Outspoken Retired Generals and Civilian Control, Redux

Kevin Drum, reflecting on the recent spate of retired generals speaking out both both for and against Donald Rumsfeld’s being replaced as SECDEF, remarks, “Regardless of whether or not we agree with the generals’ criticism, I think it’s wise to be uneasy about something that has a bit of a sense of a palace revolt against the current civilian leadership of the military.”

Steven Taylor thinks this concern odd, arguing that that “employing the ‘civilian control of the military’ card in this context is a non sequitur, because the generals in question are retired, and therefore are civilians and are exercising their rights as such to critique the sitting government.” In follow-up posts, he notes that guys like Wesley Clark have spoken out without similar criticisms and, citing an Explainer piece noting that there are “about 4700 retired generals,” the pronouncements of a few of them will hardly undermine civilian control.

While I am sympathetic to the “civilian control” argument and would like to see retired generals (and, indeed, public officials period) be silent, I ultimately agree with Taylor on this one. As I’ve noted before, we’ve had much more aggregious cases at even more inauspicious times without undermining the Republic.

Update: Steve Bainbridge examines the issue from the standpoint of institutional economics:

It does not impugn the patriotism or courage of members of the military to point out that the military as an institution tends to be plagued with careerism and politics. . . . Ambitious generals at the end of their career, facing imminent mandatory retirement, seem especially unlikely to buck those who control their prospects for advancement.

In contrast, recently retired generals provide a source of external monitoring that has many of the advantages of insider oversight. They have access to information about the SecDef that is nearly as good as their active duty counterparts, without the political and carrier constraints. To be sure, one must take it all with a grain of salt, because the retirees may well have their own political axes to grind (or career scores to settle).

Yet, in thinking about the problem as one of monitoring within organizations, critiques by recent retirees strikes me as a useful combination of external and internal review. We get the informational advantages of insiders coupled with the freedom to criticize of external forces. It isn’t perfect, but in a system in which civilian control must be held accountable, this strikes me as a legitimate form of accountability.

While the warrior culture and the nature of esprit de corps makes any analogy between the military and other businesses imperfect, I agree. While having recently retired generals criticizing their former bosses is somewhat problematic, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Even if it were a push, one seldom goes wrong chosing the side of freedom.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    Steven Taylor is right, but off-target. This is not a ‘civilian control’ issue, because no one is calling for the end of civilian control. They are criticising the competence of the civilian in the Big Chair, and calling for his replacement, but his replacement by another civilian – not a military officer.

    Even if the generals weren’t retired, all they’d be doing is inviting themselves to a possible court martial for Conduct Unbecoming, etc. To my knowledge, nobody has ever brought up the topic of a military coup, and to do so is to try to distract the debate away from whether or not Rumsfeld is competent.

  2. Legion,

    My point is that there have been a number of persons (including Charles Krauthammer on Special Report on last Th or Fri and a Republican member of the Senate on Fox News Sunday, as well as Kevin Drum, and, indeed, many others) who have raised this issue of generals critiquing Rumsfeld as somehow verging into the territory of damaging “civilian control of the military.” This is wholly ridiculous–especially given that they are retired they are civilians.

    My point is narrow and mostly is that to even bring up what I think is a silly, irrelevant side-trip (i.e., talking about “civilian control of the military”) is to deflect from the whole debate as to Rumsfeld’s competence. In other words, I am not the one who brought it up, but are criticizing those who have.

    As such, I would argue I am quite on target. I never suggested that anyone was calling for coup or anything of the sort.


  3. James Joyner says:

    legion: In my piece about this last week, I linked an LAT piece that noted several current leaders privately expressing the same fear Drum notes in his post.

    One current general who has debated the issue with high-ranking colleagues spoke, like others, on condition of anonymity when discussing actions of other officers.

    “If every guy that retires starts sniping at their old bosses and acts like a political appointee, how do you think senior civilians start choosing their military leaders?” the general said. “Competence goes out the window. It’s all about loyalty and pliability.”

  4. akdfjo says:

    While I am sympathetic to the �civilian control� argument and would like to see retired generals (and, indeed, public officials period) be silent

    First off, retired generals are no longer public officials.

    Secondly, what in the world is wrong with someone presenting knowledgable analysis? By that measure, maybe you should shut down your blog.

  5. James Joyner says:


    If you actually read the post in question–or, hell, this one–you’ll see that I take that position. It’s nonetheless true that having recently retired generals out there offering their views on public policy can undermine the trust that exists between civilian leaders and their military subordinates.

    Further, since active duty officers lack the ability to speak out except in defense of the administration position, you create an ambalance whereby those supporting the adminstration are perceived to be lapdogs and/or puppets whereas those on the outside represent the true views of those in uniform.

  6. Herb says:

    These retired Generals should “Keep their big mouths shut” they are not helping our country or the troops they were supposed to lead. I know that the enemy is hearing this garbage from these guys and they are eating it up. If these guys keep this crap up, they should be muzzled.

  7. legion says:

    Mea culpa – I didn’t read closely enough. I completely agree.

  8. Christopher says:

    What all supporters of Bush and Rumsfeld are thinking is this: this looks to the public like the military doesn’t support them, or that support is decreasing. Yes, yes, nothing can be further from the truth (6 out of 47oo!!!). But it looks like it.

    Hopefully the public is smart enough to see through this political rhetoric. Hmmm…are they?

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Retired Generals have the right of all citizens to speak their minds, but it is important to remember some of these men have axes to grind. Many have petty jealousy issues that the public is not aware of, so that when they speak, we are unaware of any agenda they may harbor. When it comes to discussion of war, the war fighters should be listened to. Norman Schwarzkopf (?) or Tommy Franks are war fighters. Generals like Wesley Clark and others are reluctant to commit men to battle. They are incompetent administrators at best and wonder why they were never considered to top command. Wesley Clark was removed from command. When I was in the service, I was pretty sure I knew better than those who were in charge. Whether or not I was right or wrong is not relevant at this or that time. It was not my place to do so. Neither is it theirs. MacArthur was right and Truman was wrong about the war in Korea. We should have carried the war to the Red Chinese, but because Truman had the authority, we are now faced with a nuclear North Korea. Still, Truman fired Mac.

  10. trey says:

    Please understand that retired general officers are not civilian, but can be recalled, however unlikely that may be. Moreover, at that level, anyone telling you that politics are not involved with the appointments has spent no time around these matters. There are clearly political axes to grind, and positioning is occurring should the next WH occupant be a Democrat.

    But if this vocal cacophony of media, generals, and leftists was not there, we would likely not hear such crowing from a newly nuclear Iran. They rely on this “weak horse” – and this group is giving it to them.

  11. Roger says:

    We don’t need these generals to tell us what we already know–Bushco and Rummy and the entire lot of them are incompentents. Still, it is their patriotic duty, now that they are free from their chain-of-command obligations, that they seek a better command structure for their country and their fromer troops. Shame on all the other generals, like Powell, who know from the inside the incompetence the neocons represent, for not standing up for their former troops and their country by calling for long overdue accountability.

  12. legion says:

    I see. Generals don’t know enough about military politics to contradict their civilian superiors, unless their opinion matches your own personal prejudice, in which case the President was wrong. Gotcha.

    And trey,
    The media, the generals, and the leftists are responsible for a nuclear Iran?!? Wow, that’s some good stuff you’re smoking. I do believe that the biggest single contributor to a nuclear Iran was actuall AQ Khan’s discount nuculer bargain bin, courtesy of our “ally” Pakistan.