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Physical Courage, Moral Courage and American Generals


Men who rise to the top of the American military are usually men who, in the old fashioned phrase, have faced shot and shell. Their physical courage is not to be questioned.

There is, however, another type of courage, moral courage. This, as I understand it, is the courage to do and say what is right, or what you truly believe, even though you will catch several different kinds of hell for doing or saying it.

Moral courage is not something this writer understood in his younger days. For he was raised by semi-socialistic immigrant advocates of social justice, who taught that one should always do and say what is right and the world will respect you for it. So doing and saying what was right was not a matter of courage. It was simply the way one acted and spoke.

After awhile, of course, the first generation American learns that this philosophy is usually just foolishness and self destructive in America. Here, doing and saying what is right does not gain one respect. Instead, it leads to getting smacked in the head The smack may be professional, may be social, can sometimes even be physical one guesses. Because of it, there is such a thing as moral courage.

Moral courage is one of the matters at issue, or at stake, in the recent criticism of Donald Rumsfeld by several generals. As all readers must know, a small number of retired military men have begun speaking out against him. This is contrary to the usual military ethos, to the ethos that generally governs not just those on active duty, but the retired as well. Other retired officers are said to be wrestling with their consciences about whether to speak out. And at least one of those who has spoken out, Gregory Newbold, says he advocated against the Iraq war while still on active duty, though he did so strictly internally, strictly within the government.

Given the prevailing military ethos, to speak out publicly, even when retired, is an act of moral courage. It likewise is an act of moral courage to speak out internally when still on active duty. For this, as all military men know, can be professional suicide — is likely to be professional suicide. And to speak out publicly while on active duty, well, that is moral courage of the highest degree, as shown by the example of Eric Shinseki–who was right and suffered accordingly.

There is in this country something of a small tradition of occasional moral courage involving the military. Lincoln showed it when he rightly or wrongly kept McClellan, despite enormous pressure to get rid of a man incompetent in battle, because he thought McClellan was the only man then capable of whipping the Army of the Potomac back into shape after Lee had smashed it yet again. Grant showed it when he turned south after the Wilderness and then continually pressed on, despite the horrible casualties, because he knew this was the way to win the Civil War. Billy Mitchell showed moral courage, to the point of destruction of his career. Eisenhower showed moral courage on June 5, 1944, when he gave the command to go the next day. Truman showed it when he fired MacArthur and brought down upon his own head the deluge.

And there have been failures of moral courage in the military as well. This was exemplified when so many Union commanders would not press onwards in the Civil War. It was exemplified á outrance in the Viet Nam war, when commanders would not speak out against the folly of what was being done. Not for nothing is one of the most significant and now famous lapses of moral courage in American military history the story of Harold K. Johnson, Army Chief of Staff from 1964 to 1968. A man of enormous physical valor, Harold Johnson did not agree with Lyndon Johnson’s method of fighting the Viet Namese war. He got in his chauffeured car to drive to the White House and resign in protest. But before getting there he turned around, having convinced himself that his resignation would only mean he would be replaced by someone more pliable — a version of the ever present excuse that “If I resign, someone worse will take my place.” Johnson later counted his failure to resign that day “‘the greatest moral failure of my life.'”

Of course, moral courage is not the only consideration when the question is whether a top military man should speak out publicly. It is not the only consideration even for those relatively few who have it, and who are willing to risk their reputations and, if they are still on active duty, their careers in order to say what needs to be said. Two other considerations are often mentioned. One is that public silence — simply going along — gives the public confidence that the military is non-political. This, however, is nonsense. The military is ninety percent Republican and everyone knows it. Perversely, and though I don’t personally believe it, silence about Iraq could lead people to think the military is political — to think the high brass is currently remaining silent to protect the Republicans, whom the military overwhelmingly favors, and whose leaders got us into the horrible mess in Iraq.

The question whether the military is political is, in reality, quite a different one than merely whether it speaks out. It is, rather, whether it follows orders regardless of its own views.

The other, perhaps even more important consideration is civilian control of the military. This principle seems to be deeply respected in the military, and is essential to a democracy. It is felt that speaking out against civilian masters jeopardizes the principle. There is a lot to this, at least if people speak out while remaining on active duty. Once they retire, though, there does not seem to be so much to it, especially if it is thought, as it probably should be thought, that one must retire before speaking out against the civilian leadership. In exemplification of moral courage, one should retire and speak publicly if one feels the civilians’ errors are of sufficient magnitude–like invading Iraq with only about 125,000 or 150,000 troops.

There are certain ironies, or paradoxes, or contradictions which attend the questions of a political military and civilian control. One is that, even though the active duty military is not political in the sense of speaking out against civilian superiors, it nonetheless is very political, perhaps dangerously so, in another way. Because of our extensive involvements all over the world — one has read that we have over 700 foreign bases and installations — high representatives of the military are in constant contact with other nations, including, of course, other nations’ military establishments. In this continuous contact the military sometimes conducts what can be considered its own independent foreign policy, a policy which may at times be different than that of its civilian masters. If memory serves, Andrew Bacevich thinks that the retired General Zinni, one of Rumsfeld’s (long time) severe critics, was virtually a proconsul when he was the head of Centcom, the command which fights our wars in the Mideast. Admiral William Fallon, the current head of U.S. Pacific Command, is said to be conducting a policy toward China that is far less hostile than the stance of his civilian superiors. Very possibly, Admiral Fallon’s ideas are much wiser than those of Bush, Cheney, Rice, et. al. That would not change the fact that they are different.

So, despite the desire to honor them, it would appear that the principle of not being political and the principle of civilian control of the military are both violated in the field of foreign affairs.

The other irony or paradox or contradiction relates to the object of the current outpouring of criticism. Its target has been Rumsfeld. But, as arrogant as he may be, and as personally obnoxious to deal with as he may be, he is not the true culprit here. The true culprits are his superiors, Bush and Cheney. They wanted to get rid of Saddam (as Rumsfeld admittedly did also), but knew that the country would not swallow a huge commitment of half a million men, a commitment too reminiscent of Viet Nam. So it was really they who needed and demanded the too small force for which Rumsfeld is now taking all the heat — and who told the country to go about its normal business as if nothing were happening. So, if the current military criticism were to truly be accurate, it would, like Harold Johnson’s aborted action, be directed against the President (and Vice President), not against Rumsfeld, or at least not against Rumsfeld alone.

Of course, directing criticism against those who bear the true responsibility, Bush and Cheney, would be an even more serious inroad upon the principle of not appearing political and the principle of civilian control. On the other side, if one truly has the moral courage to speak out, as so few do, one should direct one’s comments at those who truly bear primary responsibility for the disaster that is Iraq, not just at one who bears subordinate responsibility. Still more true is this when the critic is a retired military officer.

LAWRENCE R. VELVEL is the Dean of Massachusetts School of Law. He can be reached at



Lawrence Velvel, dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, is the author of Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam and An Enemy of the People. He can be reached at:

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