Special Report

Generals Behaving Badly

The merits of civilian control of the military.

By 4.19.06

One of the more surreal moments of the 2004 presidential campaign came when retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, then a candidate vying for the Democratic nomination, derided Sen. John Kerry for only having attained the rank of lieutenant while serving in the Navy. Kerry responded to the rank-pulling in an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes, calling Clark "dismissive of lieutenants, who bleed a lot in wars." What he could have added is that privates, corporals, and specialists bleed even more.

Aside from the ludicrousness of the proposition that achieving the status of a flag officer entitles someone to hold elective office in their retired years -- or even that successfully navigating the military officer promotion maze is per se a qualification for the presidency -- Clark's comments belied a certain frustration with the civilian world, where a mere company grade officer pipsqueak could hog his glory and dare suggest an equivalence in their military service. It was all too reminiscent of Richard Neustadt's classic Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, in which President Harry Truman, pondering his potential succession in the Oval Office by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, is quoted as saying, "Poor Ike -- it won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating."

Besides sparring with Kerry, candidate Clark also found time during the Democratic primaries to call for the resignation of another former Navy officer junior to him in rank, retired reserve Capt. Donald Rumsfeld. It seems Rumsfeld was the second consecutive defense secretary who failed to live up to Clark's lofty standards. Four years earlier, the general's well-documented friction with William Cohen had prompted the premature end to Clark's NATO command.

Over a year into President Bush's second term, Clark has now been joined by seven (at last count) fellow retired general officers calling for the defense secretary's ouster. The crux of the charge levied against Rumsfeld seems to be that the secretary's reportedly massive ego has offended some other important folks' massive egos. According to retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, Rumsfeld is "arrogant," "abusive," and an inept team-builder.

These retired generals, of course, can say pretty much anything they want. Having "Ret." as a suffix is more or less a license to pontificate at will. The generals don't have to fret too hard about Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which makes "contemptuous words" against the secretary of defense punishable by up to one year in prison. Although it's theoretically possible to recall a retiree to active duty for the purpose of court-martial, that's about as likely in this case as is an abject apology from Rumsfeld for offending his accusers' delicate sensibilities.

So the question is not so much what the generals can say, but about how much we should listen.

FIRST OFF, IT'S CERTAINLY NO SURPRISE that the President's political opponents swarmed all over this story like vultures on a newfound carcass. After all, finding one distinguished veteran, let alone seven, to oppose the administration during wartime is the perfect cover from which partisans can take their potshots, while simultaneously insulating themselves from being labeled unpatriotic.

That's why Democrats in 1864 flocked to the anemic former commander George McClellan to take on Lincoln. It's also why Clark was seen as a potential Democratic savior in 2004 before the public got to know him, why Kerry awkwardly saluted the convention crowd in Boston, and why former Sen. Max Cleland traveled to Bush's Crawford ranch to offer an eager press corps the compelling image of a President unwilling to interrupt his vacation to accommodate a wounded veteran.

The columnist Maureen Dowd perhaps best encapsulated this political strategy when she wrote that protester Cindy Sheehan, via her son's sacrifice, had acquired absolute "moral authority" to criticize the Iraq war.

In our system, however, that's not quite the way it's supposed to work. Civilians control the military, not vice versa. All citizens have the right to criticize the government, and presumably no taxpayer's moral authority to do so is any greater or lesser than the next. Considering the state of affairs in most military juntas around the world, the Founders seem to have gotten the equation right yet again.

Of course some citizens, through their life experiences, may have gained expertise or insight that makes their commentary more interesting, perhaps even more relevant. Presumably, that is why this rare instance of outspokenness by a handful of retired generals is a significant event.

Retired generals can certainly boast of military careers that are both long and distinguished, and by and large they are rewarded quite handsomely for it. In an era when even IBM is cutting its pension program, most retired flag officers are still collecting 75 percent of their highest active duty base salary -- not to mention their more profitable post-military career options as talking heads, consultants, speech-makers, and paid experts of varying stripes. Find me a retired Air Force general who hasn't at one point or another received a consulting fee from Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, Hughes, or another aerospace giant, and I'll find you a modern home run champion not suspected of anabolic steroid use.

