Serving Military Officers and the Rumsfeld Debate

After a couple of weeks of spotlighting a handful of retired generals who are unhappy with Donald Rumsfeld’s second stint as Defense Secretary, Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt apparently decided to see what serving officers think. The result is a front page piece in today’s NYT entitled, “Young Officers Join the Debate Over Rumsfeld.” While mostly anecdotal, it reads true based on my own conversations with serving officers.

The revolt by retired generals who publicly criticized Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has opened an extraordinary debate among younger officers, in military academies, in the armed services’ staff colleges and even in command posts and mess halls in Iraq. Junior and midlevel officers are discussing whether the war plans for Iraq reflected unvarnished military advice, whether the retired generals should have spoken out, whether active-duty generals will feel free to state their views in private sessions with the civilian leaders and, most divisive of all, whether Mr. Rumsfeld should resign.

In recent weeks, military correspondents of The Times discussed those issues with dozens of younger officers and cadets in classrooms and with combat units in the field, as well as in informal conversations at the Pentagon and in e-mail exchanges and telephone calls. To protect their careers, the officers were granted anonymity so they could speak frankly about the debates they have had and have heard. The stances that emerged are anything but uniform, although all seem colored by deep concern over the quality of civil-military relations, and the way ahead in Iraq.

This highlights something about the military that most who have never served simply do not understand: There is plenty of free discussion and intellectual reflection. Contrary to the image portrayed in movies and television, military officers are not robots who merely say “Yes sir! Three bags full!” when told to do something. And, while there is undeniably an organizational culture, the “military mind” is anything but uniform.

“This is about the moral bankruptcy of general officers who lived through the Vietnam era yet refused to advise our civilian leadership properly,” said one Army major in the Special Forces who has served two combat tours. “I can only hope that my generation does better someday.”

An Army major who is an intelligence specialist said: “The history I will take away from this is that the current crop of generals failed to stand up and say, ‘We cannot do this mission.’ They confused the cultural can-do attitude with their responsibilities as leaders to delay the start of the war until we had an adequate force. I think the backlash against the general officers will be seen in the resignation of officers” who might otherwise have stayed in uniform.

Regular readers will recall that this was my reaction to the renegade generals as well. Officers are taught from their cadet days to stand up for what they think is right tactically and morally and fight for it until a decision has been made. If the order is legal, the officer then salutes and carries on with the mission or resigns.

One Army colonel enrolled in a Defense Department university said an informal poll among his classmates indicated that about 25 percent believed that Mr. Rumsfeld should resign, and 75 percent believed that he should remain. But of the second group, two-thirds thought he should acknowledge errors that were made and “show that he is not the intolerant and inflexible person some paint him to be,” the colonel said.

That accords with my own experience as well. Most of the officers I talk to, mostly majors and lieutenant colonels, think Rumsfeld is doing the right thing by forcing changes on a resistant brass yet believe he is too brusk and dismissive in style.

This is classic Army officer analysis:

“But this is all academic. Most officers would acknowledge that we cannot leave Iraq, regardless of their thoughts on the invasion. We destroyed the internal security of that state, so now we have to restore it. Otherwise, we will just return later, when it is even more terrible.”

Instead of bitching about things we can’t do anything about, let’s figure out how to get this thing fixed. Thinking about the bigger picture, too, is what they’re trained to do.



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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. Officers are taught not to question leadership within the chain of command. So any poll of current military people must be taken with a grain of salt. Even if you hate Bush and Rumsfeld, if you are active duty, you are not supposed to express that opinion.

  2. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    PoliticalCritic must be speaking from a lack of experience. Officers do not question legal orders, but are encouraged to give input, until a command decision is made. Rumsfeld certainly does not autocratically make decisions based upon his own knowledge, but based upon input from a multitude of sources. One of the critical generals. Wesley Clark, was relieved of command. He should not be critical of anyone.

  3. Dale Cox says:

    As I have stated in other posts, I’m an active duty Gunnery Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. That active duty officers and enlisted personnel too for that matter, take exception to the way Secretary Rumsfeld runs things or what the “current crop” of Generals did or did not do prior to the war is not surprising. We all have opinions and express them amongst our peers. Let me say that last part again…AMONGST OUR PEERS. Why any active duty officer is expressing his opinions regarding such matters to the press is beyond me. Whoever these officers are need to zip it when around the press (most do). What happens to morale and discipline when word gets around that Major so and so or Colonel Whosehewhatsit doesn’t agree with the way things are being run (by DOD or the Generals)? It goes to hell. Those in uniform that are expressing to the press, their views on the way things are being run need to shut up, saddle up, move out and accomplish the mission. There are avenues to express your opinions within in the chain of command. They need to use them. In any event complaining to the press won’t fix anything.

  4. RJN says:

    What a crock this post is. You are claiming that military officers must shut up for life. That is the sense of the post.

  5. Boyd says:

    Did you even read the post, RJN? If so, you missed a few key points:

    1) You fix things that are broken in an organization while you’re still a part of it, not after you leave.

    2) Flag and General Officers are in the best positions to influence the shapes and missions of the various military departments. While still on active duty, I mean.

    3) The retirees getting all the press for bitching either couldn’t make the changes they desired while on active duty because they couldn’t get the support of their peers at the time, i.e., they were (and still are) in the minority, or they may be cowards who didn’t say squat before they retired and are only now making their opinions known.

    Dispute any of those points if you will, but don’t throw out your own crock by misrepresenting the post and saying how bad it is. At best, it shows you have reading comprehension problems. At worst, you’re a manipulative liar. Take your pick.

