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April 15, 2006

Being "The Good Soldier"
Posted by Ike Wilson

An April 13, 2006 front-page Washington Post article by Tom Ricks is the latest and most public account of what has been a rising disgruntlement among a small but significant number of retired U.S. military officers with current US war-policy and strategy toward Iraq, and a mounting clarion call for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The issue, being dubbed already (and quite prematurely) as the 'General's Revolt' is an important issue on the obvious merits: the questioning of the soundness of not only the intelligence but also the planning that directed the United States' invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the alleged paucity of the postwar planning for Iraq's stabilization and reconstruction, and the effectiveness of Secretary Rumsfeld.  But this tale of "revolt" raises other questions -- questions that go well beyond happenings in and about Iraq; questions that speak directly to the relationship between the American Soldier and the American State, and the proper role and limits of military officers in affairs of politics and war. Behind this so-called revolt belies a deeper question more important to the American Republic than Iraq is or will ever be: what does it mean to be "The Good Soldier" in today's day and age? 

I do not claim to have any answers to this question.  But what I will try to offer is an "insider's" perspective on the debate and to provide some professional soldier insight into the true complexities that make this issue much, much more than what many in the punditry are making it out to be -- a sensational story of a mutiny against the sitting Secretary of Defense . . . a precision attack on Donald Rumsfeld.  The real issue of worry is not the SECDEF or the disagreements of a handful of retired generals, but rather an issue of the Soldier and the State 

The difference between a military in the service of the Nation and a praetorian guard in the service of empire and Emperor teeters on a thin line of legal, ethical, and professional principles that define the proper limits of the military's jurisdictions in affairs of peace, war, and politics.  Our Nation's skepticism of a standing military is a healthy one; a skepticism rooted in experiences under military occupation in the years prior to our national founding.  In this country, we hold to a bright dividing line of civilian control over the military and a mix of legal statutes and professional conventions within US military services that restrict active duty soldiers and their officers (as the "keepers" and guardians of the "professional military ethos") from engaging in those issues deemed "political."  Over our country's 231 years as a Nation the convention of staying "out" of those things political has ebbed back and forth between epochs and examples of complete partisanization of the US armed forces to those of a near priestly abstinence from politics. 

Early Signs of a Shift in Soldier-State Relations and Expectations

Many had already begun to question whether our traditional separation of "the soldier" from State politics were cracking under contemporary pressures before this latest revolt of the retired generals.  Studies conducted in the 1990s, and since, have shown a clear increase in the politicization of the US military.  More worrisome than an increase in politicization of the American military has been the parallel trend showing a rise in self identification among America's officer corps with a particular political party; the current trend being a majority alignment (studies indicate a range of between 60% to 72%) with the Republican Party.  The 2000 US Presidential Campaign spotlighted, perhaps for the first time in our nation's electoral history, the open-court play of the "military vote," first, with examples of retired four-star generals, going on the campaign trail and "stumping" for both candidates, and secondly, by example of the electoral recounts in Florida following the National Election, and at least as the media portrayed it, the potential for a powerful influence of the military absentee vote in becoming the vote that could have been the tie-breaker in an historically close election.  The fact that the military had this much play and participation is worrisome enough from a Soldier and the State perspective; to think that the military's role in campaigning for the candidates and their absentee votes, in one particular state (where a majority of military personnel claim residency for state-tax exemptions), could determine an electoral outcome is beyond our Founder's wildest fears and worries.  The fact that the mere mention of the military absentee vote-tally in Florida -- the state of decision -- elicited a public perception that the majority of that absentee count would "obviously" be for G.W. Bush due to the military's affinity for the Republican Party is something that should concern all those with an interest in preserving America as a representative Republic

During the 2004 Presidential Campaign, both candidates, President G.W. Bush, and Senator John Kerry (D-MA), had their praetoriate of retired general officers endorsing their presidential runs. 

We have also seen a significant rise in the use of military personnel as backdrops (stage props) during presidential policy speeches.  The clearest examples of this can be seen during President Bush's and Vice President Cheney's numerous policy speeches focused on the War on Terror and the US War in Iraq. 

So what are we to think?

