A New Revolt of the Generals?

Secretary of State John Kerry confers with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel as they testify with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the "The Authorization of Use of Force in Syria" (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Back in the bloody Iraqi spring of 2006, a group of retired Army and Marine Corps generals including former Central Command chief Gen. Anthony Zinni and several two-star generals who had left the service after commanding troops in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, created a huge stir when they publicly demanded the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Dubbed the “Revolt of the Generals,” the episode sparked furious debate over the long-held tradition of former officers declining to publicly criticize their former civilian bosses—especially during wartime.

This morning, highly respected retired US Army Maj. Gen. Bob Scales wrote a sharp opinion piece in the Washington Post that exposes similar explosive issues within the Pentagon with regard to the possible war with Syria.

The difference here is that Scales makes his point about his displeasure with the Obama administration not as a former officer, but by using the opinions of what he claims to be “dozens” of active duty officers, all of whom he says are “embarrassed” to be associated with the White House’s bumbling of the situation:

After personal exchanges with dozens of active and retired soldiers in recent days, I feel confident that what follows represents the overwhelming opinion of serving professionals who have been intimate witnesses to the unfolding events that will lead the United States into its next war.

They are embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration’s attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense. None of the White House staff has any experience in war or understands it. So far, at least, this path to war violates every principle of war, including the element of surprise, achieving mass and having a clearly defined and obtainable objective.

Twitter predictably blew up over the story this morning, but there are a few points worth hitting:

1.)    This is an an opinion piece, not a news story. Scales is offering his opinion as a private citizen, and he can therefore select his sources and use them as he sees fit to make the points he wants to make.

2.)    Scales said he spoke with “soldiers.” The Army isn’t currently being tapped to undertake any missions in Syria, and its lack of involvement is underscored by the fact that Army Chief Gen Ray Odierno is in New Zealand all next week for a Pacific summit with a few dozen allies. This doesn’t means that soldiers aren’t involved in the planning, but I would be more interested in what naval officers and pilots think.

3.)    Who did he speak with? How many are active duty, and how many retired? How many are on board with the potential strikes? How read-in to ongoing planning efforts are the officers he spoke with?

It’s no secret that chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey has pushed back against hitting Syria—his July 22 memo to the Senate laying out various military options against the Assad regime and subsequent comments have made that pretty clear.

The fact that he declined to make opening statements this week during testimony before House and Senate panels, and his terse, concise answers to direct questions further underscored his seeming discomfort with the attacks.

But like the soldiers the former general cites, Dempsey is saluting orders from his civilian bosses and planning those very same attacks. Scales says that the officers he knows are doing the same—but not before using him, as he uses them, to make their points.

 

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Paul McLeary

McLeary covers national security policies at the White House, Pentagon, the Hill, and State Department.
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