U.S. Military Leaders should be encouraged to speak publicly about Afghanistan and other military matters.
Do U.S. military leaders have a right to speak publicly about wartime requirements and defense policy? A growing number of commentators, on both the left and the right, say that they do not.
Generals need to “shut up and salute,” writes Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. The only thing that they should say publicly is “Yes, Mr. President.”
National Review contributor Mackubin Thomas Owens agrees. Speaking outside of the military chain of command is a “serious problem,” Owens says. McChrystal’s actions reflect a “widespread belief among military officers that they should be advocates of particular policies rather than simply serve in their traditional advisory role.”
“It’s better for military advice to come up through the chain of command,” counsels the National Security Adviser, General James L. Jones.
“It is imperative,” adds Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “that all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians and military alike, provide our best advice to the president, candidly but privately [emphasis added].”
Gates never explains why it is “imperative” that American military leaders refrain from speaking publicly about Afghanistan; but his predilection for secrecy is lamentable and well documented. To decide the fate of last year’s defense budget, for instance, Gates convened a series of secret budget tribunals, while forcing senior military leaders to sign secrecy oaths.
Secretary Gates may have meant well, but his actions concerning the budget were profoundly un-American and antithetical to the spirit of American democracy, which is predicated upon democratic self-rule, or rule by the people. Secrecy, silence and censorship may make life easier for government officials; but they hinder public discussion and public debate, which are integral to wise and sound decision-making and good public policy.
The United States doesn’t suffer from too much free speech and analysis of defense issues; quite the contrary: It suffers from too much public ignorance and apathy about U.S. military requirements. For a democratic republic such as ours, which depends upon an informed and educated citizenry, this is a real problem.
That’s why it is imperative that U.S. military leaders speak publicly and often about wartime requirements and defense policy — not to advocate particular policies, which they should not do, but rather to inform and educate the public.
This is exactly what General McChrystal has done, and he should be commended for thoughtfully engaging the public dialogue. The United States, after all, prides itself on having an educated and professional military. Thus, U.S. military leaders are not mere functionaries. They are not robotic automatons who mindlessly follow orders.
U.S. military leaders follow orders, of course. But they also think, cogitate and analyze; partake in professional military forums; and write for professional military journals — and we rightly expect this of them. The professionalization and education of the United States military is one of its defining characteristics, and thank goodness for that.
That General McChrystal’s analysis may have, and surely does have, political ramifications is of no concern to him, nor should that be his concern. The general is a wartime military commander, not a politician. His job, as I explained previously in The American Spectator, is to “report the facts as he sees them — and to do so without favor or prejudice, and without fear or concern for any potential political ramifications back home.”
The political questions are best left to the politicians and the pundits. But the military facts on the ground in Afghanistan, and what must be done to remedy the situation there, certainly fall within McChrystal’s purview of responsibility and expertise.
If the general’s honest assessment of the situation in Afghanistan has political ramifications, then so be it; but that is not a legitimate reason for the Secretary of Defense to try and censor McChrystal’s public pronouncements. It is, instead, a reason for the American people and their elected representatives to become more engaged in the public policy process — so that their views and their will can be heeded. In America, remember, the people rule.
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H/T to National Review Online