WASHINGTON—Three retired generals have broken cover and silence in recent days and called publicly for President Bush to fire his defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld. Way past time for the officer corps to speak up, I say.
Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni was the four-star commander of U.S. Central Command just before 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has long experience in the Middle East, and President Bush used him as his negotiator in the Israel-Palestinian standoff.
Besides urging the firing of Rumsfeld, Zinni suggested that there was also something wrong with military leaders unwilling to risk their careers by speaking up against disastrous ideas that come down from their civilian bosses.
Currently serving officers have only to recall what befell the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, when he first opposed Rumsfeld's plan to cut Army strength by two more divisions, and the Army National Guard by four divisions, in August 2001, and then in February 2003 told a senator at a hearing that he thought it would require "several hundred thousand" American troops to occupy and pacify Iraq successfully.
It was the truth and it came from a standard formula that was not of Shinseki's making. But that estimate ran counter to Rumsfeld's idea, and Shinseki became an "un-person" in the Pentagon. He may have been chief of the Army, but Rumsfeld and others disparaged his estimate as wildly off the mark, and Pentagon officials leaked to the press that the vice chief would be his replacement, even though Shinseki still had 18 months on his tour as chief of staff before he would retire.
Everyone who wore stars got the message. Don't open your mouth around Rumsfeld except to say "Yes, sir!"
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, was quick to defend Rumsfeld at a Department of Defense news briefing. When a reporter asked Rumsfeld if, in a month when several generals had called for his head, he wasn't hurting the war effort by hanging onto his job, Pace responded before Rumsfeld could: "As far as Peter Pace is concerned, this country is exceptionally well served by (Rumsfeld). Nobody, Nobody works harder than he does to take care of the Pfcs and lance corporals and lieutenants and captains."
One of the generals calling for Rumsfeld's departure, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, who was the Joint Staff operations chief leading up to Iraq, wrote this week that Rumsfeld needed to be dismissed for his grotesque mismanagement of the Iraq war. But he had some self-criticism that surely applies to fellow generals and admirals still sitting in E-Ring offices of the Pentagon:
"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," Newbold wrote in Time magazine.
The third to speak up was Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a recent retiree who little more than a year ago was in charge of training officers and soldiers for the Iraqi army. Eaton suggested that President Bush accept the resignation that Rumsfeld says he has tendered before. Eaton said Rumsfeld is incompetent and chiefly responsible for the difficulties now facing the U. S. mission in Iraq.
All of this reminds me of another general 40 years ago. His name was Harold K. Johnson. He was chief of staff of the Army from 1964 to 1968. Johnson was a 1933 graduate of West Point. He was in the Philippines when World War II broke out and survived the Bataan death march and four years in the Japanese prison camps. His faith kept him going. He was a Baptist preacher when he wasn't soldiering.
Harold Johnson commanded at battalion and brigade level in the 1st Cavalry Division in Korea and earned a Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's 2nd highest award for valor.
In early July 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and other sizeable units to deploy to South Vietnam in a major escalation of the war. What he refused to do was follow the advice of his military commanders and declare a national emergency that would freeze discharges of all soldiers.
President Johnson wanted to fight the Vietnam War on the cheap and on the quiet. He didn't want to disturb middle-class America or Congress for fear they would want to pay for the war by cutting back on his Great Society social and welfare programs. So he would send off Army units seriously under strength, leaving behind the best-trained soldiers whose enlistments or draft tours were near an end.
Gen. Johnson was furious. He summoned his car and on the way to the White House he removed the eight silver stars from his shoulders. But the general was debating with himself the whole way, and just short of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue he ordered the driver to turn around. Gen. Johnson had convinced himself that if he resigned in protest LBJ would replace him in a matter of hours with someone much worse and more pliable. So it was best to remain and work from within to fix what he could.
Not long before he died, in the fall of 1983, Harold Johnson sat beside an old friend at a West Point Alumni Association officers meeting. He recounted that day and told his friend: "I count that as the greatest moral failure of my life. I should have resigned and fought the decision."
So should some others.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young