Generals' oath is to country, not politicians


POSTED: Sunday, November 23, 2008

I want to ask something very important for this time in America: Why don't more of our retired generals and admirals speak out about what they think went wrong with our military interventions?

I've long faulted Gens. Fred Weyand, Eric Shinseki and Colin Powell for going quietly into the night and keeping to themselves what they thought about Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Active duty officers do keep their mouths shut and follow orders - that seems to have held true for most except Hawaii Army Lt. Ehren Watada, who's not on my good-officer list for refusing to go to Iraq and denigrating his commander-in-chief. Retired officers are free to speak. But there is debate if they should exercise that freedom. I say they should. Some do.

Douglas Kinnard is an ex-Vietnam general who did with his book “;The War Managers: American Generals Reflect on Vietnam.”;

Another is retired Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold. He's written that “;I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat - al-Qaida.”;

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni led the military's Central Command responsible for operations in the Middle East. He said said in 2006 that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should be held accountable for mistakes in Iraq and that he should step down. President Bush would replace Rumsfeld with Robert Gates but much too late.

Retired Marine Gen. Paul Eaton wrote about Iraq that the Bush administration ignored alarms raised by him and other commanders on the ground, the Congress failed to exercise oversight, and the media abdicated its watchdog role.

Why not more speaking up? Some retired general officers also say the American public would hold the current officer corps responsible for failure in Iraq if they spoke out about mistakes. That's baloney.

Newbold has written that “;a leader's responsibility is to give voice to those who can't or don't have the opportunity to speak. Enlisted members of the armed forces swear their oath to those appointed over them; an officer swears an oath not to a person but to the Constitution. The distinction is important.”;

I support that position. Weyand, Shinseki and Powell owed a greater obligation to America the entity than they did to the Army they perhaps sought to protect by keeping their silence in retirement.

A few former military honchos in our history had the gumption to criticize civilian war decisions.

Dismissed Gen. George McClellan declared the Civil War a failure a year before it ended and ran for president against Abe Lincoln. Retired Marine Gen. Smedley Butler wrote a 1930 book calling war “;a racket”; and saying civilian leaders who supporting wars were “;capitalistic gangsters.”;

In May 1966, retired Marine Corps commandant David Shoup said of the Vietnam War: “;I believe if we had, and would, keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own ... not one crammed down their throats by the Americans.”;

It's all summed up for me in something that retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard said at a panel discussion on the Iraq war:

“;When you feel the country - to its extreme detriment - is going in the wrong direction, and that your views might have some impact, you have a duty to speak out.”;


Bob Jones is a MidWeek columnist. He covered the Biafra War in Nigeria in 1968, the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s, and the 1991 Operation Desert Shield with the Kaneohe Marines on the Saudi Arabia-Kuwait border.