Behind the Revolt

By Max Hastings, a British journalist and historian, is the author of “Warriors: The Korean War” and “Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944.” (THE WASHINGTON POST, 26/04/06):

The “generals’ revolt” against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has provoked debate on both sides of the Atlantic about the proper boundaries of military protest. Many people who oppose the Iraq war and deplore Rumsfeld are nonetheless troubled by the notion of senior officers, even retired ones, openly criticizing political leadership.

But in truth, retired soldiers have always been outspoken about the alleged blunders of successor warlords, uniformed and otherwise. During Britain’s colonial conflicts and in both world wars, through Korea and Vietnam, hoary old American and British warriors wrote frequently to newspapers, deploring this decision or that, exploiting their credentials to criticize governments and commanders.

During the Iraq campaigns of 1991 and 2003, I heard British chiefs of staff express their fervent desire for veterans to get themselves off television screens. We may assume that, as chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff today, Gen. Peter Pace feels the same way.

Winston Churchill’s wartime chief of staff, Gen. Hastings “Pug” Ismay, charmingly described in his memoirs how, in 1940, lunches at his old army club in London became intolerable because at every mouthful, he was beset by veterans explaining how his master should properly be running the war. In self-defense, Ismay resorted to lunching at White’s, a venerable aristocratic institution where few members had noticed that a conflict was taking place.

In the past, however, there was a clear demarcation between those issues for which governments were responsible in war — high policy and the appointment of commanders — and those of which generals were in charge: field operations. Administrations in the United States and Britain sometimes perished for starting the wrong wars or mismanaging the big issues — Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam, Britain’s Asquith government in 1916. When battles were lost, however, it was generals’ heads that rolled, not politicians’.

The great progressive change since 1945 is that the conduct of limited wars has become intensely political. The interventions of civilian leaders are ever more detailed and explicit in matters that were once deemed military turf. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was sacked in Korea in 1951 for conduct no more imperious than his World War II norm in the Pacific. The general failed to understand that the principle on which he had always justified his own mandate — when wars start, politicians must leave soldiers to run them — was a dead letter in the nuclear age.

Yet how far should the process go of political engagement in military operations? This issue lies at the heart of the tensions between senior U.S. soldiers and Rumsfeld, and it will persist through all wars. The military — and there is no doubt that many serving officers share the unhappiness voiced by retired colleagues — does not question the government’s prerogative to make policy. It is dismayed, however, by attempts to second-guess Iraqi battles out of Washington.

Modern communications make feasible a high degree of micromanagement. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s interventions in Vietnam are well known and were bitterly unpopular with soldiers at the time. A notable example of the new relationship between field commanders and governments was seen during the Falklands War in May 1982. The British senior officer on the spot, Brig. Julian Thompson, wanted simply to keep an eye on the Argentine garrison at Goose Green settlement rather than attack it, and to advance toward Port Stanley.

In London, however, it was deemed vital to secure a quick, conspicuous military success to forestall stalemate and a U.S.-imposed cease-fire. Thompson was ordered to attack Goose Green immediately or be sacked. The British got their little victory, but it was a battle fought in deference to perceived political necessity, not military judgment. Thompson afterward lamented the countless hours he was obliged to spend arguing by satellite link with a headquarters 8,000 miles away, rather than directing his troops. This is what is new. Technology empowers political leaders to intervene in even local, small-unit actions.

There is another strand. The post-Vietnam generation of U.S. generals is much more cautious about overseas operations, especially against insurgencies, than were their predecessors of the Westmoreland — never mind MacArthur — eras. Once, generals were notoriously gung-ho. Today they are haunted by fear of failure. By a notable historical irony, enthusiasm for using troops is far more prevalent among civilian ideologues than among professional warriors.

It is unlikely that field commanders will ever again enjoy the operational latitude they once possessed. In his book “Supreme Command,” Eliot Cohen eloquently argues that civilian leaders — he cites Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion — have sometimes provided a vital impetus for military operations when soldiers proved incapable. Yet his thesis supposes a level of civilian genius that is often absent, as the military believes it to be in Iraq today.

If commanders are denied the power to manage campaigns as they think right, it is unjust to allow them to accept blame when these go awry. In the new world, the generals’ revolt seems a legitimate response to political mismanagement of operations. If a civilian such as Donald Rumsfeld seeks to exercise from Washington functions that were traditionally those of soldiers, he should take the customary consequences. The most conspicuous historical example of a politician presiding over a military fiasco was that of Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty. He sponsored the 1915 Dardanelles campaign — and was forced to quit.