If a General Speaks in the Senate and Nobody Pays Attention, Does He Make a Sound?

Kay Steiger thinks about the professional military’s responsibilities to provide strategic advice:

Officers are trained to work on the “how” of a problem and they never are allowed to question the judgment of the decision itself. The administration called on generals to plan a war, but it was never their role to think about whether going to war was a good decision. Is this a good way to train the highest level of advisers to the commander in chief? Probably not.

This is inspired by Fred Kaplan who takes the view that the officer’s corps is repeating the mistakes condemned in H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty where he argues that the Vietnam-era military “betrayed their professional obligations by failing to provide unvarnished military advice to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as they plunged into the Southeast Asian quagmire.”

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I’m not 100 percent sure about this. It seems to me that insofar as the generals are going to disagree with civilian officials, it makes sense for them to be somewhat subtle about it. At the end of the day, it’s up to civilians to decide whether or not to start a war, and with good reason officers want to avoid actions that will render the chain of command unworkable. The trouble is that when officers try to be duly discreet, they just get ignored if people don’t want to listen.

An excellent example is the case of General Eric Shinseki. He testified in public, before congress, that it would require “on the order of several hundred thousand” soldiers to secure Iraq. To an uninformed member of the public (as I was at the time) this sounds like professional military advice on a technical military question. As we can now see in this era of “surge,” however, the Pentagon can’t deploy several hundred thousand troops to Iraq — there just aren’t enough people in the whole Army. One has to assume that, as Chief of Staff of the Army, Shinseki knew perfectly well how many soldiers the Army contains. He was saying, in other words, that it was his opinion that stabilizing Iraq would be impossible.

His message was just ignored. And to a substantial extent, it continues to be ignored, as one still hears this frequently cited as an example of Bush and Rumsfeld mishandling the invasion. But unless you assume that Shinseki was just totally unaware of Army logistics, it’s pretty clear that he was trying to send a message that we shouldn’t invade Iraq without doing anything insubordinate. Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton or John Warner or Richard Lugar or Tom Lantos could have asked their staff “hundreds of thousands of troops: can we do that?” and they would have heard back “no.” But the politicians who wanted to back the war didn’t want to hear such things.

Besides which, it wasn’t actually a secret in elite quarters that the professional military thought it was a bad idea to invade Iraq, anymore than it was a secret that diplomats and intelligence professionals (to say nothing of international relations academics and middle east studies specialists) thought it was a bad idea to invade Iraq. As this classic June 10, 2002 New Republic editorial sneered “That the military brass opposes going to war shouldn’t surprise anyone not frozen in amber.”

Last week, as thousands of Europeans took to the streets to protest American plans to topple Saddam Hussein, a similar cry went up along the Potomac. It didn’t come from liberal editorial writers; and it didn’t come from Democratic members of Congress. No, the opposition to invading Iraq came from the very force that would be doing the invading: the U.S. military. We know this because high-ranking officers have been leaking like sieves — to The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and others — about how silly they consider the whole enterprise to be. In the Post, for instance, “one top general” told reporter Thomas Ricks that “the ‘Iraq hysteria’ he detected last winter in some senior Bush administration officials has been diffused.” And indeed, over the past week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush himself have gone to unusual lengths to downplay the possibility of military action against Saddam. We find that disappointing and hope that in the coming months the president will remember what he seemed to understand so well in the searing weeks after September 11: The case for taking on Saddam doesn’t require believing that an invasion carries no risks, but merely that they pale beside the risk of allowing his regime to remain in power. But in the meantime, the president needs to make another decision: He needs to fire some of his generals. Not because they oppose going to war with Iraq, but because they have been advertising their opposition in the nation’s newspapers.

Under the circumstances, I really don’t think that generals speaking out more loudly would have done any good. Sure, if they spoke out more forcefully Bush might have come under more attack in the press from folks like TNR for his famous habit of being overly-tolerant of dissent and hyper-deferential to expert advice, but it wouldn’t have stopped the march to war.