NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Over the past few weeks, Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, has come under fire from eight retired U.S. generals who demand his departure for what they call broad failures in Iraq.
Secretary Rumsfeld has heard calls for his head before, notably after the ghastly images from Abu Ghraib came to light a couple of years ago, but the generals present a different indictment: arrogance, hubris, micromanagement, incompetence, refusal to admit strategic and operational errors, and refusal to accept sound military advice when it was offered.
The president has defended his secretary, and after the charges surfaced, a second group of generals emerged to support Secretary Rumsfeld and attack his critics as opponents of military transformation, and in some cases, as officers trying to deflect blame for their own mistakes.
Beyond the substance of the case, many in uniform and out question the circumstances. It is highly unusual for even retired military officers to criticism civilian leadership in public, especially in time of war. The issue is not dissent, per se, but the basic constitutional principle that places the military firmly under the control of civilians.
In just a moment we'll talk with one of Secretary Rumsfeld's critics. Later in the program, Senator John Kerry joins us on the 35th anniversary of his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the war in Vietnam.
But first, if you have questions about the criticism, or its appropriateness, give us a call. We'd especially be interested to hear from former or active members of the military.
Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is Talk@npr.org.
We begin with retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, a West Point graduate who retired last year after 31 years in the Army. He commanded the Army's First Infantry Division both in Iraq and in Kosovo. He's now President of Klein Steel Services. Gen., nice to have you on the program today.
Major General JOHN BATISTE (United States Army, Retired): Neal, thank you. I appreciate the invitation.
CONAN: You're calling on Secretary Rumsfeld to step down. Why?
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Absolutely. You know, for a series of reasons. One, he made some strategic blunders with decisions taken before and in the initial phases of the operation in Iraq. And secondly, he treated military with contempt, with dismissiveness and arrogance, would not listen to sound military advice.
CONAN: You turned down, reportedly, a promotion to three stars before you decided to step down. Was that the reason why?
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Neal, I, by all accounts, had a very promising career in the military. I elected to retire on principle, in part so that you and I could be having this discussion today. You know, if I was still in uniform, I'd be violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
CONAN: Yet, a lot of people remember the example of Gen. Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, who was asked his military opinion before the United States Congress and said he thought maybe 300,000, 350,000 troops were going to be needed after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. And, well, he was retired a year early.
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: He was certainly retired and replaced. And a lot of us took note of the shabby treatment that he received. A very distinguished officer who, quite frankly, knew what he was talking about.
CONAN: Now were you among those officers, again, you commanded the First Infantry Division in Iraq, who brought up these criticisms, privately, in channels, to the secretary?
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Listen, we always dealt within the system, within the military. We had great debates within the military, candid, very heated, but at a point in time a commander makes a decision. And then you have two options: One, you can either execute the best idea you've ever heard, or you can get out. And I personally chose to stay with my soldiers in combat, to complete the mission as best we could.
CONAN: Now, you said you had these disagreements within the chain of command, is what you're saying. You did not go outside that chain of command to send anything directly to the secretary of defense.
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: I didn't go outside the chain of command, no. I stayed right where I needed to be.
CONAN: Um, I wonder, now that you've come out in public, with seven other generals, it should be said, and for one thing, some people are asking whether this has been coordinated in any way?
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: No, it's not. Isn't that something? This is all spontaneous, because it's the right thing to do.
CONAN: And the other question that some people are saying is, when you have prominent retired officers questioning their civilian leadership, the secretary of defense, calling for him to step down in time of war, that brings into question the principle of civilian control of the military.
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Neal, civilian control of the military is fundamental. We must have it, there's no question about that. What we have here is a question of accountability, a series of strategic blunders, which took away what should have been a very deliberate victory and created a prolonged challenge.
Let there be no mistake, we will win the war on terrorism. We must complete what we started in Iraq. But it didn't need to be this hard. We went to war with the wrong plan.
