Friday, April 21, 2006

Retired Generals Have a Right and Obligation to Speak Out

Six retired Generals have so far decided to speak out on the Iraq War fiasco, criticizing the run up, planning and/or execution of this tragedy. As expected most of the administration's blowback against these patriots is not focussed on the merits of their arguments. Rather Administration flacks have tried to argue that it is inappropriate for the Generals to have spoken up after they retired. They should have gone public while still in uniform and resigned if necessary.

What a joke. To begin with, of course they have the right to speak up now. They did not surrender their First Amendment rights when they put on the uniform?

While still on active duty, there were some constraints on their right to speak freely. They worked under a strict chain of command. Yes, even generals have to suffer under the chain like you see in every day room. They are expected to speak their minds to the next person on the chain up from them, and not violate the chain, especially not by speaking out publicly. They are expected to provide their input and then implement the decision, regardless of whether they agree with it or not.

There are some exceptions to the constrains on speaking out publicly while on active duty. Members of the Joint Chiefs have a statutory obligation to speak to the Secretary of Defense and the Congress, even when they disagree with their other Chiefs. Also, any General testifying before Congress has the right to truthfully express an opinion. Doing the latter though, can be unhealthy for your career or your effectiveness in the remainder of your career, i.e.., General Eric Shinseki.

Some commentators have criticized the Generals for not speaking out and resigning in protest while still on active duty. Yes, a General has the right to resign in protest against a policy or an action with which they disagree. However that is a heavy price to pay and one rarely seen. In most cases, as with these Generals, people in their position try to work within the system as long as possible in the hope that a bad situation can be made better. Also, it should be noted that one of these Generals, John Batiste, did the functional equivalent of resigning in protest. After serving as the Commanding General of the First Infantry Division in Iraq from 2004-2005, General Batiste turned down the offer of a third star and the position of the Deputy in charge of all military forces in Iraq.

Some war hawks have said that the Generals' criticism undercuts troop morale. This is yet another make weight argument. Soldiers aren't stupid. They want to get the job done and get home as soon as possible. They see what is working and what isn't. And the Generals are merely highlighting what is plain to see and has been so from the inception of this disaster. If their criticism shortens this war by even a day, the troops and our nation will be better off.

The argument against the Generals that is most steeped in hypocrisy is that as military men they must confine themselves to military matters and avoid commenting on broader policy question. Funny, I never hear that criticism when Generals Myers or Pace or others doing the Administration's bidding defend the Iraq policy. Of course they can speak up on policy matter. They are American citizens and we still have a First Amendment Right of Free Speech.

I applaud the Generals.

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