Blogs > Cliopatria > Saturday Items

Apr 22, 2006 4:06 am


Saturday Items



Charles Krauthammer casts a critical eye on the generals leading the charge against Donald Rumsfeld, contending “that kind of dissident party within the military is alien to America.” Although Rumsfeld has been a disaster as Defense Secretary, I’m inclined to agree. As Krauthammer points out, “Last time around, the antiwar left did not have a very high opinion of generals.”

Indeed, in 1966-1967, a rogue group of leading military figures worked hand-in-glove with John Stennis’ Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee to pressure the Johnson administration to intensify the air war in North Vietnam (a policy that, among other things, would have risked an outright Chinese intervention in the war). The Stennis Subcommittee ultimately issued a report chastising the administration’s approach and holding that “logic and prudence” required endorsing whatever military tactics the JCS recommended. To Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, the affair challenged “one of the most fundamental principles of our constitutional structure—the civilian direction of the defense establishment.” The electorate clearly knew what Rumsfeld’s policies were when they re-elected Bush, and the precedent of a military pressure campaign against the civilian chief is a dangerous one: next time, who’s to say the result won’t be like the Stennis Subcommittee effort?

The CIA has fired a veteran agent who leaked the story about the agency’s secret prisons in Europe.

Lots of debate (both fromsupporters and those critical of the idea) on whether Juan Cole merits an appointment at Yale. Cole’s scholarly record hardly seems up to Yale’s standards, suggesting that the prominence he’s received as a “public intellectual” regarding the contemporary Middle East is helping his case. I’d be more persuaded about the merits of Yale’s proposed move if Cole’s commentary was of higher quality.

National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru has an fine book on the politics of abortion, Ponnuru contends, quite convincingly, that pro-choice activists are deluding themselves if they believe that overturning Roe will necessarily benefit them politically.

Next week we move into the 1990s in my spring-term undergrad elective (US history since 1953); I wanted to track down some clips of Admiral Stockdale from the 1992 v-p debate, which remains for me the most bizarre debate performance in a national campaign. Managed to find a couple here, including his famous, “Who am I? Why am I here?” Not supplied, alas, was his performance when Gore or Quayle was speaking and Stockdale would occasionally be seen wandering the stage behind the speaker.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Is there any significant difference between a concerted effort by recently retired military officials and one by recently retired civilian counter-terrorism officials? I find it puzzling why the sight of retired generals speaking out is supposed to be any different from the (well-established) precedent of retired CIA, FBI or NSA (or other counter-terrorist) officials doing so.

Examples: Richard Clarke, Michael Scheuer, Robert Baer, Steven Simon, Daniel Benjamin, etc. etc. etc. are all former counter-terrorism people, and recently retired. All of them have written extensively in criticism of the Bush Administration in the past few years, and it's arguable that they've been part of a concerted campaign. Is that problematic, or a dangerous precedent?

It's worth remembering that counter-terrorism is now a quasi-military activity: counter-terrorist agencies engage in war-like action and are somewhat integrated with the military. So it can't be that retired generals are "military" whereas counter-terrorist officials are "civilian." In some ways, that is a merely nominal difference, not a substantive one.

Personally, I don't see the problem in either case--retired generals or retired intelligence officials. I guess I'm with Chris on this one.


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I wonder if I could say a few words in defense of Adm. Stockdale. I find it somewhat depressing that Stockdale's career is so often reduced to his debate performance in 1992. We can all agree that it was bizarre, but I think it is worth hunting down some of Stockdale's essays recounting his wartime experiences, his commitment to philosophical Stoicism, etc. I don't think that there is a single president or a presidential candidate (or vice presential candidate) in recent history who would have been capable of writing so movingly and intelligently on any subject.

It's sad that people of Stockdale's seeming character and integrity find no place in our political system because they do badly at stage-managed debates--which are at best pseudo-events in Boorstin's sense of that term. I've seen other candidates do a better job in debates, but I haven't (to put it mildly) found a single one who worthy of admiration. Stockdale did a disasterous job in the debate, but has a track record, in word and deed, worthy of admiration. I think it's important not to lose sight of that.


Barry DeCicco - 4/25/2006

Robert, we've seen this before, **as Chris has just said**. For example, when Colin 'My Lai' Powell (or should he be Colin 'Iraq Liar' Powell?) publicly opposed President Clinton's policy on gays in the military. Or when Gen Frank made speeches supporting Bush's re-election in 2004. Or when Gen. Boykin made speeches to GOP churches, supporting the president, after 9/11.

And so on, and so on, and ceterae.