I'm not saying at all that we should have repeated what we did in the Gulf War of 1991, but we needed to consider the hard work to build the peace after we took down the regime. And I'm afraid that our leadership hand-weighed that away.
We set the conditions for Abu Ghraib. We gave our young soldiers, in some cases untrained and poorly led, very ambiguous rules for the treatment of prisoners and interrogation. On top of that, you had insufficient boots on the ground over there, so that our commanders, who should have been focused on leading and planning and anticipating opportunities, were focused on management shortages. Incredibly frustrating.
On top of that, you had senior leadership, civilian leadership in the Department of Defense, who chose to stand down the Iraqi military. When you're fighting an insurgency, which should have been no surprise to anybody if you've read even a little bit about the history of Iraq and the complexity of its tribes, its religious factions, the Sunni and the Shia, and the ethnic diversity, Arab and Kurd, you know there's going to be an insurgency. The Brits had this experience back in the last century in spades.
So the last thing you want to do is stand down such an important institution. We would have figured out who the bad apples were in that bunch and gotten rid of them. But we needed the military, the Iraqi military and police, an institution that was well respected, to keep this thing going and build the peace in a very deliberate fashion.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And we'll begin with Daniel(ph); Daniel's calling us from Texas.
DANIEL (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Hi Daniel. You're on the air.
DANIEL: Okay. I just wanted to say, it's--a lot of this sounds like, I'm an active duty soldier right now. I've been over there to the theater. I just wonder how much of this sounds like armchair quarterbacking on the Saturday after the Super Bowl. I mean, like, since everyone enters the military, they are taught, you never talk bad about your chain of command, especially in front of everybody when there's more constructive channels to go about it.
And I just wonder what these generals, I saw General Zinni the other day saying that, oh, wouldn't you expect this from somebody if the soldiers are going to war with poor equipment. And I'd have to say, yeah, I'd expect the generals to make complaints through the proper channels. Perhaps bring it up to the secretary in a letter that they could all sign, instead of just going on-air and just trying to bash everyone, basically, in the upper echelons of the military.
CONAN: Gen. Batiste? Monday morning quarterbacking?
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: I just want to say first, to the caller, thank you for the service to your country. You're absolutely wonderful.
The answer to that is pretty simple. We could not affect change from within. We have a long war on terrorism in front of us. This is going to go on, anybody's guess. And there are some really significant decisions that will have to be made in the near future about any number of actions that we must take. And my point is, and others, I think, is that why not have a secretary of defense whose instinct and judgment and motivation we trust, who has a good track record to make those really important decisions for our country.
CONAN: Daniel, you satisfied with that?
DANIEL: Well, I just wonder, like basically when times are hard, every single leader has always been criticized. Everyone from Lincoln--nobody liked Ulysses S. Grant in the very beginning of the Civil War, when he wasn't bringing in the victories. And I just wonder, like hindsight's 20/20, who exactly is there to say exactly who is going to be successful as secretary of defense and who is not?
CONAN: Mm hmm.
DANIEL: And granted, personally, I have no great love for the secretary, but that is our chain of command and I feel we should support him. And any complaints necessary be made through proper channels, observing proper protocol.
CONAN: Daniel, thanks very much, appreciate it.
DANIEL: All right, thank you.
CONAN: Let's bring in another voice to the conversation now, Mike Davidson joins us. He retired from the staff of the Joint Chiefs five years ago with the rank of major general. He's with us from the studios of member station WUOL in Louisville, Kentucky. Nice to have you back on the program, Mike.
Major General MIKE DAVIDSON (Former Assistant to the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Retired): Thank you, Neal. And I had the great good pleasure of serving on the Joint Staff with John Batiste right down the hall from me.
CONAN: So, given what he has had to say, I wonder, you've not come out publicly on either side of this issue. Where do you come down?
