The Adventures of Chester: Dear Generals: Please Stop, Immediately
Dear Generals: Please Stop, Immediately
The public denunciation of a sitting Secretary of Defense by several now-retired Generals is a profoundly disturbing affair. It would be equally disturbing were the Secretary a member of a Democratic administration. It would be no less disturbing were the generals advocating more aggression in our foreign policy, opposed to a Secretary who was more dovish -- the seeming opposite of the case we are confronted with today.
This is disturbing because, quite frankly, generals -- even retired ones -- are not supposed to do this. When General Newbold -- to take one example -- writes that officers swear an oath not to a single individual, but to the Constitution, he is papering over the fact that that very Constitution requires those same officers to follow the orders of a single individual.
Indeed, a public disagreement of this sort is not just bad for partisan politics. It's also bad for the very foundations of our democracy itself. Here's the reasons why I must respectfully ask these distinguished men to please cease and desist:
1. It is impossible for the outside observer to know the nature of a given General's retirement. Are any of them speaking out of spite? Were they passed over? Unless the news failed to report it, none of the several generals who have so publicly rebuked their former boss retired in protest. I think that would be the only case in which one of them might be justified in publicly criticizing a sitting administration -- and only temporarily at that.
2. For generals to publicly criticize the secretary of defense for whom they worked is to perpetuate a myth that has become prominent in our culture: the myth that participation in warfare is ultimately the provenance of the professional military, and not a joint effort with their political masters. Let us not forget Clausewitz's dictum of the link between warfare and politics. To suppose that politicians merely telling the generals to attack how they see fit would be the best way to run the Defense Department is to cede the political aspect of war to warfighters, whose political skills are understandably dwarfed by professional politicians who've made careers of reading political situations. All I've expressed in this paragraph is easily summed by another old expression: "war is too important to be left to the generals."
As Eliot Cohen (who literally wrote the book on civil-military command issues) has noted, the generals are sometimes wrong: were Kennedy's military advisors correct when they recommended a nuclear first-strike during the Cuban Missile Crisis? As Cohen argues, only civilian leaders who actively challenge, question, and debate with their military officers are best equipped to guide the nation through its roughest times. A Cohen states, generals are experts in how to fight, not whether to fight. ...
But even that is not the most disturbing aspect of all of this. Most disturbing is the trend toward more open political expression among recently retired senior military officers. Recall the 2004 election, when each candidate lined up on stage with a few dozen retired senior officers, hoping to prove that he would make the best leader for their ranks. Are we soon to enter a period when a candidate cannot think of running successfully without vocal support from the officer class? Many democracies live with this curse, but I for one do not think it is healthy.
Suppose Rumsfeld were to resign at the behest of his generals. Would the next Secretary of Defense be more or less likely to challenge his generals in a very aggressive or pointed way? What if they all shunned him once they were out of uniform? Perhaps it would be best if he just kept his trap shut and let them have the run of things, rather than try to rock the boat, no? This is the danger that we face if we give too much encouragement to the type of behavior on display of late.