Pro-administration pundits are trying to stifle a group of retired generals who are calling for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign. These pundits argue that such criticism undermines the principle of civilian control over the military. In fact, the republic benefits from such outspoken behavior.
Civilian control of the military is crucial to the preservation of a free republic. Powerful militaries that become politicized have a long history of wrecking democracies. Even in the United States, where the military has stayed, thankfully, fairly nonpolitical, President Truman properly fired the cocky Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination during the Korean War. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had previously declared MacArthur to be the single most dangerous man in America.
More recently, both Gen. Richard Myers and Gen. Peter Pace acted as cheerleaders for U.S. policy in Iraq, in their consecutive roles as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As the nation’s most senior military advisors, they are moving from giving advice on military matters into the dangerous political realm of publicly advocating policy. Of course, General Pace is unlikely to get fired over his recent comments that the Iraq intervention was going swimmingly. Putting the obvious question of credibility aside, the real question is whether General Pace should be a shill for the policies of any administration. The answer should be a resounding “no.”
Some may argue that as a critic of the war, I am adopting a double standard–”welcoming the retired generals’ advocacy of sacking Rumsfeld, yet deeming improper the “rah-rah” support of the war by generals on active duty. But just as I believe General Pace should resign for his comments, I would argue that any active duty general who has the audacity to speak out against the war should also be sacked. The difference is that retired generals are, well, retired and should be allowed to express political opinions just like any other civilian citizen. The public debate benefits from their prior military expertise, whether they are for or against the continuation of the war. For example, to rebut the accusations of the critical retired generals, the now-retired General Myers recently made the self-serving assertion that Rumsfeld never intimidated members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during planning for the Iraq War. Myers’s comments are perfectly permissible, even if his credibility is suspect. When active generals publicly praise or criticize the policy of any presidential administration (it’s OK to provide private military advice), it may also enhance public debate but such benefit is overshadowed by the politicization of the military. That politicization undermines civilian control over the armed forces.
If active generals oppose the policy of any administration so much that they are beside themselves, they should resist going public until after they resign. As private citizens, they are no longer in the chain of military command and should be able to say anything they want.
But what if, as many believe, the retired generals are acting as a mouthpiece for the widespread dissatisfaction among active officers under Rumsfeld, because of his domineering management style and his incompetent handling of Iraq? This outcome is optimal for the republic because it alerts the public that many active military experts are critical of the administration’s performance, but does not undermine civilian control over the armed forces by having active military officers publicly criticizing their civilian leadership. Active officers have no hold over the views and statements of retirees, but may very well be in agreement with them.
Perhaps one could ask why many of these retired generals have not taken a principled stand sooner. But, better late than never. Maybe they should even call for their former colleague, General Pace, to join Donald Rumsfeld in the unemployment line.