Permission to Speak Freely, Sir

I am sorry that high school and college kids no longer have to face a couple of years of mandatory military service. That may be a strange thing to say for a guy who protested the draft back in the '60s. Maybe it's the inevitable aging process. Or maybe it's the perspective you get from the higher altitude of experience.

What got me thinking about this were the extraordinary statements being made by recently retired U.S. generals. Those who have never served in the military don't understand how extraordinary it is for career military officers to say the things these guys are saying about their former civilian superiors.

I hit Marine Corps bootcamp on July 7, 1965, a wimpy kid from suburbia. The first thing we were told was that we were the lowest forms of life on earth -- and that meant lower than civilians. I was to learn as time went on that this was not just drill instructor blather. It was a genuine, deeply ingrained belief that permeated the highest ranks of the military for civilian control. We were repeatedly told that the lowest civilian we met on the street outranked the highest grade military officer. And that was not show. They believed it, not just as a principle, but a sacred trust.

Those who never served will likely see that as corny, empty rhetoric, window dressing, quaint -- at best. But those who did serve know of what I speak. We get it. That's one reason I bemoan that two generations of kids have since been spared a stint in uniform. It changed my life in ways I now understand and appreciate in ways I could not back then.

This is not a column about reinstituting the draft. I just want to make the case that you pay close and respectful attention to the recent statements by retired top Pentagon brass. Because never in my life did I ever expect to hear these kinds of things coming out of the mouths of such men. Never. Here's a sampler:

  • "[Donald Rumsfeld] has proved himself incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically. Mr. Rumsfeld must step down."
    --General Paul Eaton, who oversaw training of Iraqi army troops, 2003-2004

  • "I really believe that we need a new secretary of defense because Secretary Rumsfeld carries way too much baggage with him. Specifically, I feel he has micromanaged the generals who are leading our forces there."
    --retired Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, former commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.

  • "I think we need a fresh start … We need leadership up there (the Pentagon) that respects the military as they expect the military to respect them."
    --Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, 2004-2005

  • We won't get fooled again … Rumsfeld and many others unwilling to fundamentally change their approach should be replaced."
    --Marines Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, director of operations of Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2000-2002

  • "The problem is that we've wasted three years … absolutely, Rumsfeld should resign."
    --Marines Gen. Anthony Zinni, former chief of U.S. Central Command

  • "A lot of them [other generals] are hugely frustrated. Rumsfeld gave the impression that military advice was neither required nor desired" in the planning for the Iraq war.
    --Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson, former commander of Marines forces in the Pacific Theater

  • "Everyone pretty much thinks Rumsfeld and the bunch around him should be cleared out. [Rumsfeld and his advisers have] made fools of themselves, and totally underestimated what would be needed for a sustained conflict."
    --Army Maj. Gen. John Riggs

The administration is trying to counter these devastating statements by noting that none of the generals voiced such reservations during the lead-up to the war. And, because so many Americans now lack any direct experience with the military, the tactic may just work. After all, it's easy to dismiss these retired generals just that easily. "So, where were your qualms when we really need them, general?"

I know the answer to that question -- and it's not the answer the Bushies want you to get.

When an officer has a particularly sticky problem with the actions or orders of a superior officer, s/he can "request permission to speak freely, sir."

Well, that was tried, by Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, who was promptly and unceremoniously "shit-canned." (Another term my fellow vets may find familiar.)

The Pentagon's civilian leaders sent a clear message to the rest of the Pentagon brass: "Do what we want, or we'll find a junior officer who will."

With the "permission to speak freely" option off the table, the brass was left only with their prime directive: Civilians rule.

So, their silence leading up to war was not cowardice or careerism, as some have suggested. It was instead the manifestation of that deeply ingrained principle that civilians not only outrank them, but that the most dangerous thing that can happen in a democracy is for the military to start preempting civilian leadership.

We can quibble over that notion, of course. We can wave around the Nuremberg principle that "just following orders" is no defense for wrongdoing. I agree. But let me tell you, my experience in the military left me with a deep respect for the way the American military views its place in our democracy. They really do believe civilians rule. I would have it no other way. And neither should you.

Which is why we old vets understand better than most how gut-wrenching it must have been for these recently retired officers to go public. I am certain it was not the way they wanted to end their lifetimes of service to their country. Because, as far as these men are concerned, under normal circumstances, such behavior smacks of treason.

Retired two-star Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the Big Red One (the Army's 1st Infantry Division) in Iraq until November, said Rumsfeld must go for ignoring and intimidating career officers. "You know, it speaks volumes that guys like me are speaking out from retirement about the leadership climate in the Department of Defense. (Full Story)

So, no one should take their statements lightly. This is serious business … especially at the very moment these same civilian leaders are grunting eagerly over satellite images of Iran.

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