these former generals is whether they offered such candid advice to the civilian leadership of the military prior to their retirements from the military, and during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq.

Their dilemma as senior military officers was summarized by another former Army Chief of Staff, General Maxwell Taylor, when he said,

“Having made every effort to guide his civilian superiors in the direction which he believes is right, the Chief of Staff must accept the decisions of the Secretary of his service, of the Secretary of Defense, and of the President as final and thereafter support them before Congress. The alternative is resignation.”

General Shinsecki stated his candid opinion on the preparations for the war in Iraq, and he did not resign, but he was fired by Rumsfeld for speaking out. The former generals who have voiced the courage of their convictions from the safety of retirement clearly were not fired from their positions, nor did they resign in opposition to the handling of the war. They are not on the public record for having spoken out critically on the war while they were still active officers. Whether they spoke their opposition to the handling of the war in private is not known.

These retired generals symbolize the quandary faced by the professional military officer corps, many of whom will disagree with the war in Iraq, but will not speak out publicly. Whether their silence is out of respect for the civilian control for the military established by the United States Constitution, which may very will be likely, or whether they are simply avoiding professional career suicide is a matter of debate.

Any situation in which the military officers corps, including retired generals, is at odds with its civilian leadership is fraught with constitutional, as well as leadership, issues. Physical valor in war, and moral courage in peace, are two different things, and America needs both in its senior military officers. However, it is of note that while they are willing to sacrifice their lives for their country, the same does not hold true for their careers. Ultimately, the moral dilemmas of leadership are issues which each officer, and each general, must confront individually.


After almost four years now, wasn't General Shinsecki correct after all? Why has he not been talked about as they do General Petraus?


Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)