In the confrontational, climactic scene of the the classic 1964 Cold War film Seven Days in May, President Jordan Lyman barks a question in frustration at Gen. James Mattoon Scott, the leader of a right-wing military conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government. “Why in the name of God don’t you have any faith in the system of government you’re so hell-bent to protect?” says the president, slamming his hand on the table. A much toned down version of this drama plays out today, too. Only now it’s the generals — the top brass, no less — using strong language to remind politicians of the delicacies of the American republic.
Perhaps taking their cues from Congress or neocon websites, GOP presidential candidates long ago settled on a battle cry against President Obama’s national security record: the almost universal theme that the President should do to what the generals tell him. Texas governor Rick Perry said it about Afghanistan and Iraq. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) said it about reinstating Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (many generals were for the repeal). Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said he would do what the generals want on Afghanistan, before backing down. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich went the other way, reversing his support for civilian control in favor of wondering why Obama “overrule(d) all his generals.”
But during a press availability while traveling in Saudia Arabia, the top U.S. military officer sang a different tune, using harsh language to describe the talking point about deferring national security and war decisions to the generals. Asked about the line, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said:
I’ll probably make news with this but I find some of those articles about divergence or control of the generals to be kind of offensive to me.
And here’s why. One of the things that makes us as a military profession in a democracy is civilian rule. Our civilian leaders are under no obligation to accept our advice; and that’s what it is. Its advice. It’s military judgments, it’s alternatives, it’s options. And at the end of the day, our system is built on the fact that it will be our civilian leaders who make that decision and I don’t find that in any way to challenge my manhood, nor my position. In fact, if it were the opposite, I think we should all be concerned.
Dempsey isn’t the first top military officer to tell politicians about the chain-of-command recently. This summer, the last two Joint Chiefs chairmen, Gen. David Petraeus, since retired and leading the CIA, and the now-retired Admiral Michael Mullen, explained the concept in hearings on Capitol Hill.