Published on Sunday, April 16, 2006 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Retired Generals Rising Up Against Iraq War
Alexis de Tocqueville once remarked that in a democracy, the greatest pacifists are the generals. In America, this has often been true but rarely obvious. Our time-honored and intense tradition of civilian supremacy means that senior officers, active or retired, rarely express misgivings or dissenting opinions in public -- certainly not while a war is going on.
And yet, since mid-March, we have witnessed a veritable "Revolt of the Generals," a situation having nothing to do with men on horseback but, potentially, a great deal to do with offering some perspective and restoring some sanity to this increasingly war-weary republic.
Retired generals are speaking out against this war and the civilian leadership that thought it up and messed it up. Retired, yes. But all senior generals are (or at least consider themselves) members of a rather exclusive club, and when they speak out, it's not impossible that they express the opinions of their active peers.
The list is impressive. In a New York Times op-ed column, retired Major Gen. Paul Eaton, who helped revive the Iraqi army, described Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as "incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically" and called for his resignation. Retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency and now a Yale professor, said in a speech covered by the Providence Journal that America's invasion of Iraq might be the worst strategic mistake in American history.
Publicizing his book, "The Battle for Peace," in a recent "Meet the Press" appearance, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, a four-star former commander of the Central Command, describes administration behavior that ranged from "true dereliction, negligence and irresponsibility" to "lying, incompetence and corruption." Another Marine, retired Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, has written in Time magazine that the Iraq war was unnecessary. Finally, Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor and Michael Gordon have written a history of the invasion of Iraq, Cobra II, which describes a willfully self-deluding planning process.
Now, on CNN, Maj. Gen. John Batiste also called for Rumsfeld's resignation; the Washington Post reported that Batiste, commander of the First Infantry Division in Iraq during 2004-2005, turned down a third star and a tour in Iraq as the second-ranking U.S. military officer there. He retired rather than continue to work for Rumsfeld.
In one sense, this "revolt" is the last act of the Vietnam War. The current generation of generals served as junior officers during Vietnam, where they swore that, when they held the senior positions, they would never collapse before civilian delusion and zealotry, as had so many of that era's leaders. They sensed, back then, a moral rot at the top. Zinni took to heart the day he was shot three times in Vietnam, and promised that if he lived, he would always say what he thought was right. He has. An early opponent of the Iraq war, he was called a "traitor" by the White House. Now Newbold, who served as director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff until October 2002, cites an old anti-Vietnam song, "Won't Get Fooled Again" and concludes: We were.
But in a larger sense, this revolt may portend the genesis of a fundamental shift in civil-military relations. These officers speak out of their own experience and professional judgment, but they are speaking as citizens to other citizens. They're offering more than talking head sound bites. And they're performing a vital service.
No one is arguing for active duty insubordination. Officers who cannot support the policy they are called upon to carry out should resign. Few do. Some are deterred by post-retirement employment considerations. Many refuse this option because they consider it tantamount to abandoning troops in the field. Others know that influence evanesces once you step down. And others don't do it because it's rarely been done.
Now we are seeing the beginnings of a possibility that transcends protest: the chance for such officers to educate the American people. And if this is happening, it may be just another sign of the military reconnecting with American culture and society in some very unexpected ways. Other indicators are a wave of quality books coming out by young veterans and military wives; dozens of veterans running for office, generally as Democrats; and the military's growing respect for servicewomen and gay people. This is an enormously healthy development, provided America recognizes it as such.
For this reconnection to happen, American society must be willing to shed its preconceptions and prejudices, especially the too-common stereotype of the military as a bunch of right-wing, evangelical nuts, and do something very unusual in this society.
Erin Solaro reported for the Seattle P-I from Iraq and Afghanistan. Her new book, "Women in the Line of Fire," will be published by Seal Press in August.
© 2006 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer