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Is it okay for Generals to speak their mind in public?

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  • Is it okay for Generals to speak their mind in public?

    This is an interesting subject and I'm curious what people think about it.

    Generals, Politicians And Iraq

    By Eliot A. Cohen

    Clemenceau was right: "War is too important to be left to the generals." The 85-year-old dictum applies no less to an attack on Iraq than to the concluding stages of World War I. Not because the generals are incompetent and the politicians strategic geniuses, but rather because they have different roles, perspectives, and vantage points. Healthy civil-military relationships rest not on milky comity, which usually means that one side or the other has failed to do its job, but on friction and tension, tempered by unflinching candor, grudging respect and, ultimately, military deference to civilian intentions.


    This is the context in which one should understand the murmurings of uniformed discontent that journalists are discovering in the Pentagon in recent days. They have a number of sources, some less than profound: the fractiousness of those who think they should be in on the planning and are not, or the result of clashes of personality. But three causes of civil-military conflict merit discussion, if not quite the level of anxiety portrayed in the press.

    The first of these is the fundamental caution of any well-trained and conscientious military professional. Soldiers, and American soldiers more than most, have a deep sense of their responsibilities to the young men and women who fight our wars. These are no longer -- if they ever were -- the generals who could rap a pointer on a map and say, "I'd give a thousand men to take that hill." Moreover, they have a deep sense of what can go wrong in any use of force; they know that accident, mistake, and surprise stalk even modern battlefields covered with a grid of sensors.

    As Lord Salisbury once put it, "If you ask the soldiers, nothing is safe." To which the politicians must respond, "neither is inaction." It is the job of a political leader to take into account the soldier's reservations, to probe for differing opinions and press for innovative solutions.

    The second, and more troubling cause of open civil-military friction, is the pattern of behavior set following the Gulf War. The sentimentalization of American troops after the Gulf War -- a conflict celebrated like a giant Super Bowl in some quarters -- was followed by an intense, indeed, venomous disappointment of the American military with President Clinton. The Clinton administration rarely asserted itself on military affairs after its disastrous efforts, largely stymied, to lift the ban on homosexuals serving openly in uniform. Worse yet, a weak-kneed administration tolerated open expressions of disdain for the commander-in-chief, and an irresponsible Republican opposition encouraged it. The senior military leadership eventually came to its senses and gently quashed behavior that could have been grounds for court-martial.

    But the upshot was a perceptible politicization of some portion of the officer corps, and a climate of toleration for open criticism of the civilian leadership. The distasteful bipartisan practice of using recently retired generals and admirals as campaign props compounded the problem. When the second Bush administration took office and -- surprising only the Pentagon -- refrained from dramatically increasing the defense budget, some officers felt doubly betrayed. What was worse, they had by now gotten into the habit of saying so.

    There is, finally, the lingering shadow of Vietnam. For nearly 40 years, American politicians, pundits and soldiers have told themselves that the war was lost because of civilian micromanagement. That view reflects a gross misunderstanding of an exceedingly complex war, in which civilian laxity was as much to blame as civilian control. For four years President Johnson kept in place a theater commander who seems, in retrospect, singularly unsuited for the difficult task that confronted him. The senior military leadership, for its part, never came up with a metric of success better than the body count, or a concept of operations better than more bombing. The civilians, of course, have ultimate responsibility for the ensuing disaster; it is incorrect, however, to think that they were alone in causing it, or that they did so by exerting too much control.

    The myth of civilian control in Vietnam, and the equally inaccurate depiction of a hands-off waging of the Gulf War, have led too many people in and out of uniform to have a horror of everything that history has to teach us about sound civilian wartime leadership. Lincoln, Churchill, and Clemenceau were great wartime leaders because they queried, nagged, harassed, and prodded. "It is always right to probe," Churchill insisted. Judging by the reports, that's what the administration is doing.

    What is different today is the willingness of some, presumably in uniform, to whinge to the press about it. During the summer of 1942, President Roosevelt ordered the Army and Navy to invade North Africa in November of that year. Gen. George C. Marshall and Adm. Ernest J. King, his two senior military advisers, were convinced that this was a gross strategic error. They made their case as forcefully as they could, lost and saluted smartly. Even after the war, Marshall privately described it disdainfully as a decision made to entertain the American public. But he would never have considered airing that view publicly.


    Of all the many difficult requirements we levy upon soldiers, not the least is the obligation to present their views with utter honesty in private, but to maintain silence in public. That tradition has eroded; indeed, there are those who no longer understand its importance, and others who are willing to evade it by surreptitious leaks to journalists. But judging by the behavior and pronouncements of senior military leaders, from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down, there are more than enough who understand and value the heritage of George C. Marshall to carry us through yet another difficult period of civil-military tension, sensational stories about unhappy generals notwithstanding.
    Well, no one can claim that Rumsfeld is a weak Secretary of Defense, but still the Generals persist in taking the case to the press (even if it is in the form of leaks).

  • #2
    An interesting article. I think that the military should be quite carefull as to how and what it states in the media regarding their civilian leaders. However, I suppose in this day and age, with the media so wide spread and influencial, and newer generations groing up in that kind of an atmosphere, essentially private conflicts between two parties are becoming more and more open and the media is used more often for self-interest. I think the military should largely stay out of political issues (at least openly), unless there is obvious or blatant disregard by the political leadership. War is a political decision, and at least in relatively democratic nations, there is some element of responsible decision making in such a process. The military has no integral or direct responsability to the general public, thus a decision to go to war by the generals, would be largely in self-interest.


    • #3
      I think it is far more likely (at least in the US) that most Generals would be inclined to counsel against military action, rather than selfishly exploit a conflict to further their own career.

      As the author of the article above mentioned, soldiers have a keep sense of what can go wrong on a battlefield and also the limits of what can be reasonably accomplished. More and more has been expected of military leadership at all levels since the end of World War Two. Just being soldiers if often not good enough. I think it is understandable that these disagreements about policy spill out into the open. Considering the extraordinary lethality of modern battlefields perhaps this is a good thing, although there are limits.


      • #4
        Right, But....


        I understand what you are trying to say.

        I have never been in US Armed Forces, therefore I can't speak out on this kind of issue. But thank God that I do have a right to voice my opinion on anything which many fine young men died serving United States of America in order to protect this fundamental right that all of us have been granted.

        Honestly, I think somebody once said during the Great War, "The war is too important to be left to the generals." The same saying can be easily applied to the politicians. They're not exempt from this famous saying. The art of politics is too important to be left to the politicians.

        That's why the power of government lies in the hands of people. That is the most important contract the government has with us. Therefore it is important that we as Americans, despite that we're not necessarily experts on any important issues, nevertheless, we still hold the power to decide which and what course America should head, even in event of a major war or conflict.

        I do honestly believe that Bush administration did a good job of combating terrorism, but on another hand, I fear what I don't know. There may be screwups that Bush administration doesn't want us to know. The ignorance is an excellent political and military weapon to be dealt with.

        As for the generals, they didn't earn their stars by being a good solider, but rather their ability to deal with politicans, in the other words, the generals may or may not be nothing more than glorified politicans in military uniforms, at least, from my humble poor man's perspective.

        That's all.
        Major James Holden, Georgia Badgers Militia of Rainbow Regiment, American Civil War

        "Aim small, miss small."


        • #5
          I have no problem with officer's speaking their mind on a conflict as long as they do not compromise secuirty. A good example of how bad it can be for someones carrer though would be David Hackworth.

          "Have you forgotten the face of your father?"


          • #6
            I dont think that ant millitary officlails other than the chief of staff should be able to speak, because any thing he says is canned anyway
            Doesn't read Al Franken, can't watch Al Jazeera, will attack dumbasses. Anyone but Rumsfeld '04.


            • #7
              Yes--but if and only if they are willing to resign on the spot. In other words, what nees to sad (usually in dissent) is so important that he/she is willing to trade his/her career to say it.
              Kampfgruppe Vice Kommandir


              • #8
                Yes. I think you can still follow orders and disagree. It better be important though, because it could cost you your career. If you can speak out defending policy it should go the other way too.

                Last edited by Slug; 22 Oct 05, 10:39.
                "Advances in technology tend to overwhelm me."


                • #9
                  The admirals revolt is a case of men taking the hit for what they belived very passionately about. Sometimes times/issues call for a stand. Many will not do it for the sake of career, others will. If you belive in something that much then stand up for it.
                  As lord and master of your grill, you will welcome any opportunity to display your grilling prowess.
                  Mario Batali, 2006


                  • #10
                    We elect politicians not military officers.

                    Thus, even if our choice of politician seems questionable to us later, we still chose them.

                    I have never voted for a military leader, and as such couldn't care less for their opinions.

                    The only response to a general speaking his mind is to tell him to STFU.
                    He is being paid to perform a duty, not have an opinion.

                    He is no different than the greenest lowest Pvt. His job is to do, not to judge.

                    Now, if he strongly thinks what he had been ordered to do offends his sense of right and wrong, he can exercise his right as a citizen of his country and quit. At which time he becomes just another joe citizen and able to have a public opinion.

                    This of course is confined by any oaths of secrecy which he will continue to be bound by.

                    Generals enjoy a benefit our lowly grunts don't have, they can quit. I pity the lowly grunt that sees something he knows to be "wrong" yet is likely not going to get far with their objection.

                    The above of course all goes only so far.
                    I personally have no trouble with fire breathing genrals, just so long as they understand, their words have no place being used as tools for public opinion.
                    They belong in speeches to the troops.
                    Life is change. Built models for decades.
                    Not sure anyone here actually knows the real me.
                    I didn't for a long time either.


                    • #11
                      Retired military personnel have the same free speech and political activity rights as any other citizen. The speech and political activity rights of currently serving military personnel should remain limited.
                      Best regards, Major H
                      [email protected]


                      • #12
                        Only if they have a permission slip from their wives...


                        • #13
                          I prefer the brass to keep their squables out of the papers unless it is so important that it is worth resigning over. Too much acrimony can breed the idea amoung the troops [who can read after all] that their government may have them out there getting shot at without solid plan or the unequivocal support they expect and deserve. Discipline is just as important at the top as it is for the troopers in the front ranks.
                          Any metaphor will tear if stretched over too much reality.

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                          • #14
                            This is an interesting subject and I'm curious what people think about it.
                            Quite difficult to not smile reading answer for now. Not so later, in another thread, some (anti-war) posters were told (by pro-war) that generals knew more than them how conduct Irak war. But now that the same generals have doubts on Iraq operations they should shut up. In other words genarals can speak but only if their political stance support war.

                            On a broader view, I agree with MajorH, when under service, all military should be careful on what they say.



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