“There are a lot of people out there that do not like Donald Rumsfeld.” So spoke former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, who ran the Pentagon under Presidents Nixon and Ford. This analysis does not get catalogued as “breaking news.” As Schlesinger noted, a lot of what we’re hearing is a “recycling of complaints” going back to the beginning of the administration, or earlier.
The media is whipping up a new frenzy in its antiwar, anti-Bush crusade by making use former disgruntled military officers who freely criticize the secretary now that they are retired. Some are fresh faces like Marine three-star Gregory Newbold, now with the Potomac Institute. Others, like Marine four-star Anthony Zinni have been critics for years. Some are what we in the ranks called political generals such as Colin Powell, Al Haig, Wesley Clark, and Barry McAffery. Others are fighting generals like Jack Vessey, Jack Singlaub, Peter Pace, Richard Meyers, and Tommy Franks. They are usually not as well known. They serve under elected civilian leadership honorably and quietly, then depart.
What are the complaints that we’re hearing from the vocal ones? According to Army General John Batiste, Rumsfeld was a leader “who was abusive, who was arrogant, and who didn’t build a strong team.” Is it just my imagination or does this whine sound eerily like yesterday’s sports figures who are now stuck on the sidelines, angry and hurt that they are no longer in the spotlight? But maybe that’s too harsh.
Among the military you will find leftists, conservatives, and independents - and they are free to express their partisan opinions after they leave active service. Since they are for the most part patriotic, religious, logical, and goal oriented they tend to be conservatives. But the military – just like America - comes in all political shades.
Further, men in uniform are not persecuted for expressing harsh, dissenting opinions while in the service. Name another country that allows high ranking military people to dissent without slamming them into prison or standing them before a firing squad. In Saddam’s Iraq generals feared to open their mouths to discount even some of his wildest adventures. The dictator regularly purged his closest advisors.
Nor are retired generals and other military men necessarily held to account for miscalculations or crass stupidity. Zinni, for example, consistently has predicted the most horrific American casualty rates in both Afghanistan and Iraq, to the tune of “tens of thousands of body bags.” Not only did those casualties not occur on the field but even our enemies did not suffer anywhere close to casualty rates seen in previous wars thanks to improved weaponry and a focus on killing enemy equipment rather than soldiers. Former General Wesley Clark blathers about “absence of leadership” – a not-so-subtle shot at President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld – ignoring the fact that he was commander while the Balkans slid into the morass of internecine warfare, mass killings, and rising Islamofascism all on his inept, politicized watch.
But outspoken retired general officers are one thing. One has to ask, why were they not this vocal while wearing the uniform? It is difficult to ascribe shyness to careerism. After all, generals ought to be the most fearless of all the officer corps - their careers are made. For a general officer to serve silently when given the frequent opportunity - indeed encouragement - to express his opinion and for him (or her) to fail to do so at that opportunity then complain publicly about it later is moral cowardice.
Retired three-star Air Force general Thomas McInerney notes that he was in meetings with many of today’s complainers in the run-up to the war. “They had plenty of opportunity to speak their minds, and in fact were encouraged to do so. Why were they silent then and vocal now?”
“You know, it speaks volumes that guys like me are speaking out from retirement about the leadership climate in the Department of Defense,” Batiste said. Yes, but to McInerney’s point: was he that outspoken when he wore stars? If not, then questions must be raised. Certainly no one can fault Batiste’s personal courage and ethos. One former battalion commander said of Batiste, “I knew him well. He is a soldier. A professional in every sense.” That is undoubtedly true, but why speak out publicly now when the war is still hot, soldiers are engaged in the field, and the public is being misled by the media about the war.
Could some of these officers have personal motivations? It is possible. What seems to be emerging is a political class of general officer, perhaps with an eye toward appointed office if the Democrats win in 2008, or a fat book contract in the interim as a Bush-Rumsfeld bashing guy in uniform. If this proves in fact to be the case, then their stance does not reflect high moral standards but rank opportunism.
There is little doubt that these men will be lionized by a media and Left obsessed with destroying Bush and Rumsfeld even at the expense of a rational, sensible foreign policy and even if it means losing in the war for the free world. Not all of them certainly; some speak with professionalism and sincerity. But these are smart men. They have to realize that the war is tenuous now, not from American military abilities or successes, but because of the unceasing avalanche of bad news and politicization of the outcome by the media and the opposition. In other words, the media and the Left are sapping America's will to fight and win.
Most of these officers are honorable and praiseworthy. Some are clearly opportunistic, jeopardizing the outcome of a war to score points against a boss they disliked.
But these men have done themselves a disservice as well as their country and the soldiers they once commanded who are still in the fight. By seeming to be too quick to play politics with national security issues in wartime, not only are their motivations now suspect but they have compromised their reputations, as well. Regardless, whatever effect they hoped to achieve has been diluted to ineffectiveness. Rather than learn necessary lessons to prepare for tomorrow’s fight we will just see this deteriorate into a political mudfest, with political favors dolled out to “courageous” dissenters -- and thousands of Iraqi casualties at the hands of the Islamists, and possibly home of a new Caliphate.
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