WHEN SIX recently retired generals criticized Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the Iraq war and urged his resignation, the Bush administration reacted as if the generals had announced an impending military coup. Within days, administration loyalists were suggesting that the generals had been disloyal not merely to Rumsfeld but to American democracy itself.
The dissenting generals seemed almost surprised by the speed and savagery of the administration's counteroffensive. Maybe they had assumed that their combat records and decades of service would protect them. Or maybe they had been lulled into a false sense of security by the administration's floundering Iraq policies and assumed that Rumsfeld and his White House backers were just too distracted and incompetent to go after a few courteous, highly decorated critics. But the generals should have known that this administration can be ferociously competent when there's something really important -- like President Bush's poll numbers -- at stake.
On the right, the key talking point in the War Against the Generals quickly emerged: "Civilian control of the military." It was an effective line of attack, and so clever that even many who ought to have known better were suckered. The Washington Post editorial board on Tuesday, for instance, fell for it hook, line and sinker, worrying that the retired generals were threatening "the essential democratic principle of military subordination to civilian control.... If [the generals] are successful in forcing Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation, they will set an ugly precedent."
They even had me nodding along there for a few minutes. After all, every student of recent history knows that if you dilute civilian control of the military, you end up with fascism or a Latin American-style military junta. Because constant security threats are necessary to maintain the power and credibility of a military regime, a nation that lacks civilian control of the military gets ensnared in unending, pointless wars, often against an increasingly vaguely defined threat. Gradually, the broader society becomes militarized. Dissenters are denounced as cowards or traitors, and domestic surveillance becomes common. Secret military courts and detention systems begin to supplant the civilian judicial system. Detainees get tortured, and some end up mysteriously dead after interrogation.
We definitely wouldn't want that kind of regime to control the United States, would we?
IT WAS AT THIS POINT that I got the joke -- because, dear reader, we're already well on the way to having that kind of regime. If Rumsfeld thought he could get away with calling himself Il Generalissimo, don't you think he'd do so in a heartbeat?
In the looking-glass world the Bush administration has brought us, it's the civilians in the White House and the Pentagon who have been eager to embrace the values normally exemplified by military juntas, while many uniformed military personnel have struggled to insist on values that are supposed to characterize democratic civil society.
Iraq is only one of the many issues on which military personnel have stood up against foolish or immoral administration policies. In 2003, the three generals and one admiral who collectively head the JAG Corps of the various services wrote strongly worded internal memos opposing the administration's authorization of interrogation techniques that border on or constitute torture. Navy Rear Adm. Michael Lohr, for instance, condemned the techniques as "inconsistent with our most fundamental values." In January 2005, five retired generals filed an amicus brief in a case before the Supreme Court opposing the administration's argument that suspects tried by military commissions are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention. Many more examples could be cited.
The claim that the six dissenting generals are betraying the principle of civilian control over the military is both silly and sinister. It's silly because polite, reasoned criticism from retired generals is just free speech, a very far cry from "forcing" the Defense secretary out. And it's sinister because civilian control is a means of safeguarding democracy, not an end in itself. When that gets forgotten, the phrase becomes just another way to stifle dissent.
Military officers must obey all lawful commands and refrain from using "contemptuous words" about their civilian leaders. But when officers take the military oath, they also pledge to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, [and] bear true faith and allegiance to the same."
That's a hard oath, because bearing "true faith" to the Constitution requires military personnel to speak out, regardless of the cost, when they think our civilian leaders have gone beyond the pale. Both our democracy and the lives of the soldiers who fight in our name depend on it. If officers remain silent when our military policies go terribly wrong, there's little the rest of us can do to set things right again.