Retired Generals Call for Rumsfeld Resignation

Two big stories are out today in the major press about a growing and potentially worrisome trend: Public statements by recently-retired flag officers against their former bosses.

Thomas Ricks gives the story page A01 treatment at WaPo.

The retired commander of key forces in Iraq called yesterday for Donald H. Rumsfeld to step down, joining several other former top military commanders who have harshly criticized the defense secretary’s authoritarian style for making the military’s job more difficult. “I think we need a fresh start” at the top of the Pentagon, retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004-2005, said in an interview. “We need leadership up there that respects the military as they expect the military to respect them. And that leadership needs to understand teamwork.” Batiste noted that many of his peers feel the same way. “It speaks volumes that guys like me are speaking out from retirement about the leadership climate in the Department of Defense,” he said earlier yesterday on CNN.


His comments follow similar recent high-profile attacks on Rumsfeld by three other retired flag officers, amid indications that many of their peers feel the same way. “We won’t get fooled again,” retired Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, who held the key post of director of operations on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2000 to 2002, wrote in an essay in Time magazine this week. Listing a series of mistakes such as “McNamara-like micromanagement,” a reference to the Vietnam War-era secretary of defense, Newbold called for “replacing Rumsfeld and many others unwilling to fundamentally change their approach.”

Last month, another top officer who served in Iraq, retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in which he called Rumsfeld “incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically.” Eaton, who oversaw the training of Iraqi army troops in 2003-2004, said that “Mr. Rumsfeld must step down.”

Also, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, a longtime critic of Rumsfeld and the administration’s handling of the Iraq war, has been more vocal lately as he publicizes a new book, “The Battle for Peace.” “The problem is that we’ve wasted three years” in Iraq, said Zinni, who was the chief of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, in the late 1990s. He added that he “absolutely” thinks Rumsfeld should resign.

Peter Spiegel and Paul Richter have a similar piece in the LAT.

A recent surge in public criticism of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld by retired military leaders is the culmination of months of intense but largely private debate among active duty officers about how best to voice dissent over Bush administration policies, according to officers involved in the discussions. A number of officers have been critical of Iraq policy — mostly anonymously — since the administration’s early days. But the calls for Rumsfeld’s resignation are an unusual step for members of the military, who are acutely sensitive to the appearance of challenging civilian leadership of the armed forces.

Displays of public dissension are especially controversial while troops are at war and morale is a concern. In recent months, however, a growing concern that the war’s setbacks may have been predictable as well as avoidable has spilled into public view. The officers said that challenges to civilian policy were not new — similar opposition flared during the Clinton administration, particularly around the issue of gays in the military. But many of the latest condemnations come from officers who served in the Iraq war, and the controversy has split the ranks over whether attacks by those officers so soon after retiring are appropriate.

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.”

Later, they note the historical context:

Criticism of political leaders by retired generals is nothing new. Historians note that former military leaders dating back to the American Revolution have written criticisms of the conduct of wars, and Rumsfeld dismissed many of the criticisms this week as just the latest in that tradition. “It’s historic, it’s always been the case, and I see nothing really very new or surprising about it,” he said at a Pentagon news conference.

But Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University and a Vietnam veteran, said he believed it was unprecedented for retired senior officers who had so recently served during a war to criticize civilian leaders while troops were still in the field. “I would take this as evidence that the search for scapegoats with regard to the Iraq war has now been fully engaged by the military,” Bacevich said. “The officer corps doesn’t want to get stuck with responsibility for a war that has already proven to be a disappointment and could result in failure. This is an indication that Rumsfeld has been selected as the military’s preferred scapegoat,” he said.

The debate within the Pentagon has been influenced by the lessons of the Vietnam War, a conflict many current military leaders believe was lost because military chiefs did not stand up to civilian war plans. A 1997 book on the subject, “Dereliction of Duty,” by H.R. McMaster, now an Army colonel serving in Iraq, has been required reading for many Pentagon officers. “There was a deep bitterness over Vietnam and the way the [service] chiefs had been co-opted,” said Richard H. Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina who oversaw McMaster’s work on the book.