Maj. Gen. DAVIDSON: Well, I haven't come out publicly and I probably won't. I'm glad John and the other guys have raised those issues. If retired generals don't raise that kind of expert issue, where is it going to come from? So I think it's a first-rate thing to do. I'm not sure we ought to spend the next six months worrying about whether the secretary of defense stays, the president says he's the decider. He says he has decided. So I think we ought to take this energy, which is great, and turn it toward re-looking some of these policies in Iraq, which everyone will admit have not worked as well as we had hoped.
CONAN: Yet what about that issue that General Batiste raises about accountability? Somebody's got to take responsibility for those errors that were made.
Maj. Gen. DAVIDSON: Well, they can do that when they write the history books. What I would rather do is take that energy and go through some of these policies that, even the secretary of defense will tell you, have not worked out the way they had hoped.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. What about that issue about civilian control of the military, to have generals holding the secretary of defense responsible, in time of war. Doesn't that raise questions?
Maj. Gen. DAVIDSON: It does not. And I know that's a--I know you're knowledgeable enough about these--I don't think that's a serious issue. And let me tell you why very briefly. The last general officer that I'm aware of, or have read about, that went in and gave the president of the United States bad news was Matthew Ridgeway in 1954 when he tried to get the Air Force and the Navy successfully to not use nuclear weapons around the jungle at Dien Bien Phu.
Since then, we have created such a massive bureaucracy between our senior generals and the president that somebody's got to come up on the net and talk about things that aren't working well. And that's why I think with John and Zinni and the other guys have done, is truly an act of conscience, an act of integrity and something we ought to be glad we've got guys that will do.
CONAN: Gen. Davidson, Gen. Batiste stay with us. We have to take a short break. We're talking about dissent and the military, and its broader implications. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@NPR.org. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. When eight retired generals called publicly for the resignations of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it opened a debate over the appropriateness of their case and the appropriateness of the dissent in the military. Given the U.S. strong democratic tradition of civilian control of the armed forces, should former military leaders be speaking out?
Our guests are retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the Army's First Division both in Iraq and in Kosovo. Recently, he has publicly called for Secretary Rumsfeld to resign. Also with us, retired Maj. Gen. Mike Davidson, a friend of the program and former assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
If you're retired or active military or if you have thoughts about this question, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is Talk@NPR.org.
And let's see if we can get some more listeners on the line. And why don't we start with Annette(ph). Annette's calling us from Arlington, Virginia.
ANNETTE (Caller): Yes, as the daughter of a retired Air Force general and the wife of an Air Force colonel, I'm very interested in the idea of dissent as patriotism. I am wondering what Gen. Batiste thinks of Mr. McMasters' dissertation-turned book, Dereliction of Duty, and the fact that Mr. McMasters is still on active duty.
CONAN: Colonel McMasters' book was about Vietnam.
CONAN: Gen. Batiste?
ANNETTE: That's correct.
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Yes, I think that the book, Dereliction of Duty is something everyone ought to read. I think that Colonel McMasters had every right to write it while he was on active duty. It was some years after the Vietnam War. And I think that's a healthy discourse that we must have.
CONAN: Gen. Davidson...
ANNETTE: What's going on?
CONAN: I'm sorry, I just wanted to ask General Davidson, who was a--I know was a second lieutenant in the Rangers in Vietnam and sometimes at the end of a very lonely line. I wonder if you thought, at that time, that senior officers ought to be speaking out?
Maj. Gen. DAVIDSON: At that time I thought a senior officer was a captain.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Maj. Gen. DAVIDSON: My policy position consisted of a AR15 rifle and four young soldiers, so I never gave it a thought. I did--I was somewhat responsible for HR's going down the road he--my doctoral dissertation became an article, which became a footnote in his book. So I'm not blameless on that issue.
CONAN: But do you think, in retrospect, senior officers should have spoken out about Vietnam?