In recent media interviews, General Wayne Downing, Ret. and former Chairman, JCS, General Richard Myers, Ret., perhaps stated in the clearest terms to date the active military's major concerns with this recent outspokenness by six retired generals calling for the resignation of the Secretary of Defense. Both officers referred to the long standing tradition within the US armed forces, and particularly its officer corps (active and retired), to limit the voicing of concerns and disagreements over policy decisions  (and the decision makers themselves) to behind closed door venues, and outside of the view and earshot of the general public, and, when in view of the public and the troops in the field to portray loyalty and support.  Both Downing and Myers conveyed the long-standing convention held within the military profession for what it has traditionally  meant to be "The Good Soldier" -- one who offers sound, unbiased military advice to civilian decision makers; one who speaks the truth to Power, offering their concerns as military experts to their superiors over questionable military policy decisions; but also, one who reserves their advice-givings to "behind closed door" venues, and once a policy is set, one who then devotes themselves to carrying out those decisions, demonstrating optimistic loyalty to the policy and the civilian authorities behind those policy decisions. As General Downing stated emphatically, the subordination of the military to the rule and rulings of civilian authorities is paramount to the professional ethos of the United States armed forces, and essential to the sanctity of our American democratic republic.   

To Speak Out, or Not to Speak Out?  When is Loyalty a Dereliction of Duty?

In 1997, the book, Dereliction of Duty was published.  Written by H.R. McMaster, at the time an active duty Major in the U.S. Army (today, Colonel McMaster is Commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment serving in Northern Iraq), this book sought for answers to the questions of culpability for the cavalcade of errant decisions that led to the war-loss in Vietnam, and found a significant number of those errors the result of poor advice giving of senior military leaders.  McMaster's revelations, nearly 30-years after the act of these derelictions of duty, are today embraced at least rhetorically by the US military as the clarion call for speaking the truth, with candor, to Power -- an expression of the obligation of senior military officers to stand up to their civilian leaders and, if necessary, to risk career on behalf of living up to their professional obligations mandated by their oath of commission: to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, both foreign and domestic.  McMaster's account leveled blame onto the senior ranking military within President Lyndon Johnson's Administration for not sounding-off loud enough or often enough against what, in hindsight, turned out to be a most tragically errant war policy and strategy.

So then what about today's dilemma?  Are we witnessing a case of "Dereliction of Duty, Part II?"  And if so, what exactly is derelict?  Is our military speaking out too much and too openly, or, are they not speaking up and out enough?  Are we too "political" or not political enough? Does who is doing the "speaking out" -- retirees versus active-service senior military leaders -- matter? 

Contrariness and even outright hypocrisy is not unfamiliar to American politics -- we are a Nation of contradictions, but somehow we seem to make it work to pretty good effect nevertheless.  Today, we see great contradictions and wide open "gaps" ("open wounds" my be the more accurate description) in our civil-military relations -- our national expectations from the military regarding the contemporary debates over security policy, foreign policy, and defense policy, and the military's expectation of the public it seeks to serve regarding the setting of clear rules-of-engagement in the political debates defining today's security policy making environment.  On the one hand we hear arguments that the senior leadership of our military services were too docile during the deliberations leading up to the Iraq War, therefore becoming complicit in the errors that now haunt us in Iraq.  Critics say that the military allowed the Administration to conduct a war of choice against Saddam Hussein that was scoped, scaled, and resourced tragically shy of the type and quantity of forces demanded to fight and win the "real" war in Iraq -- the war to reconstruct Iraq into a safe and prosperous nation of no threat to its own people, its neighbors, or to US interests.  But then there are others who now argue that those military officers, retired and active duty, speaking out are being disloyal in breaking ranks with the Administration and its policy and strategy toward Iraq. 

The US military is caught in a quandary -- potentially damned if they speak out, as well as if they don't. 