GENERALS HAVE QUITE DESERVEDLY attained a place of influence and respect in our society, and there are many examples of them using that public capital in socially beneficial ways. For example, 29 "high-ranking retired officers and civilian leaders of the United States military" filed a convincing amicus brief in Grutter v. Bollinger that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor quoted extensively in her 5-4 majority opinion.

By the same token, it's important to keep in mind that those who retire from active duty as generals are career military officers who -- if they attended one of the military academies, as many did -- have been insulated from the private sector since the age of 18. Moreover, most are accustomed to getting almost whatever they want, when they want it, since the day they pinned on colonel.

What this all boils down to is that retired generals are typically not the citizen-soldiers of The Greatest Generation lore, the youths lionized by Tom Brokaw for answering the nation's call and then returning "home to lead ordinary lives." These are highly skilled power brokers who, having chosen a life of service, went on to reach the pinnacle of an enormous and daunting bureaucracy.

Thus, when Gen. Batiste makes appearances on The Today Show, Good Morning America, and The Early Show all in one morning -- telling Katie Couric, "My sole motivation, pure and simple, are the servicemen and women and their incredible families" -- we should treat that statement as we would any claim made by a highly successful political or business leader. For the typical enlisted troops, noncommissioned officer, company grade officer, or even field grade or senior grade officer, Washington power struggles over cabinet-level appointments are about as much of a daily concern as the latest Congressional pay raise.

To the extent that this whole brouhaha is about powerful peoples' egos, it is most emphatically not about the troops. As retired Lt. Gen. Dan Christman hinted to CNN's Anderson Cooper, perhaps unwittingly, what actually precipitated the uproar was the perceived "treatment by the secretary of the flag officer community."

INDEED, IT'S ENTIRELY POSSIBLE that Secretary Rumsfeld may have alienated this group of discontented generals long before the invasion of Iraq, when he put forth his vision of a significantly streamlined military in the summer of 2001 without bothering to consult them. Those in charge of government bureaucracies, whether they happen to wear business suits or fatigues, do not take kindly to public suggestions of slashing the manpower under their control.

Old grudges, it appears, really do die hard. Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, calling for Rumsfeld's resignation in the New York Times, couldn't resist taking a swipe at the secretary's "unrealistic confidence in technology to replace manpower."

The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Gen. Richard Myers, probably pegged the situation best when he remarked, "It's bad for the military. It's bad for civil military relations. And it's potentially very bad for the country, because what we're hearing and what we're seeing is not the role the military plays in our society under our laws -- for that matter, under our Constitution."

Gen. Myers, by the way, prudently declined at the time to weigh in on his former boss one way or another, reiterating that "it's not the military that judges our civilian bosses." Although he's now technically a civilian, Gen. Myers apparently recognizes that any statement he makes would be perceived (and certainly be hyped by the media) as representative of the Pentagon brass.

The drafters of the Uniform Code of Military Justice seemed to understand this very concern, for they made Article 88 applicable only to commissioned officers. The narrow application of Article 88 may reflect the drafters' sense that a contemptuous statement by an officer is more likely to be interpreted as an official statement of policy, and therefore all the more detrimental to morale and discipline within the ranks. If this is the case, then the highest ranking of officers ought to be the most careful about denigrating the military's civilian boss as "abusive" and "arrogant."

In a 1969 article for the Army's Military Law Review, then-Maj. Michael Brown eloquently wrote, "The whole principle of military subordination to the civilian government, so clearly established in the Constitution, depends upon the discipline and respect of the military as regards their civilian superiors." Without that, "it would not be long before the military establishment would become an island within our government looking only to its military leaders. The success of the United States in resisting a military takeover throughout the years of its existence has been primarily because of the idea of military subordination to the civilian government."

Of what significance, then, is the assertion of a few retired generals that the defense secretary should resign? About the same as my opinion, or yours.

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About the Author

Charles G. Kels is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania law school.