Maj. Gen. DAVIDSON: They absolutely should have. And that was a time when Maxwell Taylor did not go to the White House and tell the president that he was looking at an enormous risk. And so I would tell you that Matthew Ridgeway served Dwight Eisenhower a lot better in Vietnam in the 50s than all of the generals, to include Maxwell Taylor, he certainly wasn't the only one, served Lyndon Johnson. And if we had that perceptive comment that Daniel, the caller, made earlier...
(RET) Maj. Gen. DAVIDSON: About hindsight being 20/20, I'll bet you when Lyndon Johnson declined to run for president in '68, he would have thought the same thing.
CONAN: Annette, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off.
ANNETTE: Oh, no, that's okay. I was just wondering if the--if General Batiste feels as though there is any constructive dissent going on now, or if everyone has been cowed?
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Well, I think, Annette, that those on active duty really need to speak for themselves. I can tell you that senior civilian leadership in the Department of Defense has been very dismissive and contemptuous of senior militaries.
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: And sadly, you know, I think that one of the jobs of senior military officers is to be one competent in the principles of war. And then two, willing to stand up and be heard when it counts.
ANNETTE: God bless you, thank you very much, you speak for a lot of people on active duty. Thank you.
CONAN: Annette, thanks for the call. Let's turn now to Anne(ph). Anne's calling from San Jose.
ANNE (Caller): Hi, thank you so much for taking my call.
ANNE: I'm actually on the advisory board for Military Families Speak Out.
ANNE: My son is a staff sergeant in the 82nd Airborne and he just returned a few months ago from his third deployment to Iraq. And I just would like to say thank you to the generals, to all of the generals who are speaking out on behalf of those who are wearing the uniform and who are boots on the ground over there in Iraq.
My son has said, for a long time, that Rumsfeld has made such a mess of this war. He's so disgusted and I'm just--I can't thank you enough for speaking out. I think that it's important for people to know how many of the mid-level NCOs are leaving the military because they're so disenchanted with the levels of bureaucracy and the poor decision making and what they're seeing.
The last group that was ETS'ing(ph) out was about 73 percent of fairly high level NCOs, and I think people need to be aware of what this civilian administration is doing to the military. Whether or not you believe in the military or not, you believe in the war or not, I think it's important for us to look at what's going on with that institution.
CONAN: Gen. Batiste?
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Wow, my response is, God bless servicemen and women and their families.
ANNE: Thank you.
CONAN: Thank you very much, Anne. But she does raise a question that has come up from your critics, Gen. Batiste, and that is that by saying your leaders, who aren't going anywhere--the president of the United States says this is my secretary of defense--by you saying your leaders are incompetent, you might be affecting morale to?
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Oh, nonsense. This is not affecting morale at all. The enemy fears our great men and women in Iraq and other places today as much as they did two weeks ago before I spoke out. This is all about doing the right thing, the harder right instead of the easier wrong. It's calling a spade a spade, it's holding people accountable for their mistakes.
And frankly, the stakes are pretty high. We have a long war in front of us and I, for one, a citizen of the United States, think we deserve senior leadership in the Department of Defense whose instincts and judgment we trust.
CONAN: Let's talk now with Don(ph). Don's calling us from Louisiana.
DON (Caller): Yeah, hi, I want to commend the general for speaking out. I'm a retired Army medical officer. I was Airborne Ranger in the Special Forces. And many of use retirees, I retired in '99, have been wondering what's going on? Who's in charge up there? Because the generals know the commanders responsible for everything that happens on the battlefield and everything that doesn't happen on the battlefield.
And many of us want to know, where was the chain of command? With an issue like Abu Ghraib, where are the first sergeants, the sergeant majors and then those senior officers who are responsible? And how is it that they could just hang those young soldiers out to dry? To me, that was one of the most despicable instances of the lack of military leadership I have seen in the 30 years I've been associated with the military. And I'd like to hear your comments.
CONAN: Gen. Batiste, is that one of the issues of accountability you think Secretary Rumsfeld owes for?
