Civilian control of the military is crucial to the preservation of a
free republic. Powerful militaries that become politicized have a long
history of wrecking democracies.
Even in the United States, where the military has stayed, thankfully,
fairly nonpolitical, President Truman properly fired the cocky Gen.
Douglas MacArthur for insubordination during the Korean War. Franklin
Delano Roosevelt had previously declared MacArthur to be the single most
dangerous man in America.
More recently, both Gen. Richard Myers and Gen. Peter Pace acted as
cheerleaders for U.S. policy in Iraq, in their consecutive roles as
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As the nation’s most senior
military advisers, they are moving from giving advice on military
matters into the dangerous political realm of publicly advocating
Of course, General Pace is unlikely to get fired over his recent
comments that the Iraq intervention was going swimmingly. Putting the
obvious question of credibility aside, the real question is whether
General Pace should be a shill for the policies of any administration.
The answer should be a resounding “no.”
Some may argue that as a critic of the war, I am adopting a double
standard—welcoming the retired generals’ advocacy of sacking Rumsfeld,
yet deeming improper the “rah-rah” support of the war by generals on
But just as I believe General Pace should resign for his comments, I
would argue that any active duty general who has the audacity to speak
out against the war should also be sacked. The difference is that
retired generals are, well, retired and should be allowed to express
political opinions just like any other civilian citizen.
The public debate benefits from their prior military expertise,
whether they are for or against the continuation of the war. For
example, to rebut the accusations of the critical retired generals, the
now-retired General Myers recently made the self-serving assertion that
Rumsfeld never intimidated members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during
planning for the Iraq War.
Myers’s comments are perfectly permissible, even if his credibility
is suspect. When active generals publicly praise or criticize the policy
of any presidential administration (it’s OK to provide private military
advice), it may also enhance public debate but such benefit is
overshadowed by the politicization of the military. That politicization
undermines civilian control over the armed forces.
If active generals oppose the policy of any administration so much
that they are beside themselves, they should resist going public until
after they resign. As private citizens, they are no longer in the chain
of military command and should be able to say anything they want.
But what if, as many believe, the retired generals are acting as a
mouthpiece for the widespread dissatisfaction among active officers
under Rumsfeld, because of his domineering management style and his
incompetent handling of Iraq?
This outcome is optimal for the Republic because it alerts the public
that many active military experts are critical of the administration’s
performance, but does not undermine civilian control over the armed
forces by having active military officers publicly criticizing their
civilian leadership. Active officers have no hold over the views and
statements of retirees, but may very well be in agreement with them.
Perhaps one could ask why many of these retired generals have not
taken a principled stand sooner. But, better late than never. Maybe they
should even call for their former colleague, General Pace, to join
Donald Rumsfeld in the unemployment line.
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.