Revolt of the Generals

By Richard J. Whalen

This article appeared in the October 16, 2006 edition of The Nation.

September 28, 2006

A revolt is brewing among our retired Army and Marine generals. This rebellion--quiet and nonconfrontational, but remarkable nonetheless--comes not because their beloved forces are bearing the brunt of ground combat in Iraq but because the retirees see the US adventure in Mesopotamia as another Vietnam-like, strategically failed war, and they blame the errant, arrogant civilian leadership at the Pentagon. The dissenters include two generals who led combat troops in Iraq: Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr., who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division, and Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who led the First Infantry Division (the "Big Red One"). These men recently sacrificed their careers by retiring and joining the public protest.

This article was corrected for the web after going to press; in the printed version, comments made by Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton were mistakenly attributed to Marine Lieut. Gen. Gregory Newbold.

In late September Batiste, along with two other retired senior officers, spoke out about these failures at a Washington Democratic policy hearing, with Batiste saying Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was "not a competent wartime leader" who made "dismal strategic decisions" that "resulted in the unnecessary deaths of American servicemen and women, our allies and the good people of Iraq." Rumsfeld, he said, "dismissed honest dissent" and "did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war."

This kind of protest among senior military retirees during wartime is unprecedented in American history--and it is also deeply worrisome. The retired officers opposing the war and demanding Rumsfeld's ouster represent a new political force, and therefore a potentially powerful factor in the future of our democracy. The former generals' growing lobby could acquire a unique veto power in the future by publicly opposing reckless civilian warmaking in advance.

No one should be surprised by the antiwar dissent emerging among those who have commanded our legions on the fringes of the US military empire. After more than sixty-five years of increasingly centralized and secret presidential warmaking, we have concentrated ultimate civilian authority in fewer and fewer hands. Some of these leaders have been proved by events to be incompetent.

I speak regularly to retired generals, former intelligence officers and former Pentagon officials and aides, all of whom remain close to their active-duty friends and protégés. These well-informed seniors tell me that whatever the original US objective was in Iraq, our understrength forces and flawed strategy have failed, and that we cannot repair this failure by remaining there indefinitely. Fundamental changes are needed, and senior officers are prepared to make them. According to my sources, some active-duty officers are working behind the scenes to end the war and are preparing for the inevitable US withdrawal. "The only question is whether a war serves the national interest," declares a retired three-star general. "Iraq does not."

How widespread is antiwar feeling among the retired and active-duty senior military? And does it extend into the younger active-duty officer corps? These are unanswerable questions. The soldiers who defend our democracy on the battlefield fight within military, and therefore nondemocratic, organizations. They are sworn to uphold the Constitution and obey orders. Traditionally, they debate only on the "inside."

Earlier this year, Gen. George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, drafted a highly classified briefing plan that was leaked to the New York Times in June. It called for sharply reducing US troop levels in Iraq from the current fourteen combat brigades to a half-dozen or so by late December 2007. The plan contained a great many caveats, and events soon rendered it obsolete. Now General Casey says the Iraqi security forces may be ready to take the lead role in twelve to eighteen months, but he says nothing about troop withdrawals.

Casey's leaked plan revealed the thinking of some of today's top-level officers. These senior military men believe that our forces will have to win the potentially decisive battle for Baghdad before the United States can leave. In August the Army announced an urgent transfer of American forces from insecure western Iraq to the capital in preparation for that coming battle. The move barely doubled the number of troops in Baghdad, to only 14,000 GIs spread over a sprawling metropolis with a population exceeding 7 million.

On August 3 the commander of US forces in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, the universally respected, Arabic-speaking warrior-scholar who knows Iraq intimately, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that worsening Iraqi sectarian violence, especially in Baghdad, "could move [Iraq] towards civil war." In private, senior officers openly refer to civil war, and have indicated that the Army would depart in such circumstances to avoid being caught in the crossfire.

The dissenting retired generals are bent on making Iraq this nation's last strategically failed war--that is, one doggedly waged by civilian officials largely to avoid personal accountability for their bad decisions. A failed war causes mounting human and other costs, damaging or entirely destroying the national interest it was supposed to serve.

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