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: I do. I think Abu Ghraib is a national disgrace and it never should have happened. It came out, as I said earlier, because there were ambiguous rules established, and they changed all too often, for the treatment of prisoners and interrogation procedures.
And, as I said, we had commanders on the ground then, in 2003, early 2004, who were so consumed by the challenges of managing shortages--they didn't have enough boots on the ground to accomplish the mission--they were so consumed with that that we didn't pay enough attention to leading, to supervising and anticipating opportunity on the battlefield.
CONAN: Don, thanks very much for the call.
DON: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation now: Andrew Bacevich, a professor of International Relations at Boston University, also a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army. He joins us by phone from his office at the BU. Professor, nice to have you on the program today.
Professor ANDREW BACEVICH (Professor, International Relations, Boston University; Lieutenant Colonel, United States Army, Retired): Oh, thanks for having me.
CONAN: Professor, the military code traditionally bars members of the military from engaging in civilian politics or publicly challenging civilian leadership, especially in times of war. Does this revolt of the generals, if you will, does it cause you pause?
Prof. BACEVICH: I must admit, I'm on the other side of the fence from Gen. Batiste on this. I guess I'm on the same side in certainly in the sense that I find great fault with Secretary Rumsfeld and believe that he should have been fired long ago.
But having said that, it's not the business of generals to hold civilian officials accountable. It's the business of the Congress and it's the business of the people. I wouldn't, for a second, question the right of retired officers to speak out, but I think they probably ought to think carefully about the wisdom of exercising that right.
If the dissident generals succeed in ousting Secretary Rumsfeld, they will, in fact, be subverting the principle of civilian control. And regardless of where one stands on the war--and I would emphasize, I am against the war--but regardless of where you stand on the war, one ought to be very careful about subverting that crucial principle.
CONAN: Well how does this play out? I mean, how is this a threat?
Prof. BACEVICH: Well I think it's a threat in if tomorrow Rumsfeld announces that he has resigned, regardless of what the president says, it will be understood that he was fired. Regardless of what the president says, it will be understood that he was fired because he fell out of favor with senior officers.
And, in effect, we will have created a situation in which future secretaries of defense will be seen to be serving at the pleasure of the generals, in which secretaries will impart the appointed based on whether or not they are perceived to be acceptable to military officers. In which, senior officials will have to be looking their shoulders to try to make sure that they are--that they are satisfying general officers and again, that's not civilian control.
That is something other than civilian control and going all the way back to the founding of this republic and the modeling done by General George Washington, civilian control has been a paramount value. We ought not to tamper with that.
CONAN: Gen. Batiste, I was wondering if you could give a response to that?
MAJ. GEN. BATISTE: Sure, sure. You know, I absolutely agree with Andrew. Civilian control is important. We'll never back away from that. Remember, I hung up my uniform but I never abrogated my rights as an American citizen to speak out. This is all about accountability and there is no leader in any organization I've ever seen who's indispensable.
If I had been killed or wounded as a commander of the First Infantry Division in Iraq, there would have been a replacement identified instantaneously and that major general, in that division, would not have missed a beat. I would tell you that the same is true with the Department of Defense.
Civilian control is important; it's paramount. But this is--this is a point in history. This was gut wrenching for guys like me to do this. I did it because it's the right thing to do.
CONAN: General Davidson, he's talking about gut wrenching, this is clearly something that--this is extraordinary for eight generals now to come out and say something like this.
MAJ. GEN. DAVIDSON: It is, but again, I think we need to encourage them to do this for this reason: If the war was going well, we would be nominating Rumsfeld for sainthood.
The issue is not his personality, although many of the criticisms are well founded. I think the issue is, and I think John would agree with this, at the end of the day what we're looking for is a better policy in the war in Iraq and if we--if we can find that with the crew that's there, let's move off and do it. I think John and Tony Zinni's idea is that we'll not get a change with the crew that's there and I take a different view on that.
