Right hook

Generals who questioned orders should have spoken

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
—Abraham Lincoln

Apparently feeling slighted because President Bush has rightly ignored their critiques of his handling of Iraq, frothing Democrats have moved onto their next demand du jour—calling for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. They apparently believe criticism of Rumsfeld carries more weight when done by former military commanders than by your average pontificating Democrat, which explains why they are absolutely giddy over the addition of a small cadre of former generals who’ve hopped onto “Operation Drop Don.”

The following retired generals are now securely among the “coalition of the concerned” that’s calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation. They are U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni (head of United States Central Command until 2000); U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark (Supreme Allied Commander of Europe for NATO from 1997 to 2000 and former democratic presidential hopeful in 2004); U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste (commanded the First Infantry Division in Iraq until 2005); U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton (commanded training of Iraqi security forces until 2004); U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold (director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2000 to 2002); U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John Riggs (director of the Objective Force Task Force until 2004); and U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, Jr. (commanded the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq until 2004.)

Here was Gen. Batiste in the Washington Post on April 12, 2006, where he seems to best sum up the consensus of the generals who have all made similar statements recently: “I think he [Rumsfeld] should step aside and let someone step in who can be more realistic. I think we need a fresh start.”

With the exception of Zinni and Clark, who retired before the Bush administration started running the show, the other outspoken individuals accepted their respective promotions from within the administration (complete with extra pay, perks and “stars"). Presumptively, they also had some sort of hand in the planning or at least execution of their respective commands. So what prevented them from speaking out before now?

To answer that, here was Gen. Bastiste on NBC’s Today show responding to Katie Couric when she suggested he and the others “might [have] been successful in shaping public opinion far earlier” had they come clean from the “get-go.”

“Katie, back then I was a one-star general. I doubt there’d be many people that would have listened to this voice.”

OK, got that? A lowly one-star in the field with his troops has nothing worth saying that anyone would listen to. But a retired, two star? That’s different.

Or perhaps not.

These generals retired before ever “speaking out.” The convenient excuse suggested is fear of reprisal from superiors. But that excuse begs two very important questions: First, assuming you believe them, you’d think that individuals who had attained the rank of two-, three- and four-star generals in the U.S. military would have a little more backbone, right? (Or at a minimum, more integrity.)

Second, if in fact their claims have merit, then it follows that by remaining silent, they placed more value on their own careers (and, dare I say, political aspirations) than the lives of those in their command—which perhaps brings us back to Lincoln’s admonition.