Generals Speaking Out

| Thu Apr. 13, 2006 2:19 PM EDT

Fred Kaplan has a good column about the recent spate of retired generals calling for Donald Rumsfeld's head. On the one hand, no one wants to see a repeat of the 1960s, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff, against their better judgment, failed to speak up and dissuade Johnson and McNamara from hurtling the country into Vietnam. If military leaders think something has gone badly awry in the Pentagon, the public should probably know.

On the other hand, it's perfect reasonable to get a bit leery when generals suddenly start speaking out against civilian government. During the 1990s the military became quite politicized—a development that Bill Clinton, ironically, helped start when he took the unprecedented step of getting endorsements from 20 retired generals in his 1992 campaign, to counteract his image as a pot-smoking draft-dodger. Just like they do now, Democrats made a fetish of men in uniforms. The flipside was that once in office, Clinton was loathe to challenge his generals—they had more credibility on security issues, after all.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The upshot was that the military enjoyed inordinate influence over a not-insignificant part of foreign policy during the '90s. Partly that was because the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 made the made the military more powerful by making the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff "principal military advisor to the president, the NSC, and the secretary of Defense." Partly that was because, by all accounts, Les Aspin and William Perry were relatively aloof and inattentive Defense Secretaries.

Whatever the cause, the military seemed to have more sway than usual. Colin Powell felt free to write a Foreign Affairs article describing "his" foreign policy in 1993 and the military went into open revolt over lettings gays in the military. Later on, the Joint Chiefs opposed the land-mine treaty because it would hurt our readiness in North Korea; they opposed the International Criminal Court for fear that U.S. soldiers could be prosecuted—an unlikely event, but whatever; they opposed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and pushed for missile defense systems over the objections of the rest of the world; they opposed the ban on child soldiers. And the president caved on all of these issues.

Meanwhile, as Dana Priest reported in her excellent book, The Mission, regional Commanders-in-Chief were essentially handling diplomacy in their little parts of the world, as State Department funding dwindled and no one attempted to rein them in. And, as Andrew Bacevich has noted, during the 1990s there was the odd spectacle of more and more retired generals appearing on television to criticize the president, and the politicization of the officer corps.

Now it's a very large leap from a couple of retired generals speaking out against a disastrous Secretary of Defense after a long reticence to the creation of a full-blown military state. I don't think there will be a coup tomorrow. Certainly many active generals take civilian control of the military very seriously—Kaplan notes that many of them remember what happened when Gen. Douglas MacArthur tried to force a public showdown with Harry Truman. And if a bit of grumbling gets Rumsfeld fire, that would be a good thing—although presumably Bush would just replace him with someone equally disastrous. Still, there's decent reason to worry about the scenario Kaplan sketches here:

Rumsfeld's arrogance, his "casualness and swagger" as Gen. Newbold put it—which have caused so many strategic blunders, so much death and disaster—have started to tip some officers over the edge. They may prove a good influence in the short run. But if Rumsfeld resists their encroachments and fights back, the whole hierarchy of command could implode as officers feel compelled not merely to stay silent but to choose one side or the other. And if the rebel officers win, they might find they like the taste of bureaucratic victory—and feel less constrained to renew the internecine combat when other, less momentous disputes arise in the future.

Maybe he's just worrying too much. It seems like it would be better not to find out.