His analysis is now widely accepted, yet we are in the early stages of another stab-in-the-back myth in which officers line up to blame their civilian bosses for the setbacks we’ve suffered in Iraq. In the last few weeks, six retired generals and counting have called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
As it happens, I agree with their advice. As I first said on this page two years ago, I too think that Rumsfeld should go. But I am nevertheless troubled by the Revolt of the Generals, which calls into question civilian control of the armed forces. In our system, defense secretaries are supposed to fire generals, not vice versa. ~Max Boot, The Los Angeles Times
Via Steve Sailer
Whatever else Max Boot is, he is not subtle. He sets up his comments with an unusually reasonable observation that the old myth about how the politicians lost the war in Vietnam by holding the military back (a strain of the Vietnam syndrome I noted here earlier this month) is at least misleading, and then proceeds to apply this unusually reasonable observation in the very Boot-like, ham-fisted way he always does. The retired generals are now engaged in a new “stab in the back myth,” which is neocon (sorry, I mean “hard Wilsonian”) talk for accusing the generals of shades of Nazism.
Boot is an odd duck, isn’t he? He is a militarist and neo-imperialist who fears and distrusts the military, and sees any expression of criticism of war policy from military men as an unraveling of the relationship that keeps the flag officers mute while he and his ideological allies can talk up new wars and commit our soldiers to conflicts all around the world without having to worry about later criticism from the men who are responsible for the lives of those soldiers.
When Max Boot and Tony Blankley start talking about preserving “civilian control,” watch out–what they are really saying is that they want to be able to preserve the kind of incompetent, ideologically driven civilian control that they prize and which they have been supporting for the last several years. Rumsfeld might stay (Blankley) or go (Boot), but the principle that civilian administrators at DoD get to cook up ludicrous wars and the military men must never say a word against these wars or their management, not even when they retire, is sacrosanct.
The “stab-in-the-back” remark is an insult to the generals speaking out today, as if they were accusing the civilians of betraying their country in the way that German nationalists accused the SPD government of betraying their country with the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, just as it is an insult to the generals of the Vietnam War who complained of being hamstrung by Washington. Military men complaining about having your fighting ability limited by micromanagement and political considerations is an old military saw that has existed ever since the onset of modern war. The difference between that and accusing your civilian superiors of the equivalent of treason is enormous, but Boot does not really see the difference. Hence the casual remark about the “stab in the back” myth.
What contributed to this sudden rash of critiques from retired generals? The sudden flurry of criticisms from retired generals came on the heels of Secretary Rice’s astonishingly tin-earred performance where she claimed there were “thousands” of tactical errors in Iraq, implying that the failures in Iraq were due to failures of implementing the grand design that she and her boss helped cook up. Gen. Newbold took particular exception to this claim, locating all of the major failures at the strategic and policy level, for which the civilians are primarily and ultimately responsible.
Faced with their own responsibility for massive strategic and policy screw-ups, the civilians naturally want to minimise these criticisms and make them seem irrelevant, and the supporters of the civilians want to make the critics appear as a threat to the country and the entire structure of civilian-military relations by ignoring the fact that if the civilians are in charge they are also ultimately responsible for everything that has gone wrong. If the enthusiasts in favour of muting the generals had their way, military men would keep their traps shut forever while also serving as the fall guys for failing to execute the “brilliant” plans that the civilian administrators developed. Little wonder that career military men are not going to stand by and allow this to happen. Not only is it unreasonable to expect anyone to stand by and have his own institutions saddled with all the blame for major policy failures, but it must grate on the generals’ own sense of duty to see their institutions so ill-used by incompetent managers and still be prohibited, even as retired officers, by this stigma against speaking out lest they be charged with introducing creeping authoritarianism.
The Rumsfeld defenders and Seven Days in May fan club members who are screaming about the “Revolt of the Generals” as a threat to our way of life want to have it both ways: the generals are supposed to acknowledge civilian authority in making policy and strategy and defer to it (lest they be accused of insubordination!), but the generals are not allowed to lay the blame at the door of the civilians who created bad policies and thought up idiotic strategies to which they, the military men, deferred on account of the civilian control of the military. Civilian rule mean never having to say you’re wrong, and it also means never having to accept responsibility. When things go wrong, the Secretary of State can attribute it to “tactical” errors.
What most endangers civilian rule of the military is this sort of flippant and irresponsible attitude towards civilian accountability. At some point in the distant future there might come a time when the civilian managers abuse the military once too often, because they assumed they could stigmatise any criticism from the military as the beginnings of a mutiny or a coup, and they will find on that occasion that no one is willing to tolerate their incompetence and contempt for the military. Civilians do have rightful authority over the armed forces, which is as it should be, but when authority is used in arbitrary and potentially destructive ways it loses legitimacy and respect from those who would normally respect it most. Those who want to secure civilian rule of the military against any possible weakening of it should have been the ones to level serious, damning criticisms of the administration’s management of this war years ago, rather than leaving this job of holding the administration accountable undone. Because most in the civilian population have failed to do this, someone else has taken up the job. If they want the retired generals to shut up, the pundits, reporters and politicos who should have been saying these things years ago had better start speaking up, or we will see more of these retired generals as the Iraq war continues on indefinitely.
But let us say it all together, now: retired generals criticising current policy, and even calling for the resignation of the Secretary of Defense, do not represent a threat to civilian control of the military. In ideal circumstances maybe, as Leon Hadar suggested last week, retired generals should either stay quiet or run for office if they feel obliged to speak out, but that assumes that there is anyone else in government, the media or the public doing the heavy lifting of criticising the government and keeping it accountable. Since nobody in Congress, except an odd Jack Murtha here or there, and few or none in the press corps are doing their jobs, it has fallen to the retired generals to pick up the slack.
While I don’t accept the recommendation to fire Rumsfeld (the horrifying prospects of who might replace him will sober up anyone intoxicated with the thought of Rumsfeld’s fall), the reaction against the generals’ criticisms suggests a very warped view of civilian control of the military that seems to grant the civilians all of the power and none of the responsibility for how they use that power. Those who are seriouly concerned about the well-being of the Republic would be well advised to worry more about that twisted understanding of the authority of the civilian administrators than about the remarks of dissenting generals. What is most sobering is the thought that wildly incompetent elected officials and political appointees have direct control over the armed forces of this country, and somehow this is not a cause for worry for most people, while the military professionals who might know a thing or two about how to use these forces more wisely are shunted to the side and told to shut up when, even in retirement, they suggest that the wildly incompetent people making the decisions may not know what they’re doing. If this were any other Cabinet department besides Defense, the testimony of retired professionals and experts confirming the incompetence of the appointed management would result in the sacking of the responsible secretary, just on the general principle that the secretary in question was now too damaged to do his job effectively any longer.