BUT IN THEIR eagerness to settle scores, Rumsfeld’s pursuers are flirting with ideas that can only be regarded as subversive. Newbold, for one, has resurrected the notion that a senior officer’s primary obligation lies not to those atop the chain of command but to the Constitution.

This theory last surfaced during the Korean War, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur publicly derided the proposition that soldiers “owe primary allegiance and loyalty to those who temporarily exercise the authority of the executive branch.” In citing a higher allegiance, MacArthur was attempting to justify the flagrant insubordination that had cost him his job. Wrong in 1951, MacArthur’s theory is equally wrong today. To grant even the most narrowly drawn exceptions to the principle of civilian control is to open up a Pandora’s box of complications. ~Andrew Bacevich, The Los Angeles Times

Prof. Bacevich is probably correct that Gen. MacArthur’s actual insubordination was indeed completely out of line, but I’d like to consider Gen. Newbold’s claim that the Constitution should have the highest claim on an officer’s loyalty. Here is what he actually said:

Enlisted members of the armed forces swear their oath to those appointed over them; an officer swears an oath not to a person but to the Constitution. The distinction is important.

This is, of course, accurate and entirely consistent with the oath officers take, just as it would be consistent with the oath all political officeholders take. Technically, every officer swearing an oath declares his intention to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and will “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” That part of the oath comes before everything else in it–it would appear to be prior to the rest of the oath. But in practice, no one defends the Constitution and the oath is essentially nothing more than a quaint holdover from an age when constitutional republicanism meant something.

That is a radical view of the situation, I suppose, but we should clear away all of the rhetoric about defending the Constitution when we’re discussing modern American politics and military affairs. Mr. Bush has definitely violated the Constitution on numerous occasions, and he has probably violated a few acts of Congress, but no one seriously proposes that their higher duty to the Constitution requires them to do anything about that. And what Gen. Newbold is talking about in his criticisms of Secretary Rumsfeld has nothing to do with constitutional preservation. The Patriot Act was enthusiastically passed by both Houses of Congress, in spite of its myriad violations of, among other things, the Fourth Amendment, and no soldiers felt compelled to rush to the defense of the Constitution there, either. Please, let’s be serious. The generals think the secretary is incompetent and a bad manager, and as retired generals they have every right to say so. Perhaps Gen. Shinseki is taking the classier route, the more professional route, when he does not openly criticise his incompetent former bosses, but perhaps we should have retired soldiers who defer more to the public interest than to a sense of professional propriety.

I’m a big fan of deference and professionalism generally, but we could stand to do with less deference towards poor leaders and less professionalism that allows failed policies to continue without hope or expectation of change. But one thing we can be sure of: this has nothing to do with the Constitution one way or the other. Neither does it really have much to do with the civilian control of the military. If, as Prof. Bacevich rightly notes, the civilian-military working relationship is breaking down, the solution is not to shut up retired soldiers but to have civilian managers who heed the officers’ counsel rather than presuming to know military affairs better than the professionals themselves.