David Silbey - 4/23/2006

"why the sight of retired generals speaking out is supposed to be any different from the (well-established) precedent of retired CIA, FBI or NSA (or other counter-terrorist) officials doing so."

Counter-terrorism experts rarely have the capability to mount a coup against a civilian government.


Robert KC Johnson - 4/23/2006

Saw that. This is a difficult issue, because Rumsfeld is so incompetent. But the danger of a military that's publicly debating the merits of the civilian leadership's policies is worth considering.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/23/2006

The Times has some anonymous commentary from junior officers....


Chris Bray - 4/23/2006

I agree that it's a very different story when they say that they are speaking for other officers on active duty. That may be the real "generals' revolt."


Robert KC Johnson - 4/23/2006

I agree completely.


Oscar Chamberlain - 4/23/2006

Assuming the investigation is correct, who is more patriotic: the agent who leaked the story of our foreign prisons and rendition system or the people prosecuting her.

I'd vote for her. She uncovered criminal behavior.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/22/2006

Douglas MacArthur comes to mind, too, as someone who publicly challenged civilian leadership on strategic issues and tactics.


Robert KC Johnson - 4/22/2006

What strikes me as rather different than, say, Adm. Stockdale entering politics, is that what's occurring here is a coordinated effort (to some degree, at least) by a group of very recently retired military officials--people who clearly still have extensive contacts within the military, and who seem to be speaking on behalf of figures still in the military--criticizing tactical/strategic decisions in which they were involved. They're not seeking public office, or commenting on social security, or gay marriage, or general political issues.

I think their critique is correct. And they obviously have the right to speak out. But I also think it's an extremely dangerous precedent, because it's just as easy to imagine a comparable situation in which the policy of the civilian leadership is the preferable one.


Chris Bray - 4/22/2006

There's a line being drawn here that still strikes me as a little odd. Put it this way: If Newbold or Batiste were running for a seat in the Senate, would we view their criticisms more kindly? The argument seems to be that retired generals should stay out of politics, unless they go into politics.

Anyway, it seems to me that the real line to draw is the line between generals and former generals. Didn't Eisenhower refuse even to vote, while in uniform? And then he took the uniform off, and ran for president. What's so different about taking the uniform off and then criticizing a president, or a secretary of defense? Retired generals are not generals; they command no force, and have only the authority of their experience. I can't regard that as a threat.


Robert KC Johnson - 4/22/2006

It is unfortunate that Stockdale's career is encapsulated by his V-P run (and the very funny SNL parodies of it). He obviously never should have been selected as a running mate.

On the K'hammer column, it's not my sense that he's objecting to current or former military personnel choosing to enter politics and run for office. But that's not what's occurring here--nor in, say, the Stennis Subcommittee hearings, or the MacArthur-JCS controversy of the early 1950s (or Colin Powell's anti-gay campaign of 1992-93). Obviously, this sort of military activism has a long tradition in American history. But that doesn't mean it's a good thing.

In this case, we have a defense secretary who, at best, can be described as incompetent. But the basic nature of Rumsfeld's (to be charitable) incompetence was well known in 2004, and the people reelected Bush anyway.


Chris Bray - 4/22/2006

Dennis Miller used to say that Stockdale committed the "gravest sin in American politics: he wasn't good on TV."

And isn't it interesting that we're talking about a retired admiral's political campaign, given the repeated depiction in the Washington Post this week of the long tradition in which retired military personnel always maintain a rigorous silence on matters of civilian politics?


Chris Bray - 4/22/2006

I really need to type more carefully. Sorry for all the mess.


Chris Bray - 4/22/2006

As for this, also in Krauthammer's essay:

"We've always had discontented officers in every war and in every period of our history. But they rarely coalesce into factions...That kind of dissident party within the military is alien to America."

The first dissident coalition in the American military that I know of was the group behind the Newburgh conspiracy; in the contemporary U.S. Army, much of the officer corps defines itself by its reading of the novel Once an Eagle, which is is premised on a lifelong contest between the representatives of two radically different leadership factions. Plot those two points on a timeline, and you only have the history between 1783 and 2006 to show traditions of dissent and factionalism in the American military. For other points along teh way we might look at, for example, the controvsersy in the first Roosevelt administration over the report Gen. Nelson Miles submitted alleaging American brutality in the Philippines.

This "new precedent" stuff is a non-starter.


Chris Bray - 4/22/2006

Little did I know that retired American generals have always been a priestly tribe of silent men who stood carefully aloof from the politics of the day. Makes it hard to explain all those ex-presidents in the White House, doesn't it?

I wonder if Charles Krauthammer has ever heard of Curtis LeMay.

History News Network