Why Are They Speaking Up Now?

By Melvin R. Laird and Robert E. Pursley, a Republican representative from Wisconsin before serving as secretary of defense from 1969 to 1973 and a retired lieutenant general in the Air Force, was military assistant to three secretaries of defense, respectively (THE WASHINGTON POST, 19/04/06):

The retired general officers who have recently called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld want to convince the public that civilian control has silenced military wisdom regarding the war in Iraq. They have chafed at Rumsfeld’s authoritarian style and they may even have legitimate differences of opinion with his decisions. But, while their advice and the weight of their experience should be taken into account, the important time for them to weigh in was while they were on active duty.

The two of us have experienced many of the circumstances confronting Rumsfeld. Our experience and connections at the Defense Department tell us that these generals probably had numerous opportunities to advise and object while on active duty. For them to now imply otherwise is disingenuous and quite possibly harmful for our prospects in Iraq. And it misrepresents the healthy give-and-take that we are confident is widespread between the civilian leadership at the Pentagon and the capable military hierarchy. A general officer is expected to follow orders, but he is also entitled to advise if he thinks those orders are flawed.

The ghost of Vietnam may be whispering to these retired generals, who understandably want to guarantee that military wisdom is never again trampled by political expediency. They make their point by implying that Rumsfeld has run amok and does not listen to his admirals and generals. Yet recently retired Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Richard Myers and his successor, Gen. Peter Pace (from the Air Force and Marine Corps, respectively), have rebutted the argument that the military was sidelined. Myers and Pace are in a position to know.

Rumsfeld respects the delicate balance between military expertise and civilian control, but in the end the decisions are his to make. Our democracy is designed to favor civilian control of defense decisions. The problem is that when military advice is considered and then rejected, officers are likely to feel sidelined. Sometimes we all must wait for hindsight to be able to make accurate judgments.

An example: In the early and mid-1970s as we were considering and eventually implementing the all-volunteer force to replace the draft, there were numerous people, uniformed and civilian, active duty and retired, predicting all manner of dire consequences. The criticisms were harsh. Yet the all-volunteer force has turned out to be an exceptionally valuable and effective innovation.

This is not to say that in hindsight Rumsfeld will be seen as infallible. No secretary of defense has made every decision correctly, and because lives are at stake, those decisions are critical. The appropriate opportunity for military officers to offer constructive criticism and to shape policy that helps avoid disastrous consequences is when those officers are still on active duty. But ultimately, and rightly, our system leaves the final decisions to the elected civilians and their appointees.

There are many avenues through which military ideas can be expressed. The uniformed service chiefs and civilian service secretaries meet frequently with the secretary of defense. We still have many friends and associates in the military and the Defense Department. We are confident that Rumsfeld does not limit those who meet with him to proffer advice. Access by the military through the Joint Chiefs of Staff structure and especially through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is frequent and influential. The commanders in chief of the various commands have ready access to the secretary of defense. A little known or appreciated fact is that historically the uniformed military has been afforded more participation in the National Security Council than any other entity — including the defense secretary. The secretary’s office is populated with numerous uniformed personnel, presenting still another source of access for military input. Beyond the executive branch is the extensive exposure and opportunity to express military views before Congress.

For such widespread access to be effective there must be shared responsibility for aggressively moving information up the chain of command. Not all military advice makes it through the military channels. Senior officers tend to be sensitive when their subordinates germinate ideas. And there are those in each military department who tend to put their branch loyalties above that of the broader national security objectives. The result is that some advice comes with selfish motives attached and some never arrives at all.

The retired officers who have criticized Rumsfeld have served their country with distinction. The military — active duty and retired — has a wealth of intelligent, articulate and motivated people. Their sense of duty, integrity and patriotism are of the highest order. But each of them speaks from his own copse of trees and may not have a view of the larger forest. In criticizing those with the broader view, they should be mindful of the risks and responsibilities inherent in their acts. The average U.S. citizen has high respect for the U.S. military. That respect is a valuable national security asset. Criticism, when carried too far, risks eroding it.

We do not advocate a silencing of debate on the war in Iraq. But care must be taken by those experienced officers who had their chance to speak up while on active duty. In speaking out now, they may think they are doing a service by adding to the reasoned debate. But the enemy does not understand or appreciate reasoned public debate. It is perceived as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve.