Army Career Behind Him, General Speaks Out on Iraq
ROCHESTER, NY - John Batiste has traveled a long way in the last four years, from commanding the First Infantry Division in Iraq to quitting the Army after three decades in uniform and, now, from his new life overseeing a steel factory here, to openly challenging President Bush on his management of the war.
"Mr. President, you did not listen," General Batiste says in new television advertisements being broadcast in Republican Congressional districts as part of a $500,000 campaign financed by VoteVets.org. "You continue to pursue a failed strategy that is breaking our great Army and Marine Corps. I left the Army in protest in order to speak out. Mr. President, you have placed our nation in peril. Our only hope is that Congress will act now to protect our fighting men and women."
Those are powerful, inflammatory words from General Batiste, a retired major general who spent 31 years in the Army, a profession sworn to unflinching loyalty to civilian control of the military. Many senior officers say privately that talk like this makes them uncomfortable; when you pin that first star on your shoulder, they say, your first name becomes "General" for the rest of your life.
But General Batiste says he has received no phone calls, letters or messages from current or former officers challenging his public stance, although he occasionally gets an anonymous e-mail message with the heading "Traitor." Having quit the Army in anger at what he calls mismanagement of the Iraq war, he says he chose a second career far from Washington and the Pentagon so that he could speak freely on military issues.
"I am outraged, as are the majority of Americans," General Batiste said over sandwiches in a blue-collar diner here. "I am a lifelong Republican. But it is past time for change."
A White House spokeswoman, Emily Lawrimore, said in response to the advertising, "We respectfully disagree." Ms. Lawrimore said President Bush conferred routinely with senior officers, citing a three-hour meeting on Thursday with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a conversation earlier in the week with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior American commander in Iraq.
"The decisions the president has made have been based on information he receives from commanders and generals on the ground," she added.
A conversation with General Batiste offers one more window into the debate on Iraq. While some former commanders, like General Batiste, have been speaking out against the war, others, such as Gen. Jack Keane, the retired Army vice chief of staff, have offered advice to the White House on Iraq.
General Batiste said he chose to go public with his critique of the war effort only after 30 years of honoring the Army's rules of silence. He said it was that time commanding 22,000 troops in combat, in 2004 and 2005, that convinced him that American fighting in Iraq was short of vision as well as troops.
"There was never enough. There was never a reserve," he said. "Again and again, we had to move troops by as many as 200 miles out of our area of operations to support another sector. We would pull troops out of contact with the enemy and move them into contact with the enemy somewhere else. The minute we'd leave, the insurgents would pick up on that, and kill everybody who had been friendly."
General Batiste was among a handful of retired generals first calling last year for the resignation of Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary. He says he realizes lending his name to television advertisements aimed at the president and Republican members of Congress in an election cycle is different.
Officials of VoteVets.org, an Internet-based veterans advocacy organization, say the television spots will run in the home districts of more than a dozen members of Congress, among them Senator John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who, as former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is considered one of Capitol Hill's experts on the military.
"Like other citizens, retired generals have the constitutional right to engage in robust debate on one of the most important issues of our time," said John Ullyot, the senator's spokesman. "Senator Warner appreciates hearing from people on all sides of the debate, and Virginians have a clear understanding of his views on Iraq."
VoteVets.org says it has tried to calibrate its message carefully, although there is a limit to the nuance that can fit into 30-second television spots. (Two other retired generals, Paul D. Eaton and Wesley K. Clark, speak in the campaign's other advertisements.)
As described by General Batiste, the message is not antiwar; it argues that continuing the war in Iraq as a civil, sectarian conflict that cannot be won by outside forces is crippling the Army and the Marine Corps. It does not deny the danger of violent Islamic extremism, he says, but contends that the war in Iraq prevents the armed services from preparing to battle other global security threats.
And it says that if terrorism, and especially terrorists armed with unconventional weapons, truly threaten America's very survival, then the rest of the country - not just the military - should be called to sacrifice.
On Thursday, General Batiste drove from the steel factory he now runs to a veterans' center where he is president of a nonprofit association of local business leaders who support veterans in the region. He parked behind a shop selling American flags (sales are up 42 percent over last year, with profits going to aid veterans).
"In the Army, you communicate up the chain of command, and I communicated vehemently with my senior commanders while I was in Iraq," he said. Of his departure from the Army, he said: "It was the toughest decision of my life. I paced my quarters for days. I didn't sleep for nights. But I was not willing to compromise my principles for one more minute."
[CBS announced this week that it was terminating its contract with General Batiste as a consultant because of the advertisements.]
His retirement from the Army in November 2005 meant turning his back on a third star and command of day-to-day combat missions in Iraq, the No. 2 military position in Baghdad. Having cast aside his military career, General Batiste cast his eyes away from the defense industry to join Klein Steel Service, which cuts and processes steel for commercial, civilian enterprises - and does no military work.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company