Gauging Effect of Rumsfeld Critique on Military

At least six retired military generals have recently criticized Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his handling of the invasion and continued occupation of Iraq, calling for him to step down. How significant is this action within the larger context of retired and active generals? Mike Pesca reports.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

First, the lead. The battle of the generals versus Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. On Sunday, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, defended Mr. Rumsfeld's leadership on Iraq and criticized those retired officers who said the Secretary should go.

General RICHARD MYERS (Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff): It's inappropriate because it's not the military that judges are civilian bosses. When you judge Secretary Rumsfeld, you're also judging the Commander in Chief because that's the chain of command.

CHADWICK: And here is NPR's Mike Pesca on the generals-turned-critics story.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Book and movie critics give out stars. Donald Rumsfeld's latest critics wear them. But depending on what newspaper you read, these former generals are either a growing chorus or a small handful. It's hard to know what the proper context is.

By sheer numbers, they're a small fraction of everyone who's ever been a flag officer. Right now there are almost 1,000 generals or admirals. According to the latest Department of Defense statistics, there are almost 5,000 retired generals and admirals.

Still, the critics we have heard from, though small in number, carry with them great weight and maybe something of an advance squad, says Loren Thompson, COO of the Lexington Institute, a Right-leaning think tank.

Mr. LOREN THOMPSON (Chief Operating Officer, Lexington Institute): As of today, only a handful of senior military officers have spoken out against Rumsfeld's leadership.

However, this is just the beginning of a process because the undertone of criticism and dissatisfaction with his leadership is quite broad in the officer corps. So we may ultimately see many more officers going public.

PESCA: While Thompson is surprised that it's taken this long for officers to speak out, there have been others before them. Joseph Hoar, a former four star general in the Marines, has been on the record as opposing the war in Iraq, or more precisely, the tactics used to fight the war.

Hoar testifies before Congress and does interviews. He feels it's his duty, which is not a word used lightly by a Marine.

Mr. JOSEPH HOAR (Retired General): It's be a good soldier and do what you're told, but you just can't walk away and ignore the consequences of that first order, which is let's do it this way.

PESCA: Hoar's first war was Vietnam, like most of the military men we're hearing from now. But he was also the commander in chief of the United States Central Command during the strikes in Somalia in 1993. He opposed that mission and said so to his civilian superiors.

Mr. HORR: They ignored my advice and directed that we did it. And it was a mistake. And we had 18 terrific soldiers killed as a result of that. But I had made such a fuss of this during the discussion period that everybody knew about it, and at the end of the day when the thing went badly, it was Les Aspin that went.

PESCA: Les Aspin, the Secretary of Defense, was forced out. Retired General Anthony Zinni finds little accountability now. He catalogs what he sees as the mistakes of Donald Rumsfeld and civilian leaders in his book and on numerous interviews, like this one on C-SPAN, where he heard from callers, a few of whom made the following complaint.

Unidentified Female (Caller): What purpose does it serve to lower the morale of this country? To me it's unpatriotic.

PESCA: Zinni's response to those charges went like this.

Mr. ANTHONY ZINNI (Retired General): If you were to see our troops sent out on a mission with a faulty rifle, let's say, with bad equipment, and you were to see and hear the retired generals sit back and not say anything while they were out there operating with this faulty equipment and no one doing anything to correct it, I think you would be enraged that our generals didn't speak out.

Well, what's the difference between that and faulty planning?

PESCA: Richard Cohen, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina, says there's good reason that it's unprecedented for a group of ex-generals to become critics during a shooting war. The military, he argues, shouldn't hold the civilians accountable, just the opposite.

Cohen himself thinks that Rumsfeld should have resigned long ago. He just doesn't want a group of generals as his amen choir.

Professor RICHARD COHEN (University of North Carolina): Yes, these men have the right to do it. But their first name is General. And they're signing themselves that way. They become cat's paws of the opposition. And I don't think it's wise for a military that has a reputation for being non-partisan and non-political to be disputing policy in this way.

PESCA: Cohen also thinks that if the general-turned-critic phenomenon becomes a trend, then policymakers will prize muted loyalty above expertise when they're making appointments.

In his retirement speech, General Douglas MacArthur famously said that old soldiers never die, they just fade away. The current crop are not fading quietly.

You should also note that MacArthur uttered his words after being relieved of his command for, among other things, going public with his criticism of civilian leaders.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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