CONAN: We're talking with retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste and Mike Davidson; also with us, retired Lt. Col., now Professor, Andrew Bacevich.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Andrew Bacevich, replies to their replies, but also, Haven't we crossed this line of intermingling senior military officers and politicians? This past presidential campaign, both presidential candidates surrounded themselves with a coterie of former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs.
Prof. BACEVICH: I think a point well made that really, in my judgment, this latest flap is really indicative of a much larger problem with civil military relations. And you're exactly right.
In the past, what, three presidential cycles, we've had Republicans and Democrats competing with one another to see who can, you know, parade the most significant roster of recently retired generals. So the Officer Corps has been made into a pawn of politics, the Officer Corps is increasingly politicized and that--those trends reinforce my concern about the implications of this particular campaign.
Again, I would emphasize, I would not for a second defend the performance of Secretary Rumsfeld. He is a failure. This policy--the war policy has failed. He should go, but it's not the business of generals to hold him accountable. Quite frankly, I have my problems with the performance of the senior military leadership in Iraq. And it seems to me that recently retired senior military leaders might do a better job of trying to bring constructive criticism on the performance of the military itself, rather than simply targeting the failure of Secretary Rumsfeld.
CONAN: Now let's get another caller on the line. This is John(ph). John with us from Covington, Kentucky.
JOHN (Caller): Yes, hello.
CONAN: Hi John. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHN: Okay, thank you. I just wanted to say how much I appreciate the generals speaking out. It takes a lot of courage. The training of military officers is such that civilian control over the military is taught to them from the very beginning and they take it very seriously.
At the same time, we live in a democratic republic and without people standing up to let us know what's going on, neither Congress nor the public is aware of these issues. And so it is a fine line to walk between when you speak up and when you don't. Throughout our history this hasn't been a practice that you see all the time; it is very rare and that's one of the reasons why it gives an impetus to really listening to what these generals have to say and, personally, as a citizen, as an ex-military, I served in the United States Army during Vietnam, and I'm just really proud of these gentlemen for standing up.
But most importantly as an American citizen, I know that by them standing up and taking a position they create the opportunity for that middle ground that some of your guests have referred back to again. Perhaps, there is the opportunity to make constructive change and that opportunity would not exist if these generals had not taken the initiative.
CONAN: Andrew Bacevich, if the generals don't talk, how do we know something's wrong?
JOHN: Thank you.
Prof. BACEVICH: I mean, maybe I'm living on another planet, but the one I'm on suggests that about two-thirds of the American people had decided that this war was misguided and bungled long before any of these generals spoke out. We don't need retired military officers to tell us when our policies are going awry.
CONAN: Andrew Bacevich, thanks very much for being with us today.
Prof. BACEVICH: You bet.
CONAN: We appreciate your time.
Prof. BACEVICH: Bye.
CONAN: Andrew Bacevich, a professor of International Relations at Boston University; a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. He joined us by phone from his office at BU up in Boston.
We're going to take a short break. And when we continue, we'll hear more from retired Generals Mike Davidson and John Batiste, and more of your calls. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, e-mail is email@example.com.
Plus, Senator John Kerry on the value of dissent; 35 years ago, he spoke to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the war in Vietnam.
I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington and here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News.
President Bush has ordered a temporary suspension of environmental rules for gasoline, making it easier for refiners to meet demand and possibly lower prices at the pump. President Bush also halted, at least for the summer, purchase of crude oil for the government's emergency reserve.
And 10 people have been arrested in connection with last night's triple bomb attack at a Sinai beach resort in Egypt. The explosions killed at least 18 people and injured dozens more. As always, you can hear details on those stories and much more of course later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, protestors in Nepal are still in the streets despite an announcement from the king yesterday agreeing to demonstrator's demands. What's happening in Nepal and why should we care?