Kohn said it was a lesson sent repeatedly to all Army officers: “They said: ‘We’re never going to put up with this again, we’re not going to be put in that position again by the civilians.’ ” Nevertheless, Kohn, who has discussed relations with civilian leaders with several top officers, said he believed it might be dangerous for such recently retired generals to go public with such criticism. “If they go out and attack the policy after leaving and they get personal about it, they’re undermining civilian control,” Kohn said.

Kohn and others with similar thoughts are also included in the Ricks piece:

Military experts expressed some concern about the new outspokenness of retired generals. “I think it flatly is a bad thing,” said Richard H. Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina who writes frequently on civilian-military relations. He said he worries that it could undermine civilian control of the military, especially by making civilian leaders feel that that they need to be careful about what they say around officers, for fear of being denounced as soon as they retire. “How can you prosecute a war if the military and civilians don’t trust each other?” Kohn asked.

Also, the generals themselves may be partly to blame for the situation in Iraq, along with Rumsfeld and the White House, said Michael Vickers, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. “It’s just absurd to lay the blame on Don Rumsfeld alone,” he said.

While I sympathize with this viewpoint and agree with the general who expressed fears that it could create a chilling effect in the relations between senior officers and their civilian bosses, this strikes me as a problem without a solution. Retired generals are citizens with every right to speak out. Further, they are in a unique position to do so with credibility.

Whether their pronouncements are helpful are harmful largely depends on which side of a particular fence one sits. Dan Drezner is more-or-less happy about them, for example, because he has long believed Rumsfeld should resign. While I’m not so sure about that, I nonetheless doubt much harm is being done.

Still, the concern over civil-military relations is legitimate. Air Force Colonel Charles Dunlap wrote a provocative article called, “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012” for the Winter 1992-93 Parameters. Still, the nation survived having at least two sitting generals (Winfield Scott and George McClellan) openly criticizing the president of the United States during the Civil War. Indeed, McClellan actually ran against Lincoln in the 1864 election. (Scott ran as the Whig Party nominee in 1852, supplanting his own commander in chief, Millard Fillmore, in that role.) We had the The Revolt of the Admirals in the late 1940s and the row between Douglas MacArthur and Harry Truman in the 1950s. Certainly, many retired generals critized Clinton during his term of office. And, of course, we now routinely have former generals and admirals–Norman Schwarzkofp, Colin Powell, William Crowe, and Tommy Franks come to mind–endorsing presidential candidates and even speaking at national political conventions.

I don’t like any of it any more than I like former presidents speaking out against the current officeholder. But those people are entitled to free speech, too.

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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:

    Well, these guys are the experts in their field… if their advice was ignored by their bosses, leading to the current situation, they have a right to publically say so (after leaving active duty). I just wish even one of them had had the guts to throw their stars down on the table at the time it was happening, when there was a chance the country might’ve been able to change course. Fogleman did it to Clinton over the treatment of the commander at Khobar Towers; why couldn’t any of these guys do it to keep us out of a botched war plan?

  2. Bhoe says:

    These so-called “generals” are a bunch of liberal scumbags and traitors–they are just as bad as Cindy Sheehan.

  3. ken says:

    What is most interesting about this is that it turns the old mythological ‘spitting’ in the face of our soldiers on its head.

    So far we have four generals publicly spitting in the face of Bush by calling for the firing of Rumsfield.

    While the old myth of the public disdain for the military was never really true, the loathing the professional military holds for Bush is up front and center and proudly on display for all to see.

  4. SgtFluffy says:

    I hear Rumsfeld is calling for these Generals to “Shut the Hell up”, just hearsay though

  5. Steve says:

    Well, “success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan”.

