Some Generals Complain About Rumsfeld

“However, I can tell you that beyond the Beltway in dusty and dirty places like Ft. Benning, Ft. Stewart, Ft. Hood, Ft. Campbell and Ft. Bragg, where officers wear BDUs instead of Class Bs that there are tens of thousands of Officers, Commissioned/Warrant/Non-Commissioned, that would go to hell and back for this Secretary.” — Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army.

Even at the beginning of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure in early 2001, Washington insiders expressed doubt that Rumsfeld would survive in office very long. The reason the press was uncharacteristically infatuated with the elderly secretary was the same reason that some believed he was not long for his position. In the early days of the Bush Administration, the press was supportive of Rumsfeld because he was perceived to be fighting the generals. Now that he is pursuing policies the main stream media disagrees with, these same people eagerly rush to find generals willing to criticize Rumsfeld.

From the beginning, Rumsfeld wanted to transform the military from the slow and powerful behemoth necessary to counter the heavy military of the Warsaw Pact to a lithe and rapid force more suitable for dealing with the asymmetric threats the US was more likely to face. He wanted to grant more discretion to the war fighters on the ground rather than to maintain a highly-centralized command protocol. As opposed to having many specialized units controlled by a remote command structure, Rumsfeld preferred smaller more self-contained, self-directed, and independent units.

Independent of the merits of such a transformation, Rumsfeld was bound to encounter stiff resistance from military officials skilled and comfortable with the status quo. The fact that Rumsfeld was insistent and even arrogant in pushing for this transformation does not mean that his approach is correct, but it does mean that he made, and apparently continues to make, enemies.

That some generals are disgruntled with civilian leadership in the conduct of the Iraq War is not surprising. Such tension is nearly as old as the Republic:

* The most conspicuous case was General George McClellan who led a lackluster and passive effort for Union forces in the Civil War. McClellan would refuse to attack even with superior forces and would always find ways to blame others for his lack of success. After being dismissed by President Abraham Lincoln, McClellan ran as the Democratic nominee against Lincoln in 2004 calling the Civil War a “failure” and urging “immediate efforts for a cessation of hostilities” on the basis on negotiations with the South.
* Certainly, General Douglas MacArthur believed his strategy in Korea was superior to President Harry Truman’s and did not feel constrained by Truman’s directives. Truman was finally forced to recall MacArthur from Korea.

* Whether in fact true or not, there was a conventional wisdom in the military that political leadership did not allow the military to execute a victory strategy.

In Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, Eliot Cohen, of Johns Hopkins University, examined four cases of war time political leadership: American President Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War, the Wartime Premier of France, Georges Clemenceau in World War I, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in World War II, and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in the Israeli War of Independence. Cohen’s thesis is that while military strategy is important, ultimately war is a political enterprise, best led by political leaders. In some sense, acquiescence to the generals is not even possible because military advice from different experts is often contradictory, and partially based on institutional rivalries. Sometimes the best military tactics are not the best political options, effective civilian leadership does not just leave war fighting to the generals.

Questions about tactics for the Iraq War remain an important question for scholarly debate and consideration. Some believed we should have gone in with more force. Some more recent analysis suggests that the US footprint was too big. However, to debate these strategies in the public context of trying to force a Rumsfeld resignation in the midst of a war is more political than analytical. A thoughtful critique would have postponed excessive consideration of past tactics and constructively focused on using what we have learned to implement improved strategies. As Victor David Hanson has commented:

“Equally fossilized is the ‘more troops’ debate. Whatever one’s views about needing more troops in 2003-5, few Democratic senators or pundits are now calling for an infusion of 100,000 more Americans into Iraq. While everyone blames the present policy, no one ever suggests that current positive trends — a growing Iraqi security force and decreasing American deaths in March — might possibly be related to the moderate size of the American garrison forces.”

Though no one can be very sure about the complete motives of others, the very personal nature of the attacks on Rumsfeld suggests that more than military strategy is at play here. A few generals from those forces that are being the most radically transformed by Rumsfeld’s emphasis on a leaner force — the Army and the Marines — generals with the most vested in the status quo force strategy are the source of anti-Rumsfeld antipathy. There is information inherent in the fact are no recently retired admirals and air force generals among those calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation.

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