The Revolt Against Rumsfeld
The officer corps is getting restless.
At a small, on-the-record presslunch last week with Gen. Zinni (who was promoting his new book, The Battle for Peace), I asked him what would have happened had even two other active-duty generals appeared before Congress—or resigned and called a press conference—to support Shinseki's testimony. Gen. Zinni said he thought President Bush would have had a harder time rallying political support for the invasion. I also asked him why, in the three years since the war's start, not a single active-duty general has mustered the courage (or recklessness, disloyalty, call it what you will) to follow Shinseki's example—or, to put it another way, to follow the lesson in Dereliction of Duty.
Gen. Zinni referred to another book, a favorite of officers for nearly four decades now—Anton Myrer's 1968 novel, Once an Eagle. It's about two Army officers, friends from childhood, and their rise through the ranks: Sam Damon, a straight-arrow field commander, and Courtney Massengale, a scheming Pentagon careerist. Gen. Zinni said the two characters are widely seen in his profession as symbols for the two types of military officer—and the two paths of military promotion. He stopped short of saying so explicitly, but he suggested that the Pentagon's upper ranks contain too many Courtney Massengales and not enough Sam Damons.
He acknowledged other reasons many generals have declined to follow Shinseki, et al. into dissent. Some have no problem with the war or the way it has been conducted. Many others take very seriously the principle of civilian control; they firmly believe it is not their place to disagree with the president and his duly appointed secretary of defense—certainly not to do so in public, especially while the nation is at war. As a matter of principle, we should be glad that they feel this way. There are plenty of lessons from books, movies, and history that support this view as well: Seven Days in May (a charismatic general mounts a coup to keep the president from signing a nuclear-test-ban treaty with the Soviets), Dr. Strangelove (a loony general launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union without presidential authority), and the true-life tale of Gen. Douglas MacArthur (heroic commander of Korean War troops publicly advocates going beyond the 38th parallel and invading Communist China, forcing President Harry Truman to recall him).
MacArthur's legacy in particular has kept even the boldest generals deeply reluctant to criticize civilian leaders over the decades. Rumsfeld's arrogance, his "casualness and swagger" as Gen. Newbold put it—which have caused so many strategic blunders, so much death and disaster—have started to tip some officers over the edge. They may prove a good influence in the short run. But if Rumsfeld resists their encroachments and fights back, the whole hierarchy of command could implode as officers feel compelled not merely to stay silent but to choose one side or the other. And if the rebel officers win, they might find they like the taste of bureaucratic victory—and feel less constrained to renew the internecine combat when other, less momentous disputes arise in the future.
Both paths are cluttered with drear and danger. Does President Bush know this is going on? If he does, he would do the nation—and the Constitution—a big favor if he launched a different sort of pre-emptive attack and got rid of Rumsfeld now.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold by Manny Ceneta/Agence France-Presse.