Candor or Career?

Richard Cohen’s April 11 column in the Washington Post (“Vietnam’s Forgotten Lessons”) focuses on the relatively rare public criticism by retired general officers of anything associated with military service–especially of any operation in which hostile fire might be directed at U.S. forces.

The retired flag-rank officers–Marine General Anthony Zini, who ran Central Command which is responsible for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq; Marine Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold, the Operations Officer for the Joint Staff (J-3) until three months before the Iraq invasion began; Army Major General Paul Eton, chief of Iraqi security forces training efforts; and then on April 13, Army Major General Batiste, commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004-2005–all called for President Bush to fire Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

In subsequent interviews, Zini asserts that the unformed services are “broken.” In itself, this is not a revelation–except that Zini doesn’t mean “broken” as in equipment or structure or unit morale. Zini sees the breakdown in moral terms, with senior officers so concerned about their careers that they refuse to oppose operations that they know are ill-conceived. The fate of Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki is always “Exhibit A” anytime the subject of “candor or career” is raised. (Shinseki, who had opposed an early Rumsfeld plan to eliminate two army divisions, was effectively marginalized for the last half of his tenure as Chief off Staff after telling Congress that a few hundred thousand ground troops would be needed to occupy and pacify Iraq, an assessment that both Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, ridiculed.)

If Zini’s analysis is accurate, the “breaking” of the U.S. military is much more critical than the public realizes or policy-makers admit. Why? Because such self-interested careerism, once let loose in the one institution of a democracy that is the least democratic and the most potentially destructive organization of all, becomes the seedbed of plots, counterplots, cabals, and even coups. It is precisely to dampen unwarranted careerism without stifling initiative and the quest for professional excellence that potential officers are drilled in the doctrine of civilian control of the military and officers, when commissioned, swear their loyalty to the Constitution, not to an individual, an office, or one branch of the government to the exclusion of the other two.

The formula of civilian leadership in military affairs has worked for 223 years, back further even than the Constitution that enshrines the principle in Article II. The nearest the nascent United States came to a military coup was 1783 when officers of the victorious Continental Army threatened to invade Philadelphia and hold Congress hostage until they were paid for their years of service. The disgruntled ex-officers assembled in Newburgh, NY, not far from West Point. There George Washington accosted them, spoke of the shared years of toil and despair that finally turned into victory, and reminded them that the war they had won was fought to repudiate the very militarism they were then contemplating.

To be sure, there have been instances when policy differences between presidents and generals have spilled into public or personality clashes have deteriorated into personal attacks through various surrogates. Two relationships deserve particular mention for what they say about civilian-military interactions.

During the U.S. Civil War, Abraham Lincoln endured the disdain of many in his war cabinet and among senior officers for his lack of military experience (among other “shortfalls”). George McClellan, who commanded the Army of the Potomac in 1861-1863, famously snubbed Lincoln in 1863 when the president unexpectedly visited McClellan’s headquarters. When McClellan failed to pursue the retreating Confederates after Antietam, Lincoln tersely wrote: “If you don’t wish to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a while.” McClellan, whose relations with the press were also contentious, relinquished his command on November 9, 1863. Oddly, McClellan, who was the Democrat’s presidential hopeful against Lincoln in the 1864 contest, did not resign his commission until election day.

More recent is the Truman-Douglas MacArthur imbroglio over the latter’s very public disagreement with Truman on the conduct of the Korean War. When China entered the war in reaction to UN troop advances to the Yalu River–the boundary between North Korea and China–MacArthur wanted discretionary authority to launch air strikes, including atomic bombs, against China. When Truman refused, MacArthur went public, decrying the decision and questioning Truman’s competency. Truman recalled MacArthur and relieved him of command. With one last rhetorical triumph before a joint session of Congress and a ticker-tape parade, MacArthur, like the old soldier he was, slowly “just faded away.”

(Ironically, right after hostilities began in June 1950, Truman had approved contingency plans that included atomic weapons should the Soviets join the fight on the North Korean side. At about the same time that he relieved MacArthur, Truman also authorized bombing Manchurian airfields in the event the Chinese launched air attacks from those fields or attacked U.S. forces in Japan.)

In a fundamental way perhaps not fully appreciated at the time of its writing, the Constitution’s division of powers with regard to military affairs helped contain the militaristic spirit that would “bubble up” in wartime when civilian control was most at risk. On one side there was often the lament that inexperienced civilians, once they declare war, should (but rarely do) get out of the way so the generals and admirals can get on with the fight. The generals, after all, had the “principles of war” as their guide.

Conversely, sentiment among civilian politicians held that war was too important to be left to the generals because, in the heat of campaigning, they might lose sight of the dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means and, at war’s end, politics resumes. And the fact that the needed wartime expansion of the professional army relied on militias and volunteers who, at war’s end, wanted nothing more than to get back to civilian pursuits, ensured that the warrior ethos would not dominate the democratic ethos.