The profession itself is as confused as it appears the American public is over the question of what the boundaries of being the "Good Soldier" need to be in this day and age. I don't have any answers.  But I do have questions and concerns that I will offer here, that I think may help to at least place the confusion and complexity of the issue into a more accurate context:

  • We as a nation need to revisit our tradition of civil-military relations, hold the hard and uncomfortable discussions over what is allowed, what is required (demanded; essential) and what is prohibited when it comes to when, how, and under what conditions our military is allowed -- and obligated -- to enjoin political debates over war policy and strategy.
  • We can no longer afford to determine the obligations and limits of duty and dereliction in an after-the-fact manner.  McMaster's book, albeit a worthwhile historical account of what went wrong in Vietnam, is an expression of hindsight being 20/20.  Early histories and "there I was" accounts of the US-Iraq War are beginning to populate the bookshelves and magazine racks, with "senior officials" coming forward expressing what they knew "back then," in the days, weeks and months leading up to the March 2003 US invasion -- revealing what they may have know at that time about the flaws in intelligence and planning (paucity of troops; absence of a plan to fight and win the "peace;" etc.).  Voicing these sorts of "truths" and revelations now, three years after the fact (too little, too late) do little to help the situation.  I personally and professionally find such accounts "derelict" -- selfish acts of contrition by many now attempting to cleanse their own souls of the culpability of being in the inner sanctums of the decision making for the war policy toward Iraq, witnessing the errors in the making, and failing at that time to stand up from where they were sitting to speak loudly their disagreement with the direction of the decision making to the decision-makers. I humbly submit that if there were in fact critical flaws in the war-planning directing the US intervention in Iraq back in 2002 and early 2003, and senior military leaders and planners knew of it -- and if those flaws were so critical so as to threaten the mission, the troops, and the national interests itself, then perhaps this was the right conditions demanding a collective "falling on the sword" by our senior three and four star generals.  The fact that many are now speaking out and saying so is damning evidence that a dereliction of duty may in fact have occurred.  Where were they back then, before they retired?  And why now, after securing their retirement futures, are they muddying the waters?   
  • The fact that only retired military officers are speaking out indicates at least two possible situations: either (1) the situation is not as dire as the retirees report, given that we have not yet heard from or witnessed a rising of the active duty generals in revolt against the standing policy and its policy makers, or, (2) the situation is a dire as the retired generals state, but the active duty senior ranks are remaining quite, and loyal to the present course and the present civilian leadership. Does this reflect "all is still well and right" with the Republic, or does it witness a failure on the part of active duty senior leaders to stand up, when the conditions justify, and speak truth to Power?  Again, recent evidence to the fact that more was known about the critical flaws in the US war policy, plans, and strategy prior to the 19-March invasion than was previously acknowledged seems to indicate that we are already feeling the impacts of some derelictions of duty in the case of the Iraq War. There may be a third possibility--that a significant number of active duty senior ranking military officers have been standing up and speaking out against the current courseline in Iraq but that their collective voice has been muffled by senior civilian leadership.  If this were the case, and at present it is impossible to know for sure, it still leaves a critical question unanswered: why have we not seen a mass resignation from the senior ranks of the active force?                                             
  • There seems to be a substantial difference of opinion, within the military profession, over where our professional loyalties and obligations lie -- where they begin and end. While there is total agreement with the long standing tradition of the subordination of the military to civilian authority, I offer that there is much confusion over who comprises that "civilian authority."  Based on the design of the US Constitution, the American military is subservient, first and foremost, to the General Will of the public.  This is an indirect subordination to, and service of, the public through their elected representatives.  Those elected representatives comprise not only the Executive, . . . but also the Legislative.  Where Article II subordinates the military's loyalty and obedience to the President as Commander-in-Chief, we cannot forget (or choose to ignore) that we also serve Article I, which speaks to the US military's obedience and obligations to the First Branch of government.  The rise of the Imperial Presidency during the 20th century, and the commensurate "legiscide" of the US Congress over the decades of its War Powers authorities and responsibilities have contributed to the setting of conditions in this country that now witness a dire imbalance of power and authority -- one that has allowed for a "capturing" of the American military power by the Executive Branch.  The road from republic to empire begins in this imbalance of power; an imbalance perpetuated by a rising partisanization of politics in this country and the increase in self-identification of a majority of our military officers with one political party over the other -- today, the Republican Party.  This road to imperialism, like Rome before, might be paved by our Legions, unwittingly becoming more "loyal" to Party and President than to The People and the Polity.

  • During the last two Presidential elections, it appears that neither the military profession, nor the American public, had strong objections to retired flag officers openly campaigning for and endorsing candidates.  It appears that there was no objection to the use of active duty military personnel -- and entire combat units -- as backdrops for political speeches during elections, and after, as stage props for public policy addresses. It seems there is no concern or strong objection to retired general officers, and retired officers and soldiers in-general for that matter, to serve as "consultants" and "senior military experts" for media conglomerates.  In fact with regard to the latter, we seem to applaud the participation of these retired military-media "personalities" in their expert advice-giving, and Administrations seem to have no worries when these generals are speaking to millions over the airways in the endorsement of Administration policies.  But when these generals begin to revolt in the face of questionable and suspect policies and strategies, we all tend to take a step back and gasp at what we sense as a disloyal act.  Can we have it both ways and avoid being hypocritical in the process?

Personally and professionally, it would be my preference to see the generals , upon retirement, to remain "retired" in their future participations in the politics of war policy -- to caveat their advice-givings and punditry to that of a retired citizen's opinions, and to make every attempt to dissuade the general public of their interpretation of them and what they have to offer as the representation of the military profession.  Admittedly, and equally troubling, is the reality that after serving for 30+ years in uniform, retired flag officers may truly wish to retire their uniforms and the their stars  and their power and authority once held while on active duty, only to find the public holding firm in their perceptions of them as "general" or "admiral." 

Even still, as retired officers, they are no longer a member of the profession, no longer serving under commissioned oath and obligation to the American public.  They may be "great Americans" well deserving of our admiration for being the "Good Soldier" while on active duty, but once retired, they should limit their speech and participation in the political and public debates over military policy and war strategy to that of the opinions of individual citizens, albeit with a "former" knowledge of the profession.  Conversely, I often wonder, where all of the "professionals" have gone?  Why have we not heard from more of the senior leaders currently on active duty, particularly with regard to policy, planning, and strategy toward Iraq? Why did we not hear a single word from these six generals who are now forming what some have called the "cabal" against the SecDef while they were still on active duty . . . while they were standing and sitting in the rooms where the alleged errors in judgment and decision were being made? 

Ironically, one of the only senior military leaders critical of the direction of policy and planning toward Iraq heard from while still on active duty, but not widely public since retirement has been General Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff. Perhaps his example is the one that holds most of the helpful lessons that will help guide us in our rethinking of a "new" relationship between the Soldier and the American Nation -- a new and better understanding of the right and proper role of our military in the affairs of politics and war: 

  1. The Good Soldier serves the Nation, not any single Party;
  2. The Good Soldier does his/her level best to balance their obligations to the Constitution and all three of its governing branches on behalf of meeting its obligations to the General Will of the Republic;
  3. The Good Soldier, when asked by the elected representatives of the public will answer those questions to the best of their military expert knowledge, with truth and candor, while avoiding the partisan-political aspects of the debate;
  4. The Good Soldier will "speak the truth to Power" on behalf of professional obligation even at risk to career and self;
  5. The Good Soldier, upon retirement, will "retire" all of the suasive and representative powers that come with their previous rank and status and authority, step down from the public platforms and microphones and T.V. cameras, and "fade away," leaving the politics and wars to both the politicians and their active duty generals.                                           

Perhaps we need to hear more from the generals when it counts the most -- during their tenure of professional service, when effective change is needed the most, and when errors in the making can be prevented.  Perhaps hearing from them after retirement and after the point of decision only muddies the already confusing waters for soldiers in the field, statesmen, and public alike.  There are already hints that this latest revolt is an act of defiance not just by these six former officers, but that the six could be acting as proxies for a wider group of active duty senior leaders -- that the active duty senior leadership is attempting to negotiate the unmarked mine-fields of contemporary civil-mil relations by speaking truth-to-Power, indirectly, through the retired officer community.

Who knows?  But if this is the case, perhaps that is the strongest indication that our traditional notions of the limits of if, when, where, and how our military should (must?) engage in the politics of war policy and strategy making deserve and demand an immediate reconsideration.               

Also posted on FreedomBlog



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You're being disengenuous. They can't on their own initiative speak out in public while on active service. They've got to be loyal to the mission.

