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A Final Note (For Now) on the Generals and That Awful Movie

Certainly, generals and admirals are traditionally given more leeway to publicly assess war policies than is given to those in lower ranks. But with that broader, though limited, discretion comes the responsibility not to be seen to in any way contradict the absolute rule of civilians over the military in our constitutional republic.

The president has his authority granted to him by the people in the election of 2004. Where exactly do the generals in "revolt" think their authority comes from? ~Tony Blankley, The Washington Times

In an article entitled (I kid you not) "Seven days in April," Mr. Blankley gets very huffy about the "revolt" and whether it is the beginning of a mutinous conspiracy (!) organised in contravention of military regulations. (Certainly, if there were a mutinous conspiracy, it would be in violation of regulations, but Mr. Blankley's proof comes from Richard Holbrooke, notable liar and wrecker of the Balkans, and a lot of loose talk about "revolt.")

Update: Clark Stooksbury has a good take on the response to the generals. He notes that Mr. Blankley is at it again. Here is Blankley citing his agreement with the recent Post editorial with this gem:

And it is on exactly that point that the Post correctly fears a dangerous precedent is in the process of being set. They rightly fear that based on what is currently happening to Secretary Rumsfeld, "will future defense secretaries have to worry about potential rebellions by their brass, and will they start choosing commanders according to calculations of political loyalty?"
(Via Clark Stooksbury)

I have seen some lame complaints about the "generals' revolt," but this has to take the cake. After all, there have never been internal political struggles at the Pentagon; the DOD evidently has operated like a well-oiled machine until now. Not that I think politically-motivated choices for selecting commanders are wise or desirable in any military structure. But it is astonishing that Rumsfeld's tenure, which has been notably riddled with forcing out people who did not toe his political line and who were not suitably loyal to him and his vision (that's a Cabinet secretary's prerogative, but it can come back to bite you), is now being defended by an appeal against choosing officers based on considerations of politics and loyalty! Again and again, the name Shinseki resurfaces to mock the claims of the Rumsfeld admirers--if that was not a case of a man being forced out for political reasons, I don't know what is.

Also, isn't it interesting that suddenly, now that one of their heroes is under some withering critical fire, the supporters of the war, such as Mr. Blankley, start ominously warning about incipient Caesarism? Not that they care when the President openly flouts the law or violates the Constitution--real occasions of Caesar doing what he pleases because he can--but watch out for those crazy generals! Observers can judge who poses the greatest threat to constitutional government today--an autocratic, unrestrained President in full control of the world's most powerful military, or a group of retirees with no soldiers behind them. If Mr. Blankley was worried about Caesarism, which I very much doubt, he would have said something, anything, in the last five years against the lawlessness of the present Caesar.

As usual, Mr. Blankley's constitutional theory is as impressive as it has ever been: Presidents possess their authority through election, yes, but election to an office vested with certain powers by the Constitution. It is to that Constitution that officers swear their allegiance and, presumably, whence at least some of them must believe they derive their own authority as officers (however, as I have said before, this is not a question of the military fighting to preserve the Constitution against a usurping government, but of the military quibbling over how to run a war that is, as it happens, not even legal under the Constitution, so neither the civilians nor the military officers are exactly on solid legal footing). But all of this is academic--it presupposes some mutinous conspiracy on the part of active duty officers because Richard Holbrooke has said some allegedly ominous things about this! This response is hysteria, pure and simple.

But, as I have mentioned, Mr. Blankley is apparently not alone in its fear of Burt Lancaster's General Scott reborn: the Seven Days in May meme has been spreading quickly, suggesting that many people have either never seen this movie (as they would not be able to print such things without collapsing in fits of hysterical laughter) and that they are terribly frightened of a military that, in the case of Mr. Blankley, he has been perfectly willing to see the administration abuse, overextend and wreck for political goals of dubious value. There seems to be the sense that all of these people know that the Army and Marines have been ill-used by this war, and they seem to be genuinely afraid that jingoism will finally have a decisive, negative consequence in the form of a military coup. This is the sort of thing that would normally be dismissed by "mainstream" people as the ravings of "moonbats," but here we have some notable names in the mainstream press raving about conspiracies and making dark references to a possible coup. You'd think we lived in Venezuela. Get a grip, folks!

Update: Maj. Gen. Batiste (Ret.) has a riposte to the last several days of the public debate over the generals' original criticisms:

Civilian control of the military is fundamental, but we deserve competent leaders who do not lead by intimidation, who understand that respect is a two-way street, and who do not dismiss sound military advice. At the same time, we need senior military leaders who are grounded in the fundamental principles of war and who are not afraid to do the right thing. Our democracy depends on it. There are some who advocate that we gag this debate, but let me assure you that it is not in our national interest to do so. We must win this war, and we cannot allow senior leaders to continue to make decisions when their track record is so dismal.

For all these reasons, we need to hold leaders accountable. There is no question that we will succeed in Iraq. To move forward, we need a leader with the character and skills necessary to lead. To date, this war has been a strategic failure. On the ground, operationally and tactically, we are winning the war on the backs of our great soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors and their families. Americans deserve accountability in our leaders. We need a fresh start.

Daniel Larison | April 19, 2006


Hi, Daniel. I saw your trackback to my site and wanted to correct what I think is a misapprehension. I'm not worried about a military coup: my twofold point is that even assuming Bush were disposed toward firing Rumsfeld, the perception that he would be doing so at the behest of the military makes it more unlikely, and that because the pressure is obviously coming from within the military as well as from retirees, there's a risk that a successful effort would set a precedent for activism among senior officers.

I'm glad to see these guys speaking out. If others want to as well, they should do so by resigning and joining the ranks of civilians. They ought not to get used to having it both ways.

weldon berger | 04/19/06 12:03

Thanks for your comment, Mr. Berger. I see your point. I'm basically in agreement that it is good that they are speaking out (it might remind the normal channels of checks and balances of what they're supposed to be doing). I don't agree with the recommendation to fire Rumsfeld, for reasons I've stated earlier this week, but I find the overreaction to the generals' criticism even harder to take.

The retired generals should be free to say what they like without imagining the sinister consequences for civilian-military relations that would follow from heeding their advice. I agree that their speaking out will make it even more difficult for Bush to fire Rumsfeld, even if he had been contemplating a change (and he hasn't, as far as anyone knows), because he does not want the humiliation of having been told what to do, but I am doubtful that the success of retired officers in forcing an issue would necessarily encourage more activism in the future. It is my impression that most, if not all, of the original six generals (Wesley Clark is just a conniving opportunist and has no place in the discussion) came to this very reluctantly, which is why they are speaking up so "late," and the criticism this has brought down on them personally and as officers will be as likely to discourage future dissenting retired officers as encourage them. In a sense, they have done it for nothing at this point, except perhaps to clear their consciences, as Rumsfeld will not be fired, the management of the war will not change and I think they will have made it that much more difficult for anyone to follow their example, should a more dire need for an outspoken retired officer to challenge a policy decision (for examle, whether to nuke Iran) someday arise.

I should probably have distinguished clearly between those (such as Mr. Blankley) citing Seven Days in May as an example of the sort of conflict that this situation is and those who were simply referring to it without the dire warnings of insurrection. I was trying to convey simply the growing popularity of referring to this movie in the context of the debate about the generals. I will try to be more clear in the future.

Daniel Larison | 04/19/06 12:18

No problems, and no need for the "Mr." But I have to say I liked the movie :)

weldon berger | 04/19/06 16:10

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