It's an odd thought, but a military coup in this country right now would probably have a moderating influence. Not that an actual coup is pending; still less is one desirable. But we are witnessing the rumblings of an officers' revolt, and things could get ugly if it were to take hold and roar.
The revolt is a reluctant one, aimed specifically at the personage of Donald Rumsfeld and the way he is conducting the war in Iraq.
It is startling to hear, in private conversations, how widely and deeply the U.S. officer corps despises this secretary of defense. The joke in some Pentagon circles is that if Rumsfeld were meeting with the service chiefs and commanders and a group of terrorists barged into the room and kidnapped him, not a single general would lift a finger to help him.
Some of the most respected retired generals are publicly criticizing Rumsfeld and his policies in a manner that's nearly unprecedented in the United States, where civilian control of the military is accepted as a hallowed principle. Gen. Anthony Zinni, a Marine with a long record of command positions (his last was as head of U.S. Central Command, which runs military operations in the Persian Gulf and South Asia), called last month for Rumsfeld's resignation. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who ran the program to train the Iraqi military, followed with a New York Times op-ed piece lambasting Rumsfeld as "incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically," and a man who "has put the Pentagon at the mercy of his ego, his Cold Warrior's view of the world, and his unrealistic confidence in technology to replace manpower."
But the most eye-popping instance appears in this week's Time magazine, where retired Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, the former operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not only slams the secretary and what he calls "the unnecessary war" but also urges active-duty officers who share his views to speak up. Newbold resigned his position in late 2002—quite a gesture, since he was widely regarded as a candidate for the next Marine Corps commandant. His fellow officers knew he resigned over the coming war in Iraq. The public and the president did not. He writes in Time:
I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat—al-Qaeda. … [T]he Pentagon's military leaders … with few exceptions, acted timidly when their voices urgently needed to be heard. When they knew the plan was flawed, saw intelligence distorted to justify a rationale for war, or witnessed arrogant micromanagement that at times crippled the military's effectiveness, many leaders who wore the uniform chose inaction. … It is time for senior military leaders to discard caution in expressing their views and ensure that the President hears them clearly. And that we won't be fooled again.
Newbold isn't urging active-duty senior officers to go public, just to speak out directly to the president (whose handlers famously filter the bad news from official reports before they hit the Oval Office). Still, in a climate where the secretary of defense hammers three-star generals for daring to suggest that our troops in Iraq are fighting "insurgents" and not just "terrorists," Newbold's invocation reads like a revolutionary manifesto. Generals of the Pentagon, unite! You have nothing to lose but your stars!
If Rumsfeld is in less danger than these calls for his head might suggest, it's in part because not many generals want to lose those stars—and quite a lot of colonels would like to earn some. (Remember: Zinni, Eaton, and Newbold are retired generals; they have no more promotions to risk.)
The patron saint, but also the object lesson, of the many officers who are mulling their options—whether to heed Newbold's rallying cry or keep their heads down and shoes polished—is Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff who spoke truth to power and got slammed for his troubles. Shortly before the invasion, Shinseki told the Senate armed services committee that "a few hundred thousand" troops would be needed to impose order after the war was over. Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defense, upbraided him in public the next day; Rumsfeld named Shinseki's successor a year in advance of his scheduled retirement, thus undercutting his authority for the rest of his term. In his Times op-ed, Gen. Eaton wrote of Shinseki's punishment, "The rest of the senior brass got the message, and nobody has complained since."
Zinni, Eaton, and Newbold are explicitly trying to supplant the lesson of Shinseki with an earlier lesson—one that was propagated throughout the U.S. armed forces in the late 1990s but laid aside once the war in Iraq got under way. It came from a book called Dereliction of Duty, by H.R. McMaster, then an Army major, now a colonel. Based on extensive research into declassified files, the book concluded that during the 1960s, the Joint Chiefs of Staff betrayed their constitutional duties by failing to provide their honest military judgment to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as they plunged into the quagmire of Vietnam. When McMaster's book was published in 1997, during the Clinton administration, Gen. Hugh Shelton, then the JCS chairman, ordered all his service chiefs and commanders to read it and follow its lessons to the letter—to express disagreements to their superiors, even at the risk of getting yelled at. William Cohen, Clinton's secretary of defense, echoed the sentiment. Ever since, Dereliction of Duty has been a must-read for all senior officers.
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.