Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Rumsfeld and the Critics

Civilian control of the military: what is it and who does it involve?

Because six retired generals (so far) have publicly criticized Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over the inadequate – some say non-existent – post-combat planning in Iraq, the issue is back – and is misconstrued.

Others, including recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Richard Myers, who have rallied to Rumford’s defense, would stretch the concept so much as to make it unrecognizable. Myers, noting that none of the four critics who actually served in Iraq had objected while on active duty, said that officers who failed to give their superiors their best advice were derelict in duty and “ought to be shot.” Myers also stated that in judging Rumsfeld, the officers were, inappropriately, also judging the commander in chief

Four stars or not, Myers’ advice is wrong – wrong because it would perpetually muzzle the very individuals who, not tied to day-to-day operations, have time to step back and analyze the “big picture”; and wrong if such silence leads to or prolongs armed conflict stemming from poor policy.

Civilians who volunteer to serve in the armed forces also voluntarily agree to limitations on some of their constitutional rights. They cannot wear whatever they like while on duty, leave their unit on a whim, decide they will not report for or participate in training, or publicly criticize either a policy or the chain of command while in uniform unless they resign or retire.

On the other end of military life, Army tradition holds that soldiers, in hanging up their spurs (as per the cavalry), gain the ultimate promotion to “full U.S. civilian” with all the rights, privileges, and duties that inhere to that “rank” – one that outranks every general in the U.S. military. So whatever the context, as long as the departure is not dishonorable, all restrictions on their rights and privileges are lifted.

This change in status extends even to the mundane. On a military base, should a “grey-beard” in civilian garb ask a soldier for directions, invariably the response comes with a “sir” or “ma’am.” And while this could be interpreted as uncertainty as to the rank (if any) once held by the visitor, I suggest it is grounded in the civil-military construct that holds that the military serves society and not the converse.

Another military anecdote says that one can take the man out of the uniform but never the (experience of) the uniform out of the man. As reflected in the tradition that “once a general always a general,” officers ranked colonel or lower frequently address retired generals or admirals by their rank or “sir.”

Such anecdotes point to more substantive matters involving obligations that extend to anyone who is a “U.S. civilian.” In national defense matters, discernment and judgment are prized attributes in the development of accomplished military leaders. How much more ought they be prized by society when, after 30-38 years of practice in dealing with ever-more complex challenges, a retired officer re-enters civilian life and pursues a second career built on the experience and knowledge gained from the first? As civilian “subject experts,” not to speak out when they believe mistakes in policy are increasing the dangers to the nation is to violate the oath that guided them through three decades or more of active service.

This same oath, lived every day when in uniform, ensures the military remains under “civilian control.” Augmented by statute, the Constitution provides a line of succession for the presidency that excludes all uniformed persons, excludes all uniformed persons in the Pentagon from the formal senior chain of command, provides that the top two individuals in the chain of command are civilians, precludes a serving officer from assuming th presidency, and to have a former general or admiral be the Secretary of Defense requires specific authorization by Congress, not simply confirmation by the Senate as is normal for cabinet posts.

The point is, “civilian control” isn’t a real issue for critics, only for Rumsfeld’s defenders trying to deflect the criticism.

As to the why of the criticism – now that is open to counter-criticism.

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