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Springer Journal: Some Generals Speak Out ...

Posted April 27, 2006

— Recently, a half dozen retired Army and Marine generals have spoken out about their displeasure with the sitting Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Their much-too-public comments are not in the best interest of this nation, nor do they reflect well on the personal or professional status of these critics. These few have become too politicized in today's political arena.

I do not know these officers personally or professionally. I suspect they all served our nation well or they would not have been selected for their important jobs while on active duty. While I have some strong suspicions about why each has chosen now to suggest the dismissal of Secretary Rumsfeld, I will leave that subject to others who know them well.

Their complaints about Rumsfeld are focused primarily on his management style. They argue that he is abrupt, dismissive of subordinates, and that he does not listen to his flag officers (generals and admirals). One might wonder if over the course of their careers, these same outspoken generals ever had subordinates that might have had similar thoughts about them.

This nation was founded on the principle of civilian control over the military. It is a principle that has served exceptionally well. Over my 36 year career in the Air Force, I was never offered the opportunity to select my boss. Neither was I expected to declare publicly that my boss was "incompetent" or that he/she should be "fired." In fact, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) specifically prohibits the use of "contemptuous words" against the sitting President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of a military department, among others. Interestingly, the UCMJ includes retired members receiving retired pay as subject to the UCMJ. (Subchapter 1, Article 2, (4).

I, like all other service members, was taught from day one that insubordination is not an option in the military. While there were specific avenues to discuss and debate my bosses' decisions or policies, public discourse was not one of them. (As a Major I did challenge, within my chain of command, a specific general officer high visibility request which I believed to be inappropriate ... I was granted the opportunity to provide an alternative ... and my alternative was ultimately approved by the Air Force Chief of Staff.) The system worked!

Your United States military is a meritocracy. With but few unfortunate exceptions, military officer promotions are based on "merit" and the potential to perform at the next level. All start at the bottom of the rank structure. The more senior the rank, the more serious the review of an officer's past performance and the potential for advancement. This is especially true of selection for flag rank.

I am gravely concerned about this recent spate of retired generals forgetting the basic tenets of loyalty to their superiors and to their respect for the constitutional concept of civilian control. I would venture to guess that each of them at one or more times in their careers remarked that "loyalty" is a two way street. As you expect loyalty from your subordinates, so too should you be loyal to your superiors. Much could be written about the impact these public criticisms of civilian leaders is having on our active duty forces deployed around the globe.

I do not want to see officers promoted to, or within, the general officer ranks because of their political persuasion or their unwarranted loyalty to a specific elected official or political appointee. I do not want them vetted as to whether they will, as retirees, make speeches or write books favorable/unfavorable to the civilian leaders who promoted them. Past performance and potential must remain the hallmarks of the general and admiral selection process ... not political concerns. Merit must remain as the only criterion for such promotions.

As a retired general officer, I have every right to express my opinions about national defense issues, the merits of any elected or appointed official, and my political persuasion. However, these are private views that should be shared amongst friends, family and colleagues, not publicly as someone trying to influence major policy decisions in this country.

As noted author and university professor Eliott Cohen has written "Retired generals never really leave the public service - that's why, after all, we still call them general. They set examples for those junior to them in rank, and still on active duty ... The (half dozen) retired generals have, in effect, and perhaps unwittingly, made a case for disloyalty."

My advice is simple. Make your speeches and write your articles and books critical of elected and appointed officials after they leave office ... and maybe after the wars are over. Do not destroy the faith and respect which most Americans have for the military by petty bickering and critiquing of serving civilian officials. There was another time and another opportunity for you to do so ... but you passed up that more correct opportunity.


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