WASHINGTON -- Last time around, the anti-war left did not have a very high opinion of generals. A popular slogan in the 1960s was "war is too important to be left to the generals.'' It was the generals who had advocated attacking Cuba during the missile crisis of October 1962, while the civilians preferred -- and got -- a diplomatic solution. In popular culture, "Dr. Strangelove'' made indelible the caricature of the war-crazed general. And it was I-know-better generals who took over the U.S. government in a coup in the 1960s best-seller and movie "Seven Days in May.''
Another war, another take. I-know-better generals are back. Six of them, retired, are denouncing the Bush administration and calling for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation as secretary of defense. The anti-war types think this is just swell.
I don't. There are three possible complaints that the military brass could have against a secretary of defense. The first is that he doesn't listen to or consult military advisers. The six generals make that charge, but it is thoroughly disproved by the two men who were closer to Rumsfeld day-to-day, week-in-week-out, than any of the accusing generals: former Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers, and former Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong. Both attest to Rumsfeld's continual consultation and give-and-take with the military.
A second complaint is that the defense secretary disregards settled, consensual military advice. The military brass recommends X and SecDef willfully chooses Y. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Rumsfeld's crusade to "transform'' a Cold War-era military into a fast and lean fighting force has met tremendous resistance within the Pentagon. His canceling several heavy weapons systems, such as the monstrous Crusader artillery program, was the necessary overriding of a hidebound bureaucracy by an innovating civilian on a mission.
In his most recent broadside, retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste accuses the administration of "radically alter(ing) the results of 12 years of deliberate and continuous war planning'' on Iraq. Well, the Bush administration threw out years and years and layer upon layer of war planning on Afghanistan, improvised one of the leanest possible attack plans and achieved one of the more remarkable military victories in recent history. There's nothing sacred about on-the-shelf war plans.
As for Iraq, it is hardly as if the military was of a single opinion on the critical questions of de-Baathification, disbanding Saddam's army, or optimal coalition troop levels. There were divisions of opinion among the military as there were among the civilians, and indeed, among the best military experts in the country. Rumsfeld chose among the different camps. That's what secretaries of defense are supposed to do.
What's left of the general's revolt? A third complaint: He didn't listen to me. So what? Lincoln didn't listen to McClellan, and fired him. Truman had enough of listening to MacArthur and fired him too. In our system of government, civilians fire generals, not the other way around.
Some of the complainers were on active duty when these decisions were made. If they felt so strongly about Rumsfeld's disregard of their advice, why didn't they resign at the time? Why did they wait to do so from the safety of retirement and with their pensions secured?
The Defense Department waves away the protesting generals as just a handful out of over 8,000 now serving or retired. That seems to me too dismissive. These generals are no doubt correct in asserting that they have spoken to and speak on behalf of some retired and, even more importantly, some active-duty military.
But that makes the generals' revolt all the more egregious. The civilian leadership of the Pentagon is decided on Election Day, not by the secret whispering of generals.
We've always had discontented officers in every war and in every period of our history. But they rarely coalesce into factions. That happens in places such as Saddam's Iraq, Pinochet's Chile or your run-of-the-mill banana republic. And when it does, outsiders (including United States) do their best to exploit it, seeking out the dissident factions to either stage a coup or force the government to change policy.
That kind of dissident party within the military is alien to America. Some other retired generals have found it necessary to rise to the defense of the current administration. Will the rest of the generals, retired or serving, now have to declare themselves as to which camp they belong?
It is precisely this kind of division that our tradition of military deference to democratically elected civilian superiors was meant to prevent. Today it suits the anti-war left to applaud the rupture of that tradition. But it is a disturbing and very dangerous precedent that even the left will one day regret.