WASHINGTON — A recent surge in public criticism of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld by retired military leaders is the culmination of months of intense but largely private debate among active duty officers about how best to voice dissent over Bush administration policies, according to officers involved in the discussions.
A number of officers have been critical of Iraq policy -- mostly anonymously -- since the administration's early days. But the calls for Rumsfeld's resignation are an unusual step for members of the military, who are acutely sensitive to the appearance of challenging civilian leadership of the armed forces.
Displays of public dissension are especially controversial while troops are at war and morale is a concern. In recent months, however, a growing concern that the war's setbacks may have been predictable as well as avoidable has spilled into public view.
The officers said that challenges to civilian policy were not new -- similar opposition flared during the Clinton administration, particularly around the issue of gays in the military. But many of the latest condemnations come from officers who served in the Iraq war, and the controversy has split the ranks over whether attacks by those officers so soon after retiring are appropriate.
One current general who has debated the issue with high-ranking colleagues spoke, like others, on condition of anonymity when discussing actions of other officers.
"If every guy that retires starts sniping at their old bosses and acts like a political appointee, how do you think senior civilians start choosing their military leaders?" the general said. "Competence goes out the window. It's all about loyalty and pliability."
The ranks of Rumsfeld's critics were joined Wednesday by retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who served as a division commander in Iraq and was a military aide to former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, a primary architect of the Iraq invasion.
Batiste said he believed Rumsfeld should resign, arguing that the Pentagon needed a new leader who could work with top officers "without intimidation."
In an interview, Batiste said negative feelings about Rumsfeld were widespread among generals he served with. He added that there was an almost universal belief that the secretary did not treat military leaders and their opinions with respect.
"It speaks volumes about the leadership climate within the Pentagon," Batiste said. "Civilian control is absolutely paramount, but in order for it to work, there is a two-way street of respect and dialogue that has to exist."
Batiste's criticism follows similar attacks by three other retired generals who were involved in the Iraq war or served in top positions in the Middle East: Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, former director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, head of training Iraqi forces in 2003; and Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, the former head of U.S. Central Command.
Former Defense officials said Batiste's criticisms were particularly surprising because of his direct role in planning and fighting the war, first as Wolfowitz's military aide and then as commander of the 1st Infantry Division when it was deployed to oversee central Iraq in 2004.
"Batiste is really the younger generation who has seen this war firsthand," said Thomas E. White, the Bush administration's first secretary of the Army and a frequent Rumsfeld critic. "When a guy like that steps up, it takes it to an entirely different level."
Batiste said his comments were not part of any organized campaign by retired officers.
Although he has worked with Eaton and Newbold, Batiste said he had not talked to either about his decision to go public.
The officers' falling out with Rumsfeld began over the Defense Department's treatment of retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who said at a congressional hearing that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to occupy Iraq, only to be chastised later by Wolfowitz.
The shunting aside of Shineski appears to be something of a touchstone for military critics of Rumsfeld, particularly in the Army, where Shinseki is still well regarded.
One current general said that while the recent criticisms may have brought the uniformed military's strained relationship with Rumsfeld into the open, debate over whether they should be more forceful about voicing disagreements had raged for months.
"The Newbolds and Eatons and the public discussion is spilling over from the internal discussion," said the currently serving general. "This has been a rising issue within the military."
Criticism of political leaders by retired generals is nothing new. Historians note that former military leaders dating back to the American Revolution have written criticisms of the conduct of wars, and Rumsfeld dismissed many of the criticisms this week as just the latest in that tradition.