Plus, political junkie, Ken Rudin, that's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.
In a few moments, Senator John Kerry on the 35th anniversary of his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about withdrawal from Vietnam.
But first, should former military officers be questioning civilian leadership in terms of the war in Iraq? Our guests are Gen. Mike Davidson and Gen. Mike--Gen. John Batiste, who've spoken out.
And I wanted to ask you both to elucidate a little bit on one area of disagreement I've seen--heard emerge between you two guys and that is, Gen. Batiste, you say Secretary Rumsfeld should resign because we cannot move ahead in Iraq with him in control, and Gen. Davidson, you say you think he can--this team can move ahead. Gen. Davidson first, why do you think so?
Maj. Gen. DAVIDSON: Well, I think there's very little chance that the president and secretary of defense are going to suddenly become infected with flexibility on this issue. So I think--I think it's going to be a tough sale to make them change, but I think we're more likely to make them change than if we bring in a new crew and start from scratch.
CONAN: Gen. Batiste?
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: I would say that it's a matter of accountability. I think American people deserve accountability. I think our service men and women and their families deserve the most competent senior civilian leadership in the Department of Defense.
CONAN: Let's get another listener on the line. This is Terrie(ph). Terrie with us from...
TERRIE (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: ...North Dakota. Go ahead, please.
TERRIE: Hi. This is Terrie from South Dakota.
CONAN: Go ahead.
TERRIE: May I firstly applaud both of these generals for having the moxie that it takes to stand up and say, wait a second, this is not right, and if necessary, to retire from their positions so that they can bring it to the public attention.
Secondly, is this going to end up being one of those exposes like Black Hawk Down, where we absolutely messed up from one end to the other and didn't support our people? That's what frightens me the most. We are entrenched in something that is not going anywhere.
CONAN: And I think she's getting to that same point, the way ahead, Gen. Batiste.
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Let me say that I think...
TERRIE: I want to stay on the line for a second.
CONAN: Yeah, you can stay on the line. Go ahead.
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: I think we got the best military in the world, no question about it.
TERRIE: I agree with that.
Maj. Gen. BATISTE: And what they have accomplished in Iraq, operationally and tactically, is nothing short of amazing. The good work that's going on, setting Iraq up for self-reliance, changing the people's attitude and giving them an alternative to the insurgency, we can all, as Americans, take enormous pride in what they've accomplished. There's no doubt in my mind, assuming we have the political will in this country, that we will not stop until we complete what we started. We must do that.
My whole point is that there were some very flawed decisions made that got us where we are today and it's an issue of accountability. Any leader in an organization is responsible for what happens or what fails to happen. And we must have someone, a senior leader in that department, whose instincts and judgments we trust as we move down the road of this very long war on terrorism. We have some big decisions coming up. Don't we want the person who has the right instincts?
CONAN: Gen. Davidson, I'm going to give you the last, the last shot.
Maj. Gen. DAVIDSON: Mistakes were made, serious mistakes. We are three years into a war that is very, very similar to Vietnam, which lasted 10 years. The resolution will come. There's a race going on. Will the allegiance of the Iraqis to their government outpace the declining support among the American population to support our war in Vietnam? And if we can change the policy, we can capture all the great work that's been done and can be done and we can succeed in Iraq.
CONAN: Terrie, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.
TERRIE: Thank you. Thank you, generals for your objective opinions.
CONAN: Gen. Batiste, thanks for your time today.
Maj. Gen. JOHN BATISTE: You bet. Thank you.
CONAN: John Batiste, Army commander of the First Division, and now retired.
Also Gen. Mike Davidson, retired five years ago with the rank of Maj. Gen. Good to talk to you again, Mike.
Maj. Gen. MIKE DAVIDSON: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Mike Davidson was with us from the studios of member station WUOL in Louisville, Kentucky.
When we come back, we'll be talking about the war in Vietnam and testimony 35 years ago.