Post-World War II saw all that change, for with the retention of a large standing armed force came inevitably the rise of powerful economic interests whose prosperity–even survival–required a re-orientation of society’s perception of the military and ultimately of society itself. Moreover, the permanently large structure of the military and its development with industry of cutting-edge technology blurred the previous clear demarcation of civilian and military.

But the result of this blurring had a counter-intuitive result: the civilians in charge became more militaristic while–almost in self-defense–the generals and admirals became “civilianized.” In such circumstances, given a determined Secretary of Defense, the “system” unconsciously drove those in uniform into an unhealthy if not unseemly reticence to challenge questionable “military” decisions and directives from the civilians.

When confronted with faulty decisions and directives, active duty officers confront a dilemma: to retire or resign or try to wait out the civilian incumbent and be in a position to pick up the pieces. Given the turn-over in the defense secretary’s position–Donald Rumsfeld is the 21st in 59 years–it is not unreasonable for a major general or rear admiral (two stars) to calculate he or she will be a three or four star officer able to influence events under a new secretary.

There are at least two problems with this calculus. It ignores the fact that the underlying shortfall might not lie with the civilian personality in the secretary’s chair but with the orientation of the incumbent administration and its policies. And that orientation may well be coming right from the president or, worse, from a series of semi-independent power centers, including some outside the administration.

Second, this approach ignores the reality that, especially in military affairs, nothing is static. So a current, unsatisfactory situation may have deteriorated even further, potentially “breaking” one or more parts of the military structure. And it strikes me (a retired colonel) that those who stay silent on the premise that they will be able to reform or save the institution are suffering a bout of Greek hubris.

A related point, one that Cohen overlooks in calling careerism a stumbling bloc to candor, is that two, three, or four star generals or admirals who have been in-grade for two years or more can “go public,” submit their resignation, and receive pay and benefits no less than for 2-stars. (Three and 4 star base retired pay is the same because of pay caps Congress imposed on senior civilians and military personnel.) Yes, it is a hard slough to get to the top ranks, but it would seem that the very traits of command leadership that were rewarded by promotion to the senior ranks should not suddenly disappear or be muted when confronted by poor strategy or bad tactics.

What keeps senior active duty officers from public principled protest may be found in the life of General Harold K. Johnson, Army Chief of Staff from July 1964 to July 1968–a period that encompassed the introduction of U.S. military units into Vietnam, the tenure of General William Westmoreland as senior U.S. military commander in Vietnam, and the 1968 Tet offensive. While Westmoreland insisted on running large unit search and destroy missions, Johnson’s professional instincts impelled him to call for an intensified classic counterinsurgency response to Vietcong and North Vietnamese attacks. A year-long in-house Army study, completed in March 1966, validated Johnson, but the Joint Chiefs would not endorse the conclusions for fear an endorsement might be interpreted as interfering with a field commander’s prerogatives.

According to his biographer, Johnson several times had contemplated resigning and going public with his criticism of Lyndon Johnson and Westmoreland’s handling of the war. What stopped him was a conviction he could do more good by staying on active duty. “Resignation would be a meaningless act, making at best a brief splash in the newspapers, then quickly forgotten, while others more amenable would be brought in to do the Administration’s bidding.”

Only near the end of his life did Johnson change his perspective. For what it might say about moral choice to today’s active duty generals and admirals as they struggle with the dilemma of supporting or rejecting publicly the administration’s handling of Iraq, the following excerpt from an article by biographer Lewis Sorley in the U.S. Army War College’s Spring 1998 issue of Parameters is worth quoting in full.

“[A]sked, ‘if you had to live your life over again, what would you do different?’

“General Johnson responded by observing that there are sins of omission and sins of commission. He recalled that the Army had reached down quite a few files to make him
Chief of Staff, and said he believed that the Lord had pulled him up to do a job. He spoke of resignation in protest, asking, ‘Was that the job He wanted me to do?’

“Then, very quietly, Johnson spoke of the conclusion he had reached. ‘I remember the day I was ready to go over to the Oval Office and give my four stars to the President and tell him, ‘You have refused to tell the country they cannot fight a war without mobilization; you have required me to send men into battle with little hope of their ultimate victory; and you have forced us in the military to violate almost every one of the principles of war in Vietnam. Therefore, I resign and will hold a press conference after I walk out of your door.”

“Then, added Johnson with a look of anguish, ‘I made the typical mistake of believing I could do more for the country and the Army if I stayed in than if I got out. I am now going to my grave with that lapse in moral courage on my back.'”

Col. Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest. He can be reached at: