Seven retired U.S. generals are second-guessing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in public and saying he should be fired for incompetence, and you can’t help wishing that they could be reinstated to active duty. Then they could be dishonorably discharged for betrayal of a vital American principle.
The principle is that the people and their elected representatives run the government of this country, not the Army, the Air Force or the Navy, and that military officers must therefore be extremely cautious about challenging the civilian leadership of the armed forces.
That doesn’t mean active military leaders should be reticent to fight behind closed doors for their convictions or that retired officers should never enlighten public discussion with their views on the best possible policies.
But what we have here is something else and something astonishing — former high-ranking military officers calling for the head of a civilian leader in the middle of a war and at a time when the maniacal leadership of Iran is as much as laughing in our face about nuclear plans that could be devastating for Western civilization.
Not only are these generals in conflict with a crucial and fundamental tradition of our democracy, but they are signaling our enemies not to worry about American power — that when the going gets tough, we disunite.
The scholar and columnist Victor Davis Hanson argues that Rumsfeld’s critics can’t even conceive that different courses of action in Iraq could have had consequences far more dire than the plans that were followed. If Rumsfeld had embraced the proposal that we send 700,000 troops into Iraq, we might havelost twice as many U.S. soldiers as we have because insurgents would have had many more targets. If he had merrily gone along with the idea of keeping Saddam Hussein’s army intact, it might have turned on us and our Iraqi supporters, making the elections and other advances in Iraq impossible.
One theory about these officers and what they are up to is that they are trying to make sure any blame for a losing effort in Iraq rests with civilians, not the military. But we aren’t losing.
Maybe, too, some of these generals don’t like the changes Rumsfeld is trying to make in our military. The military we now have, however, was built for entirely different kinds of wars than the terrorist threat that is our principal worry in the early 21st century.
And maybe some of the generals simply don’t like Rumsfeld as a person. Anyone who has watched the secretary on a televised press conference knows his is a sharp-edged personality. But there is evidence and persuasive testimony countering the charge that he does not heed others. In fact, it seems he meticulously solicits the opinions of top military officers and listens intently as long as they have done their homework. If they haven’t, the sharp edges make themselves felt.
Whatever their reasons for trying to eject a key figure from the Bush administration, the seven officers ought to recognize the harm they are doing their country and apologize.