They can only speak out publicly after they've retired.

As to speaking out privately to the chain of command, how do you know they didn't?

Are you so sure that the recent "revolt of the [Ret.] Generals" is about Iraq, rather than the ongoing bureaucratic debate about our incipient (or perhaps ongoing, covert) war against Iran?

I think that, as a good wonk, Isiah WILSON knows that the number of retired flags, for instance now double and triple-dipping as defense contractors, the SECDEF can muster is greater than the recent "cabal".

But, frankly, our rank-inflated, corporate military is going to have LAY/SKILLING FRANKS/RUMSFELD types at the top. That is a given, and it will make it tough for the good auditor or the good soldier alike. Moreover, it is, finally, the sole responsibility of the Congress for creating and preserving this mess long after the Great, World, and Cold War excuses for it.

If this country is headed towards imperialism, I doubt it will be under a President who hardly knows geography.

What I see today is more like an Argentine coalition of civilian concesssion-tenders and military bureaucrats who are both subservient to our international creditors and quite detached from military, political, and economic reality.

Thanks for such a thorough review of these issues. The inherent tensions you note make it tough to draw bright lines.

F'rinstance, where is the line between policy decisions and the execution of policy. On which side do you put the question of the size of force needed to occupy Iraq -- which is what got Shinseki into trouble. What about the practicability of an action? Should the military let civilians think anything conceivable is doable? (The current issue of Iran.)

Here's another, does civilian authority over promotions extend to policy (political?) tests? What effect does that have on military professionalism? These are rhetorical questions of course; I'm not sure where the line is, but I'm pretty sure it's been breached by civilians who are interested neither in advice nor practicality.

Larry Wilkerson (USA Ret.) really got the idea when he spoke about the cabal. We readers of DA are all students of US foreign policy. The ability of such a small group to be so dominant over policy doesn't square with the history of how the system works, or at least my reading of it. Yes, political control and the political nature of these decisions is indeed a core constitutional principle. Does elected or appointed office also come with a responsibility to extend some shared ownership of policy?

On the retired generals, once the uniform is off and they are outside the command chain, they're entitled to the same free speach as the rest of us. There's no reason they should withold the benefit of their experience.

If my memory is correct, people did try to tell Rumsfeld more troops would be needed. He clung innocently to his "smaller, more technologically superior" approach while those who had a good idea of what they'd really face weren't convinced. This is the kind of mistake we cannot afford again.

A well written, if lengthy discourse. I missed the BLUF, or even a BLATE.
--a large, all professional military (as opposed to just the officer corps) is new; looking at it historically is less useful than it might be thought to be.
--I question whether "politization of the military" is a precise label for a trend I personally would say is " an increasing interest in politics This reflects both the greater education level of the modern soldier and the greater awareness of the impact that politics has on them. This started in the 90's when OPTEMPO greatly increased while resources were greatly decreased".
--I personally despise the using interchangeably of "the military" with terms that more accurately are: the active duty officer corps (which has not been monolithic and has become less so during my 27 years of commissioned service); the active duty and retired officer corps (still less monolithic), the Pentagon (run by civilians as anyone who has worked high level policy knows), the military-industrial complex (still around and stronger than ever but which includes only a small number of senior military officers found on the service staffs and procurement headquarters), and the military profession, which may or not include all the above plus more.
--The alignment of many of the officer corps with the Republican Party is, I would argue, by default. Inherently conservative, as all professional organizations are (just look at teachers or doctors and their attitudes towards change), and given the disappearance of a conservative wing in the Democratic Party, where else would they go?
--I agree completely with "Personally and professionally, it would be my preference to see the generals , upon retirement, to remain "retired" in their future participations in the politics of war policy -- to caveat their advice-givings and punditry to that of a retired citizen's opinions, and to make every attempt to dissuade the general public of their interpretation of them and what they have to offer as the representation of the military profession". But, given the ego and ambition required to achieve GO/FO rank, I think it unlikely for the average (as opposed to, say, the Gary Luck's) retired GO/FO to give up access to attention and privilage.
Now I am rivaling you in length, and will sign off.

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