Sunday, April 16, 2006

Rumsfeld's Defenders Contradict Themselves

Those who want to silence or at least drown out the retired generals (six and counting) who have called for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld are making two main arguments:

1. For military officers to publicly criticize the secretary of defense runs counter to the vital American tradition of civilian control of the armed forces. Sample quote from the conservative blogosphere:

Noting that the controversy contains serious issues of civilian control of the military--something apparently lost on leftist war critics pushing the dissident general's attacks--General [Richard] Myers stated, "My whole perception is that it's bad for the military, it's bad for civil-military relations and potentially it's very bad for the country because what we are hearing and what we are seeing is not the role the military plays in our society."

2. The generals should have voiced their criticisms during the runup to the Iraq war or in its early stages, when the crucial decisions were being made. Their failure to do so (and their going public with the criticisms now) calls their integrity into question. (Self-proclaimed virtues arbiter William Bennett took this position on CNN's Situation Room on Friday.)

Okay . . . So the generals are wrong because soldiers shouldn't say things like this about the secretray of defense, and because they should have said it a lot louder and sooner. That's pretty clear.

Actually, parsing these mutually contradictory arguments suggests that the dissident generals handled the situation with complete propriety. While they were in uniform, they dissented privately (if at all), then deferred publicly to the civilian leadership. Now that they are retired, they are civilians--which makes it appropriate for them to publicly air their positions about national policy.

Of course, there is another step that the current dissidents could have taken: Resignation in protest followed by a public statement of the reasons. That would have been a noble and gutsy act of self-sacrifice, subjecting those who made it not only to loss of their livelihoods and of the lifelong connection to military service they no doubt cherish but also to merciless attacks from right-wing media, politicians, and activists. No one can urge such a costly step on another person. But it would have made them heroes of democracy--unrecognized in the short term, but hopefully not in the long term.

If Sy Hersh is right about the agonized debates currently taking place in military circles about an attack on Iran, we can only hope that, this time, some of the generals will be willing to make a public break with the hierarchy before the catastrophe starts.

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