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.