A Dereliction of Duty: Military Officer Shouldn’t Try to be Policymakers

Mackubin T. Owens

April 1, 2006

Criticism of Donald Rumsfeld by the uniformed military is nothing new. As I noted a year ago, most of Rumsfeld’s critics are uniformed officers unhappy with the changes he has wrought during his tenure as secretary of defense.

But the rhetoric has notched up recently. Several retired generals have denounced Rumsfeld and called for his resignation over Iraq. Much of the language they have used is intemperate, and some is downright contemptuous. For instance, Marine general Anthony Zinni, Tommy Franks’s predecessor as commander of Central Command—the organization responsible for implementing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—has described the actions of the Bush administration as ranging from “true dereliction, negligence, and irresponsibility” to “lying, incompetence, and corruption.” He has called Rumsfeld “incompetent strategically, operationally, and tactically.” One has to go back to 1862 to find a senior military officer condemning a civilian superior so harshly.

Some have expressed concern in the past when retired generals have campaigned publicly for a presidential candidate, but this unprecedented attack against Rumsfeld is far more serious. While there are no legal restrictions that prevent retired members of the military—even recently retired members—from speaking out on public policy, doing so now and in this way is imprudent.

The open (and often intemperate) criticism leveled by these officers against Rumsfeld is not only feeding defeatism at home, but is also adversely affecting the military that these officers purport to love: Aside from demoralizing the soldiers and Marines who have sweated and bled on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, this behavior has weakened the cohesion of the active-duty officer corps by ultimately forcing them to take sides on the Rumsfeld affair.

Although one would not know it from the press, Rumsfeld has many admirers within the uniformed services. Some critics of Rumsfeld have called his uniformed defenders “Courtney Massengales,” a reference to a character in Anton Myrer’s remarkable novel, Once an Eagle. In this novel, Courtney Massengale and Sam Damon represent two polar-opposite archetypes of the soldier: Damon is the dedicated citizen-soldier who is commissioned on the battlefield and, as he rises through the ranks to become a major general, never forgets his roots as an enlisted man. His life is one of dedicated service and loyalty to his subordinates. Massengale is Damon’s nemesis, a West Point graduate who is really never a soldier at heart, but merely a careerist who advances himself at the expense of others.

Some of the officers who criticize Rumsfeld fancy themselves as noble and self-sacrificing, even as they paint the secretary’s defenders as sellouts who have succumbed to the allure of promotion, prestige, and personal aggrandizement. Ralph Peters leveled a similar charge in his piece for the New York Post last week. But this is a slander.

There are fine officers on both sides of this issue, and pitting one group against another does nothing to enhance the security of the United States.

In addition, such public criticism by senior retired officers is undermining healthy civil-military relations. The cornerstone of U.S. civil-military relations is civilian control of the military, a principle that goes back to the American Revolution and the precedent established by George Washington, who willingly subordinated himself and his army to civilian authority.

The public attack on Rumsfeld by retired officers flies in the face of this tradition. Should active-duty and retired officers of the Army and Navy in 1941 publicly have debated the lend-lease program, the occupation of Iceland, or the Europe-first strategy? Should generals in 1861 have discussed in public their opinions of Lincoln’s plan to re-provision Fort Sumter, aired their views regarding the right of the South to secede from the Union, or argued the pros and cons of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation?

Many of Rumsfeld’s critics have invoked the very important book by H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, the subject of which is how the Joint Chiefs failed to challenge Defense Secretary Robert McNamara adequately during the Vietnam War. Many serving officers believe the book effectively makes the case that the Joint Chiefs of Staff should have more openly voiced their opposition to the Johnson administration’s strategy of gradualism, and then resigned rather than carry out the policy.

But as Richard Kohn—an expert on U.S. civil-military relations and McMaster’s academic adviser for the dissertation that became Dereliction of Duty—has observed, the book “neither says nor implies that the chiefs should have obstructed U.S. policy in Vietnam in any other way than by presenting their views frankly and forcefully to their civilian superiors, and speaking honestly to Congress when asked for their views. It neither states nor suggests that the chiefs should have opposed President Lyndon Johnson’s orders and policies by leaks, public statements, or by resignation, unless an officer personally and professionally could not stand, morally and ethically, to carry out the chosen policy.”

The misreading of Dereliction of Duty reinforces the increasingly widespread belief among officers that they should be advocates of particular policies rather than simply serving in their traditional advisory role. Kohn writes that a survey of officer and civilian attitudes and opinions undertaken by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies in 1998-99 discovered that “many officers believe that they have the duty to force their own views on civilian decision makers when the United States is contemplating committing American forces abroad.” When “asked whether military leaders should be neutral, advise, advocate, or insist on having their way in the decision process” to use military force, 50 percent or more of the up-and-coming active-duty officers answered “insist,” on the following issues: “setting rules of engagement, ensuring that clear political and military goals exist, developing an ’exit strategy,’” and “deciding what kinds of military units will be used to accomplish all tasks.” In the context of the questionnaire, “insist” definitely implied that officers should try to compel acceptance of the military’s recommendations.

There is, as well, a practical political problem resulting from such actions on the part of retired officers: a loss of confidence and trust in the military institution by the American people. Although Americans hold today’s military in high regard, this will change if they come to view the military as just another special-interest group vying for more resources as it seeks to restrict how the civilian authorities use it, or if retired soldiers are perceived to be no different than the sort of political appointee who just left the administration and is now peddling a “tell all” book intended to settle scores with his adversaries.

The view of the soldier, no matter how experienced in military affairs he may be, is still restricted to the conduct of operations and military strategy. Civilian control of the military means at a minimum that it is the role of the statesman to take the broader view, deciding when political considerations take precedence over even the most pressing military matters. The soldier is a fighter and an adviser, not a policymaker.

Mackubin T. Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.