Monday, November 06, 2006

Will the Joint Chiefs Dare to Resign?

When the news broke that the lead editorial in the November 4, 2006 Army Times newspaper group – which includes the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force Times, all owned by Gannett – had called for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, the cable news organizations portrayed the announcement as if it were a blow like no other.

Actually, this was the second time the Times group had called for Rumsfeld’s resignation. But, with the mid-term elections on Tuesday and the obviously deteriorating conditions in Iraq, the supposition was that this latest call was politically motivated.

Robert Hodierne, the managing editor of The Times group, denied that charge. Hodierne says that their decision to come out against Rumsfeld’s continued tenure was prompted by President Bush’s statement that he intended to retain Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary for the next two years.

What is significant about this editorial is that it comes from a news group whose entire focus is on the military. Its reporters cover virtually every military installation and defense industry except those that operate exclusively in the “black” world. It is sold in every military base or post exchange and available in many – and perhaps all – commissaries, the military’s grocery stores. It is read by personnel on active duty and in the National Guard and reserve components. For these reasons, the story made a splash over the weekend.

But the editorial did not, in my view, go far enough. It said that Rumsfeld was responsible for the debacle in Iraq. Without question, he bears much responsibility, but others are responsible as well. As president, George Bush is ultimately responsible for whatever occurs or does not occur during his tenure. Moreover, the generals prosecuting the war are also responsible for the advice they have given to the civilians in the Pentagon and the White House.

For example, the editorial notes that, despite the “best efforts of trainers,” the Iraqis are still not able to operate on their own. But for many months after Bush declared “mission accomplished,” there were no U.S. trainers or a coherent training program. Moreover, some U.S. personnel sent as trainers lacked the extensive background needed to be effective in that role. Their primary occupations in the military were everything but “trainers” – yet that was what they were assigned to do in Iraq.

The editorial points out that troops consistently reported that Iraqi recruits had no sense of national identity, that all they wanted was a paycheck. It says that “colonels and generals…asked their bosses for more troops” and the “service chiefs…asked for more money.”

Well, responsibility for destroying any vestige of organizational structures or symbols around which the Iraqi people could rally lies squarely at the feet of Paul Bremer and the narrow circle of neocons that occupied Rumsfeld’s Pentagon. But if the Times editorial is correct that more troops were requested, then someone in the chain of command – which runs from colonels (brigade and regimental commanders) and two-star generals (division commanders) to the three star commander of U.S. forces in Iraq to General Casey as commander of all coalition forces in Iraq to General Abezaid as head of Central Command to Rumsfeld and then Bush – is not telling the truth.

When that happens in a democracy, the nation should see two things happen immediately.

First, Congress must exercise its constitutional oversight responsibilities – what it has so spectacularly and so often failed to do in the Iraqi misadventure. By not holding probing hearings to find out who is short-circuiting these requests; to consider what, if any, institutional or bureaucratic remedies are possible; and to overcome the inevitable propensity to fight – and lose – the next war because the lessons that should have emerged from this do not see the light of day – Congress becomes completely complicit in the failure of the administration and in the deaths of those it sends to fight.

Second, and quite surprisingly, the Times editorial makes no mention of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their failure to take the one step that could have attenuated if not ended this Iraq misadventure: to publicly denounce the war and then immediately hand in their resignations.

According to Mark Perry, who has written a detailed account of the early years of the Joint Chiefs as an institution, the generals and admirals were always uncomfortable with the prospect of having to back a foreign and defense policy in whose formulation they had little input. The first time this issue surfaced publicly was 1949 during Truman’s presidency. But this so-called “revolt of the admirals” was not clear-cut, for the policy dimension was masked as interservice rivalry between the air force and navy aviation for control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. (The air force, with a unified position and better public relations, won.)

But on August 25, 1967, policy – this time the assertion to Congress by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that the “current policy and strategy would eventually bring victory” – was indisputably the issue. McNamara was lobbying for continued massive increases in U.S. ground forces in South Vietnam, whereas all of the chiefs had proffered the view that no amount of U.S. forces could win the unwinnable.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Earle Wheeler, proposed to the other chiefs that they resign en masse to protest the “immoral” policy that would doom thousands more U.S. soldiers.Wheeler and the chiefs saw McNamara’s testimony as “a rupture of the unofficial contract between our democracy's civil and military powers, whereby the military pledges to obey the civil authorities without question but in return the civilian leaders implicitly pledge that their policies will not cause needless loss of life.” By next morning, Perry relates, Wheeler had reversed course, determining to try to work from within to change policy rather than – in effect – “mutiny” and leave the forces leaderless.

Ever since, whenever a similar dispute over policy has come up, the argument of “staying in and working to change policy” has prevailed. But between Vietnam and the present Iraq war, U.S. military forces have not been in prolonged combat. This is now the tipping point, for Vice-President Cheney, in an interview last week, said that there would be no change in administration policy in Iraq and the war on terror regardless of who wins the mid-term elections. This, in a democracy?

Whether the Times editorial will be only a symbolic gesture or exert some influence on tomorrow’s ballot remains to be seen. Its effect will be muted by the fact that most military members assigned overseas will have voted already via absentee ballots. The same holds true for those military personnel residing in the U.S. but in a state that is not their official state of residence.

That leaves the civilians, 61 percent of whom disapprove of the war, to make their voices heard, and the five chiefs, if they have the courage.

Time will tell.


Blogger Big E said...

Although I was at least as fond of the Perry account as you are, I've been told [haven't had a chance to read it yet] that Edward Drea's new account of the JCS in the McNamara era explored the supposed 1967 resignation plot and determined that not all of the principals were even in DC that day.

12:26 AM  

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