The Simmering to a Boil of the Revolt of the Generals

05/05/2006 02:17 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lt. General William E. Odom, a former director of the National Security Agency and a veteran of the Vietnam War, commenting upon the revolt of the generals against the Bush White House's conduct of the war in Iraq:

"I attended a meeting that was closed of over 35 flag officers, including a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, including another four-star general, about a dozen lieutenant generals and several other generals, on torture of prisoners. Every one of them there (was) absolutely angry about the failure (of) any quick retribution against the highest ranks in the Defense Department over that issue. They just absolutely could not imagine ... that nobody would be held accountable for this."

A General's View

During his April 17 interview on CNN International's "Insight," Gen. Odom--who from the beginning opposed the American invasion, and who has been the most prominent military figure to advocate an immediate phased withdrawal from Iraq *--did not call for Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld's resignation. Instead he pointed to the Commander-in-Chief as being directly responsible for a strategic miscalculation of historic proportions.

Moreover, the context of his remarks made it clear that the revolt of the generals is of much greater weight than heretofore reported. When the CNN interviewer pointed to the Pentagon figure of 8,000 active-duty or retired generals in the United States and asked just how significant is it when six come forward and 7,994 stay quiet and loyal, Odom responded :

"Well, those thousands you're talking about are not the important ones. They're only a few hundred active-duty ones. And of those who are major generals, three stars and four stars, it's less than half of those. We're talking about a very small number of generals who have had experience in this war and have just retired. The other 8,000 are just one more example of Secretary Rumsfeld's cute remarks to try to confuse the facts and distort things...These are serious men who are not self-seekers, who have given up promotions and advancement so they could tell people the truth."

A month ago the six generals who were saying that Rumsfeld should go included three who commanded troops in Iraq under Rumsfeld's leadership: Major General Paul Eaton, who commanded the training of Iraqi security forces in 2003 and 2004; Major General John Batiste was the former commander of the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq; and Major General Charles Swannack, who commanded the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq.

Then there was Major General John Riggs, former director of the Army's reorganization office, which is known as the Objective Task Force. And Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold, former director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The best known officer who publicly criticized Rumsfeld was retired four-star General Anthony Zinni, the former head of the U.S. Central Command.

Odom had more to say about the qualities of these men:

"Now, these are not just discontented people. These are people who have very high standards. And they see that our security, our professionalism and our international image are all being hurt very seriously by the way the war is being conducted. *** They do not really want to say what they are saying. They have a bad conscience about it and they're driving themselves to try to get it out as candidly as they can without being any more offensive to their superiors. It's extremely difficult for an officer -- it's extremely difficult for me."

A Psychiatrist's View

Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher ("The 'General' Uproar: Military Protest and the Press," April 27) recently interviewed Robert Jay Lifton, the psychiatrist who coined the term "retirement syndrome" to describe top officials or military leaders who speak out against bad policies only after stepping down.

In response to former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird's question "Why are they speaking up now?," Lifton believes: "It is an expression,,,of retirement wisdom. What it means is that these generals lived through certain military policies, adopted them, because that was their world, then had doubts, but suppressed those doubts. The syndrome depends on previously suppressed doubts emerging on retirement. It happens because when they retire they are no longer responsible for those military policies and actions and can psychologically permit those doubts to surface. When that happens and they speak critically, they have enormous credibility with the press and public because they have lived these dubious policies. They frequently speak with extraordinary eloquence because they have knowledge from the inside about these events."

"What is at stake is their sense of military honor. *** The classical example of military idealism is Eisenhower -- the mother of all retirement syndromes. In 1961, after presiding over a very large nuclear and conventional buildup as president, he left office giving a ... prescient warning about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. He understood viscerally what those dangers were, as a military man and president who lived in the atmosphere of the 'national security state'. "

As to the consequences of their dissent, Lifton told Mitchell: "The generals really become psychological models for younger officers. *** They retain very important friendships with peers on active service. So they still have one foot in that community and one foot out of it. *** I think these generals now are speaking out not only against wrong policies and a bad leader but speaking out for the integrity of an institution that they love and are still a part of. *** So we have generals speaking out for integrity and the younger officers, having questioned already what is going on in the military, now legitimized by the generals. *** It's retirement syndrome but also ... 'survivor meaning'. "

Giving Greater Meaning to the Acts of Courageous Generals

Will Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, summon the political courage to convene hearings on the SecDef's leadership in the conduct of the war, and call the generals to testify? I have known the senator to be, over the decades, an often uncritical defender of executive authority in matters of national security. But I also know him to be a patriot, first. He has committed "to making a decision in the near future" on whether to schedule a hearing that would feature defenders of Rumsfeld as well as retired officers who have stirred debate by calling for him to step down.

Warner: "The current debate over our national security by a series of retired generals -- some critical, some supportive of the present leadership in the Department of Defense -- is an important exercise of the right to freedom of speech," he said. "Another valued tenet is the right of the president to select the members of his own Cabinet."

Military historians are citing the level of wartime criticism from the ranks as notable. A Senate hearing would give the retired officers a new platform for their arguments.

The Renting of theVeil of Secrecy

Regardless of what Congress does, however, the revolt of the generals--and of intelligence professionals--will continue. Jack Shafer in Slate ("Bush's Chamber of Secrets," May 3) has wisely written: "Every time the Bush Administration cracks down on openness, it creates new sources for journalists inside the bureaucracies. *** In the minds of many honorable government employees, the expansion of presidential power in the post-9/11 era lacks basic legitimacy"--making the national security state vulnerable to a steady stream of leaks. **

Humpty dumpty sat on a wall...

* William Odom, "Cut and Run? You Bet," Foreign Policy, May-June 2006: Withdrawing from "the big sandy" will encourage the terrorists, but "our continued occupation of Iraq also encourages the killers -- precisely because our invasion made Iraq safe for them. *** Invading Iraq was not in the interests of the United States. It was in the interests of Iran and Al Qaeda. ***The war has paralyzed the United States in the world diplomatically and strategically."

** Vide: William E. Jackson, Jr., "Government Whistleblowers Rise Up: Turn the Spigot and Let the Memos Flow," The Huffington Post, November 15, 2005.