  6. Eric Forat says:

    Why does this post remind me of the situation the Wehrmacht Generals went through before WW2?
    We, The American People, will pay the same price Germany is still paying, especially if we let the madmen attack Iran with “nukular weapons”

  7. DC Loser says:

    The current crop of general officers have to be aware of the judgment of history. Look up H.R. McMaster’s book – “Dereliction of Duty.” This book was very influential in the officer corp and was recommended reading from one of the Chief of the JCS awhile back. Funny now that McMaster is the CO of the 3 ACR in the thick of it in Iraq. I wonder what he’s thinking about his book and its relevancy to current news.

  8. RJN says:

    “Regular readers will recall that this was my reaction to the renegade generals as well. Officers are taught from their cadet days to stand up for what they think is right tactically and morally and fight for it until a decision has been made. If the order is legal, the officer then salutes and carries on with the mission or resigns.”

    Here it is, friend. They did exactly as you say they should, and you call them renegades.

  9. James Joyner says:

    RJN: Those who leave a group and then criticize it are, by definition, “renegades.”

  10. anjin-san says:

    “those who have never served”… do you Mean Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, etc. etc?

  11. James Joyner says:

    Well, actually Bush was an Air National Guard fighter pilot and Rumsfeld served several years on active duty as a Navy officer, retiring as a captain (equivalent to an Army/AF/Marine colonel) in the Reserves. He was also an All-Navy wrestling champion.

    But the comment wasn’t to disparage those who don’t have a military background just to note that the movies give most people the wrong impression.

  12. RJN says:

    My last post was not received, or it was deleted. I did use the word “moronic” at one time so I suppose deleting the post, if that is what happened, was fair. Not fun, but fair.

    Boyd: The idea here is that military officers have a duty to obey legal orders, as well as a tradition of speaking up before a final decision is reached. Afterwards they are obligated to execute the orders given to them.

    The only way a senior officer can publicly speak on his own is if he is retired. Then he has the right, just as you do, to say what he thinks about the war he was ordered to fight. It is not cowardly to wait until one is retired to speak; for a military officer it is required, if his truth is a criticism of his political superiors.

    What you and James are saying is that corrupt, or incompetent, public officals, and their blunders, are forever off limits from critical remarks by a former military officer.

  13. Subsunk says:


    You seem to think “publicly speaking” requires a retired officer to go on national TV and disparage men he either never served under, or served under and was overruled by those gentlemen. You know nothing of the chain of command, if this is your position, and you certainly know zip about maintaining morale and discipline in the military.

    Generals have many avenues to express their opinions. These men may have availed themselves of these avenues and been unsatisfied with the response they got. I’m sure the Generals who served under Mr. Rumsfeld and did not get their way were personally affronted by their treatment, and may feel they have no other way to “get what they want or think is correct”.

    So what? You dissent before the decision. After the decision is made you execute without recrimination or excuse. To do otherwise is to be a bad leader.

    They have now proven they do not respect the civilian leadership they are required to follow, even as retirees. They have proven they will place their opinions and desires, whatever they may be, above the orders and opinions of the officers and civilians appointed over them, contrary to the oath they took as officers, and which you never renounce, even in retirement. And they have proven they care not for the Men who once served under them, as their comments are used to undermine the integrity and command of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and further render the service those Men have been ordered on, illegitimate in the eyes of the people whom the troops care about the most — the American people and their families.

    These Generals have now crossed a line which Honor and Integrity demanded they not cross. They should complain all they want to their Congressman, their President, the SecDef, and their wives and families. But they should NEVER have gone to the press. To do so means they care not how the public disputes over the chain of command and the legitimacy of civilian control of the military affect the Men they once served with. I am deeply ashamed of each of them. But I am not surprised, as I have some familiarity with the egotism and ambition and power-seeking behaviors of some of them.

    The Men who served these folks once know that from some of these gents, this is par for the course. From others, a mystery. All of our leaders have feet of clay. None is perfect. But the Man who presses on, who fights his way through, despite the obstructions of his enemies and the hangers on of careerist ambitions, is a True Leader, nonetheless. In this case, they even defy the Office of the President, as he has said plainly and forcefully that he intends to keep Mr. Rumsfeld, and that should be the end of the discussion amongst all officers.

    You should take your comments somewhere more sympathetic to your cause. Here only Victory counts. Because Defeat is too horrible to contemplate, and the loss of 2500 Men and Women will pale in comparison to the lives lost in the abandonment of this war effort.

    Press on to Victory.


  14. RJN says:

    Subsunk: More crock. You seem to think that military officers are martinets; toot left, toot right. don’t think. rat ta tat rat ta tat (I love Vonnegut).

    I was a Company Commander at Fort Leonard Mo. in 1954. I met Gen. Maxwell Taylor when he was the Army Chief of Staff. He came down to Leonard Wood to bless a new training Battalion in the summer of 1955 . I was ten feet from him as he spoke to us of the need for expert training in the early months of a soldier’s career.

    I vass dere Charlie, Honor Code and all.

  15. Dean Esmay says:

    Contrary to the image portrayed in movies and television, military officers are not robots who merely say �Yes sir! Three bags full!� when told to do something.

    Except for the Marines of course. But even they at least feel free to say “Yes sir! Three bags HOO-AH!”

    (Just kidding. I love the Marines, and in any case, this is an excellent discussion.)

  16. Dean Esmay says:

    By the way, count me as mystified as to how RJN managed to take what Subsunk said and turn that into “toot left, toot right. don�t think. rat ta tat rat ta tat.” At all.

  17. Dean Esmay says:

    Indeed, in looking closely, I’m failing to understand how RJN is getting any of the interpretations he’s getting from others’ remarks. (I assume RJN is male, I doubt there were many female Company Commanders in 1954.)