    While McMaster’s book may be required reading, I’m not so sure that people are drawing the correct conclusions from his work. And as noted above, we don’t hear about anyone who is so concerned that they resign in disgust or refuse an assignment. And it’s hard to estimate the influence of ego. You don’t get to be a general unless you have a high opinion of your abilities and most of them are dedicated enough to beleive they can make a silk purse of of a sow’s ear.

    So it’s hard to draw any useful conclusions from the complaints of a few generals who have opted to opine in public. And how to separate personal opinions about Rumsfeld/DoD staff “style” vice military competence? For all we know some of this angst is over “manners”. Generals like to be stroked, maybe more so than the average human. Perhaps Rumsfeld had the temerity to challenge someones deeply felt belief. We have no way of knowing the motivations behind any of this.

    The other challenge is separating out resentment over how DoD allocates resources and sets priorities. It’s pretty clear that the current modernization trends disfavor large segments of the more traditional combat services. Unlike the 70s, we are not going to witness a rehash of the battles between conventional and “special” forces. Spec Ops has clearly got the upper hand today and let’s face it, it’s always been a small and insular community with not much use for the rest of the services. How many times has someone told you, “I could tell you what I do, but I’d have to kill you.”

    Rumsfeld has probably had the most difficult challenges a Sec Def has seen since 1947. Unlike the late great Caspar Weinberger, who was able to turn on the money spigot and basically say to all the services, make it better faster…Rumsfeld has to tell the services “here’s five loaves and three fishes, go make a war and then make a peace and do it better, faster and cheaper.”

    To sum up, sure generals should be free to speak their minds. You never know, one might actually come up with an original thought. What I like about Rumsfeld is it appears he is not afraid to make a decision, nor is he afraid of being held accountable. Has he made mistakes? Hard to say today, much easier to judge five years from now. Unfortunately we all live on internet time now. That means no error is too small or inconsequential to be bruited about as a “disaster”. It also means victory has a shelf life of about five minutes.

    The more I see how things unfold today, the more I think about how patience is not just a virtue, it is THE virtue.

  6. Jem says:

    Seeing flag officers going public like this bothers me a little, even though these retired officers unquestionably have the right to do so. Military culture does not, as a rule, support taking this sort of thing into the public domain. While it’s not much of an issue for some retired colonel or more junior officer to play the heretic, it’s different with flag officers. These guys don’t lose their influence when they retire–they all have former subordinates still on active duty who are now or will become influential flag officers themselves–and these comments will live on for years and will help to undermine the respect the uniformed military must have for its civilian masters, even after the current administration is gone. Even if the retired officers are completely right in their complaints and assessments, it is likely the damage their public statements will do exceeds the benefits that might accrue.

    Even if the uniformed military’s respect is not returned or deserved by the civilian leadership (as in the Clinton years), it is poor leadership practice to allow the folks at the top of the chain of command to be undermined. The civilian leadership won’t order the current crop of senior officers to go out and dispute these statements–they won’t have to. The current uniformed DoD leadership will have to defend the civilian leadership (even if they agree with those griping in retirement about the sins of Rumsfeld and his team) in order to preserve good order and discipline. Those speaking out have not just acted to undermine the political leadership in a time of war, but their contemporaries and successors in the uniformed leadership as well.

    By the way, I’m a serving military officer (in the Reserves) and have served on the Joint Staff during the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations. Though my time in the Pentagon never gave me access to the senior leadership of the Pentagon’s E-Ring (I used to see Lt Gen Newbold and sometimes then-Lt Gen Abazaid in briefings–but there’s no way either would remember me if I bumped into him on the street), I did hear the occasional whisper of discontent. There’s nothing unusual about having friction between the uniformed and civilian sides of the Pentagon. It’s just not that common for the disputes to play out in public.

  7. floyd says:

    so now the haters of the military are chumming-up to a bunch of generals. cute irony!