Retired Generals Decry Military Politics

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Retired generals have begun speaking out about what they say is the increasing politicization of the military. They say senior officers are expected to echo the Bush administration's official line on the war on terror.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, in this country in recent days, Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave commencement addresses to officers who may be heading for war. He spoke at the Naval academy, then the Air Force academy, and at both places he repeated this line:

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): As officers, you will have the responsibility to communicate to those below you that the American military must be non-political.

INSKEEP: Non-political, that could be seen as a subtle acknowledgment of something that critics of the Bush administration have been saying. They say the military has become politicized. Here's NPR defense correspondent Guy Raz.

GUY RAZ: A few months before the Iraq war, the Army's chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, sat in front of a congressional committee and he said that once the war was over hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops would be needed to stabilize Iraq. The next day, Paul Wolfowitz, who was the number two man at the Pentagon at the time, called Shinseki estimate wildly off the mark, and so did Donald Rumsfeld. And when Shinseki retired some months later, Rumsfeld didn't even show up for the ceremony.

Representative GENE TAYLOR (Democrat, Mississippi): And that really did set the tone for the uniformed ranks. Unless you say exactly what Donald Rumsfeld wanted to hear, he's going to humiliate you. He's going to make fun of you at every opportunity in the press. And that's had had an effect.

RAZ: This is Mississippi Congressman Gene Taylor. He's a Democrat and a fierce critic of the old Pentagon under Rumsfeld. What bothers Taylor and a whole host of retired officers is a perception that under Rumsfeld the Pentagon promoted yes-men up the ranks.

Major General PAUL EATON (U.S. Army, Retired): Every three and four-star general on active duty today went through the Rumsfeld screen.

RAZ: The Rumsfeld screen former Major General Paul Eaton is taking about is a weeding-out process that Rumsfeld controlled. Eaton says from the beginning the Bush administration preferred senior officers who wouldn't challenge its policy decisions.

Maj. Gen. EATON: The men they selected over the last six years are the three or four-star generals of the military, and it represents a gross politization of the Army's officer corps.

RAZ: Paul Eaton was a division commander in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. He's now a fierce critic of his former bosses. And one of the things he started to notice during the end of his time in the military was a kind of merging of political rhetoric with military rhetoric. So for example, when it comes to Iraq, the president's message on fighting terrorists is this...

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It's better to fight them there than here.

RAZ: Now, this may be true. We simply don't know. But it's not a statement of fact; it is a political view. But it sounds remarkably similar to the way Major General Rick Lynch, a senior U.S. commander in Iraq, sees the military mission.

Major General RICK LYNCH (U.S. Army): They're here to defeat the terrorists in Iraq so they don't have to fight the terrorists back home.

RAZ: It's a view shared by many senior generals, officers appointed or promoted by the Bush administration.

Now, a few months ago a young Army major, Jason Dempsey, finished his doctorate at Columbia. He was looking at the intersection between politics and the military, and he found that out of all the officers he surveyed, only 10 percent described themselves as liberals, but nearly 70 percent of them called themselves conservatives.

Major JASON DEMPSEY (U.S. Army): So that right now the lieutenant colonel - colonel cohort - the majority, a fairly strong majority, self-identifies as conservative.

RAZ: And Republicans, including the president, have banked on this - even played it up by using subtle ways to portray the Democrats as soft on defense.

Pres. BUSH: Democrats in Congress have spent the past 70 days pushing legislation that would undercut our troops.

RAZ: Now, even while the president is working hard to push the idea that his administration may be the best for the military, there is some anecdotal evidence to show he may be losing ground.

Late last year the Military Times surveyed 1,000 officers and it found that there is growing disenchantment with the war, and then there's this story.

Every year for the past five years a professor at West Point has done an informal poll of incoming cadets. Five years ago, at the start of the war, 80 percent of his cadets called themselves Republicans. But this year less than half of the new cadets say they're Republicans. And while it doesn't necessarily mean anything in the long term, it could in the short term, especially with the Republican Party banking on military support in 2008.

Guy Raz, NPR News.

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