A lot of us are hoping that the retired generals who are criticizing Defense Secretary Rumsfeld will prevail. That’s because we think–or hope–that they have the right views about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, about the huge strategic mistakes that were made at the beginning of the Iraq war, about the value of changing civilian leaders right now, and about the folly of a preemptive attack on Iran. However, we don’t know the full story, so we cannot tell whether they are actually on the right side of these questions. More important, in some future debate, the uniformed military could be wrong and the appointed civilians in the Pentagon could be right. So whether and when generals should criticize political leaders–a question that evidently vexes them more than anyone–should be considered as a general matter of constitutional design, and not simply in response to recent news.
I think several conflicting principles come into play:
1 Discipline. Although members of the armed forces must disobey patently illegal orders, they must obey all other orders without delay or public dissent that might undermine discipline. The rationale is that a military organization cannot be effective unless everyone does his part without trying to play commander-in-chief. One could, however, raise questions about whether that is the best organizational model in the 21st century. Further, it is unclear whether the demands of discipline apply to retired officers and to those who resign in order to dissent. Retired General John Batiste explains that he couldn’t critize Rumsfeld if he were “still in uniform. … I would be arrested.” Even so, he calls his criticism “gut-wrenching, the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life.”
2. Civilian control. The armed forces have the power to govern but no legitimate right to do so. To control them, we count on constitutional rules plus a strong tradition of deference to civilian leaders. The US armed forces are proud of that deference. General Richard Myers says, “In our system, when it’s all said and done . . . civilians make the decisions. And we live by those decisions.” If generals publicly criticize elected or appointed leaders in a way that changes the political situation, they have challenged civilian control. That has happened many times in the past, e.g., on issues like gays in the military and the procurement of weapons systems. Still, criticizing a Secretary of Defense for his handling of an ongoing war escalates the military/civilian struggle in a way that makes some uniformed officers uncomfortable–and for good reason.
3. Professionalism. A true profession is a defined group that has a legally sanctioned monopoly on certain rights and privileges. In return, its members must follow an elaborate ethical code and both unwritten and unwritten norms. Commissioned military officers are certainly professionals in that sense. Thus, on one hand, they ought to resign and complain rather than do things that violate their professional norms. On the other hand, those norms include discipline and deference to civilian leadership (see above). On such questions as the treatment of detainees, the two aspects of military professionalism have collided.
4. Public deliberation. The ultimate source of legitimate power is not the civilian leadership but the people. We citizens have an obligation to deliberate with good information. Candid comments by retired (or serving) officers could be an excellent source of insights and advice. On the other hand, generals can abuse their credibility by providing selective accounts of secret meetings or by claiming authority on the basis of their own service records.
5. Expertise. Uniformed officers are experts on fighting wars–more so than people like Dick Cheney, who has never been on a battlefield. Expertise is valuable and deserves respect. However, deference to experts always requires several demanding assumptions: (a) they are trustworthy and speak in the national interest; (b) they are reliable and have not succumbed to group-think or closed horizons; and (c) their expertise is about the right topics. In a complex situation like the Iraq conflict, expertise in war-fighting is not enough: you also have to understand various Iraqi cultures, diplomatic processes and techniques, nation-building, economics, and so on. If military expertise dominates, bad planning can result.
6. Policy versus implementation. In rebutting the dissident generals, the administration has argued that the President and his advisors made a decision about broad policy, for which they were accountable to Congress and the voters. They decided to invade; the generals then made the plan for implementing the invasion. This is the same distinction that has been used throughout the executive branch since the 1930s. We are said to live in a democracy, even though appointed experts hold enormous power, because they merely make tactical or technical decisions about implementation, whereas elected leaders set all the strategies and goals. However, a case like the Iraq war shows that no clear lines can be drawn between strategy and tactics or between policy and implementation.
7. A record of personal sacrifice. Military officers gain a huge rhetorical advantage from having volunteered for a job that doesn’t pay well, that involves hardships, and that puts them in danger. Retired General Greg Newbold has written, “My sincere view is that the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions — or bury the results.” I find that persuasive, but then again, I agree with the substance of his comment. When generals said that Clinton was allowing gays in the military even though he had been too cowardly to serve himself, they were using their bona fides for a bad cause. We have to be careful to honor service without necessarily agreeing with everything a veteran says.