An Actual General Discusses the Pentagon Story
MIKE PESCA, host:
All right. One person who's been paying a lot of attention to this story is retired Army Major General Paul Eaton, who served in Iraq. He was in charge of training the Iraqi military until 2004. In 2006 he called for then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign.
He was one of several retired generals to do so. Since retiring he has said that he will not work for the defense industry, and he has, we should disclose, endorsed Hillary Clinton and campaigned for her. General Eaton is on the line from Wilmington, North Carolina. Thank you for joining us.
Major General PAUL EATON (Retired, U.S. Army): Top of the morning, Mike. Thank you.
PESCA: During the period detailed in the New York Times article, were you in Iraq?
Maj. Gen. EATON: I was in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 monitoring of course what my family was reporting out to me.
PESCA: And, so what sort of knowledge did you have of what was being said on television by your fellow generals or retired generals and officers?
Maj. Gen. EATON: Well, a lot of these pundits were reporting a story that varied either mildly or wildly from what I was seeing on the ground. The most egregious example was, we are not in an insurgency, and particularly the period March-April of 2004 was pretty tough for us in Iraq, and not reported as such on typical U.S. media.
PESCA: Did you figure this was just incorrect analysis, but honestly come by?
Maj. Gen. EATON: I - and again, I'm going through family reporting, what I'm seeing on the ground, and what my family was reporting from the United States, and I could not account for the difference in what they were seeing in typical media outlets in the United States from what I was seeing on the ground, and it was - I just could not account for the difference.
PESCA: Do current generals, as you were then, have any way to get to people who may very well have been good friends of yours, or at least people you knew through channels, and say why are you going on TV saying this? Or, I don't know if you have enough time or the inclination to do that sort of thing, but do those conversations happen?
Maj. Gen. EATON: No, they didn't happen, and I was not in contact with any of the pundits who were reporting from a vantage point that may have obscured what they were saying. But the - from my position I could not as well account for why they would report what appeared to be a party line.
PESCA: Well, we just heard from TV columnist Scott Collins, and he suggested that many members of the public might be blase about this story, that they don't find it surprising. Are there elements in the New York Times story that you found surprising?
Maj. Gen. EATON: Well, the thing that bothered me most was that you have retired guys who are - who have their hands in the till. These guys are working defense contracts, and they are compromised in their objectivity because they want to keep these contracts viable.
So, there is an incentive for them to report in a way that the Pentagon, that the administration leadership, would say that's fine. There is an incentive for them to not frustrate administration policy, and I find that - I find that objectionable. I think that a lot of us are very disappointed in the behavior of these retired channels who have put their own financial gain before the soldiers and marines who were doing the hard work in Iraq.
PESCA: Well, that's speaking as a former member of the military, as you are - I am a current member of the media, and I want to put forward my peers. As if what you're saying is accurate, my peers would have many questions to answer for not properly vetting the people they put on the air, for not disclosing their contracts, or really thinking hard enough about it. So, we come from two different spheres. How do you apportion blame between the military man and the media in terms of letting that message get out there unchecked?
Maj. Gen. EATON: The - a lot of people failed the United States Army and Marine Corps. Congress failed, the media failed, and the bottom line is that young soldiers and marines were left to shoulder the burden of some pretty incompetent people, and these retired generals who came out against Mr. Rumsfeld, and I figure in that group, we were not anti-war generals, we were anti incompetent prosecution of warfare.
And Mr. Rumsfeld and anybody who supported him are in that category of incompetent war fighters. And when we spoke out, all we were after is get people in there who know the art of war, who can prosecute warfare competently. Now, I'll also tell you that there were some active duty generals, one of them is the man charged to go back and replace General Petraeus.
Ray Odierno got up on "Fox and Friends" in uniform to extol the virtues of Don Rumsfeld, and I find active duty generals in uniform going before media to defend an incompetent war fighter problematic. And so the problem is really a bit more serious than even the New York Times article reports.
PESCA: Is the issue there that he defended an incompetent - and that's a judgment call, but an incompetent secretary of defense, or is the issue that a current general in uniform should not endorse a civilian leader, should just basically never go away from we'll follow the orders of the civilian leader?
Maj. Gen. EATON: Active duty generals, active duty military, should not get into politics. And Odierno, for whatever reason, in uniform, before "Fox and Friends" on national TV endorsed a political appointee's competence.
And I find that - in the same vein that we're talking about, all these retired guy who got up and gave the party line, there has been a politicization of the Army and Marine leadership. Conway's in this article - General Conway is the commandant of the Marine Corps right now. This is - we've got a real problem. We have moved far astray from the model of an apolitical soldier that General Marshall portrayed during World War Two.
PESCA: When you came out with your criticism, that was one thing that people said. If generals, look, they're private citizens now, they could say whatever they want, but one consequence of generals, either before or after the fact putting their concerns or their support on the record, is that it is making the core politicized.
Perhaps, some people said, after the fact only the people who would get hired and would get promoted would be the people who were known to be in agreement with the policy. Did you see that as a danger to coming out and making your voice known?
Maj. Gen. EATON: It is a real issue that you look at the incentives and disincentives to disagree with policy, and this administration tolerates no disagreement. You know, there is a saying, disagreement is not disrespect. Well, in this administration, disagreement equals disrespect, and those who disagree are removed.
And the way you dissent, and I just spent some time at a conference of all military academy ethics and leadership professors, and the question was the role of the soldier in dissent, the soldier, airman, Marine, et cetera. And how do you get your opinion before the people who will decide the fate of the nation, and so there is a lot of thought being dedicated right now on how do you provide your point of view in an administration that tolerates no dissent. That's an issue right now.
PESCA: And in general, the generals such as yourself - in general the generals - such as yourself, who were very public about their disagreement, has the opinion of your fellow generals changed on you, if you could summarize it pretty quickly?
Maj. Gen. EATON: It's evolving. A lot of people are coming to the conclusion that in fact the generals acted because nobody else was acting as an advocate for the soldier, for the Army, and for the Marine Corps in particular.
So, because the press was silent, or co-opted, because Congress was silent, or afraid to point out that retired generals came out to challenge an administration that had really created a constitutional crisis, and in one guy, there's a Richard Whalen article out there that...
PESCA: Unfortunately, we got to end it there, but...
Maj. Gen. EATON: That's fine.
PESCA: We'll get in touch with you, and actually we'll link to the article. How about that, on the blog? Retired Army Major General Paul Eaton. Thank you very much.
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.
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