Anti-War Generals Set Poor Example

Unless proven otherwise by their own action, every man or woman in uniform is a person of courage and unquestioned integrity. With that said, this commentary is an attempt to address a potentially serious, long-term political consequence for those warriors serving today arising from what has been identified in the media as the “revolt of the generals.”

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A series of retired military generals, universally known by their service reputation as being “good guys,” have spoken out critiquing civilian leadership in time of war. The generals have 1st Amendment rights, except making personal attacks on the President is out of bounds. Their wealth of knowledge and experience in peace and war should be captured for future course work at the Army, Navy and Air Force War Colleges. I am not engaging on the merits of what those flag officers are currently saying.

Unfortunately, by their public statements and high media profile, these retired flag officers have marched the military right into the combat zone of “Hacks and Flacks.” While serving in the 1988 national campaign staff for Bush 41, the self-deprecating joke about our political staff was that we were “Hacks and Flacks.” It was said with a sense of fun.

The political class of Washington has individuals in both parties of good and bad judgment. Those over time with good judgment and a bit (or lot) of luck ultimately get very good at what they do. Both parties have examples of pros at the top of their political game; Karl Rove, James Carville, Paul Begala and Mary Matalin to name a few.

Washington, D.C., is still a company town and two classes of individuals have to work in Washington, the political class of hacks and flacks and the military. The political class is self-selected and to paraphrase the great line in "Godfather II," this is the life they chose. Military officers as part of their professional development are ordered to D.C. In their first tour of duty in Washington some thrive, others crash and burn and most do their assignments professionally and move on to other commands, although some seem to stay.

For the most part, there is an unwritten social contract between the political class and the military, which is you do your job and I will do mine. That is until the “revolt of the generals.” It may or may not have been their goal, but by speaking out the flag officers are saying to the political class: “You are incapable of doing your job and we are taking the moral high ground on this issue.” The political class, very capable of adapting quickly and with a force beyond military comprehension, will immediately react politically and the long-term consequences will be ugly.

If the political class of either party sense at any time military professionals will go public on them, and contradict themselves from previous positions stated or decisions agreed to while they were in uniform, they will deal with it in their normal fashion.

The political class is brutal for individuals they do not trust until proven otherwise. They can keep the military out of the room where the real decisions are made. They will have no qualms about conducting oppo-research to see if the military officer has a record or in other situations has made contradictory statements. They can ultimately level a real insult to an officer’s integrity—not trusting his word of honor and getting all big decisions in writing. They can also insult a military officer and his family by asking, “Oh, by the way, how much have you and your immediate family donated to the R or D party.” On and on, it is will not be pleasant.

There are three exceptions that will not trickle down over time to potentially poison the military, political class social contract.

  1. Resign with honor. Take your stars and put them on the table at the moment you judge the decision to be wrong. In other words, be a “stand-up guy (or woman).” Take your debate public or keep your own counsel, but do it on the spot and do it with honor. Not the “I told you so” way after the fact, which may only begin the initiation of the pattern and practices mentioned above for those who will follow.
  2. Leave the service, register with a political party, make contributions and perhaps join a campaign—just signal that you have made a personal decision to engage in the great sport of politics across the board. The political class will welcome and understand you have made a transition. Do not just hide behind your stars thinking that action makes you a non-political person.
  3. Follow the path of Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Al Haig and yes, Wes Clark. Take a political position and put your name in front of the voters and run for an elective office.

As I opened, I do not think for a minute the generals acted with anything but honor but I wonder if the really know the law of unintended consequences.