If there's one rule that's sacrosanct in American political culture, going all the way back to George Washington, it's that civilians have clear control of the military. Yes, a few generals have bumped up against that line before. George McClellan ignored and mocked Abe Lincoln early in the Civil War, then ran against him for president in 1864. Douglas MacArthur brazenly disobeyed Harry Truman in Korea before getting fired, like McClellan before him. Until now, these have been the exceptions. But the Iraq War has so profoundly transformed the political landscape—and so angered a whole generation of generals who object to the way the conflict was planned and executed by civilians—that the line between military and civilian roles is being muddied as never before. The question is whether this is a good thing—or something very worrying.
No, we're not about to experience a real-life version of "Seven Days in May," the 1964 John Frankenheimer thriller about a military coup in Washington. Still, it was a little startling to hear a high-profile general as fresh from the front lines of Iraq as John Batiste—only two years ago, he was seen as one of the Army's rising stars—effectively branding his commander in chief, George W. Bush, a liar this week. Batiste appears in a new TV ad produced by VoteVets.org as part of an effort to persuade wavering House and Senate Republicans to approve a deadline for pulling out of Iraq. The ad begins with a video clip of the president at a news conference. "I have always said that I will listen to the commanders on the ground," Bush says. Cut to Batiste, staring evenly at the camera. "Mr. President, you did not listen," he says. "You continue to pursue a failed strategy that is breaking our Army and Marine Corps." The ad is scheduled to air from May 10 to 18, targeting Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), John Sununu (New Hampshire), John Warner (Virginia) and Norm Coleman (Minnesota), and 10 GOP House members, including Mary Bono, Phil English, Randy Kuhl, Jim Walsh and Heather Wilson.
The son of a soldier who's married to the daughter of another soldier, Batiste was a highly regarded major general who did what few generals would ever do in 2005: he rejected an offer of the premier command in the U.S. military at the time: V Corps, which was based in Germany and headed to Iraq. "It was gut-wrenching," he told me in an interview. "I loved soldiering." Fed up with Donald Rumsfeld's botched stewardship of the Iraq War, Batiste retired and almost immediately became a vocal critic, something he felt he couldn't do while still in uniform. He admits that his participation in the ad is breaking new ground. "I don't think there is a precedent for it," he says. "I wish there were more [generals speaking out against continuing the war]. Where are the other guys?" Since he first came out with his opposition to former Defense secretary Rumsfeld last spring, calling for his resignation, "I've had nothing but absolute support" from his colleagues inside the military, Batiste says. "No one has objected."
The issue being raised by Batiste and other vocal ex-generals—he's joined in the TV ads by another recently retired two-star general, Paul Eaton—is whether they should have spoken out more aggressively at the time they were serving about Rumsfeld's refusal to send more troops and resources to Iraq. Rumsfeld's minimalist approach to occupation was a key error, it is now widely acknowledged, that opened the way to the bloody chaos in Iraq today. Now, the civilians at the Pentagon are criticizing the ex-generals for their silence at the time—saying they should have been more activist during their time in uniform if they had wanted their views known. Raymond Dubois, a Vietnam vet who was Rumsfeld's principal staff assistant from October 2002 to May 2005 and later undersecretary of Defense, says he knew Batiste well, and recommended him for his promotion. When Dubois first heard about Batiste's postretirement objections, he says, "I was nonplussed. I thought to myself, 'This isn't same guy who talked to me in my office' about Iraq."
Dubois, who says he still admires Batiste, adds: "I was with [former deputy Defense secretary] Paul Wolfowitz when we went to Iraq to visit with John and his First Infantry Division in Tikrit. I sat next to Batiste on the one side and Paul sat on other side. I can remember the opportunities—that's in the plural—that both Paul and I gave to John [to speak out]. I encouraged John to have private meetings with Paul. He had worked with him for two solid years [as Wolfowitz's assistant]. I find it a little incredible—and I used that word advisedly—that he would not have mentioned something to Paul." In one meeting, Dubois recalls, Rumsfeld asked Batiste during a visit to Tikrit on Christmas Eve of 2004, with media present, whether he had received the resources he had asked for. Batiste declined to say for the cameras. "He talks now about being put on the spot by Rumsfeld in front of the press," says Dubois. "C'mon, you're a general officer, you're a big boy."
Batiste says that Dubois doesn't know the whole story. "I was extremely vocal within my chain of command," he says. Batiste says he communicated his specific concerns about lack of troops to his former superior, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, head of multinational forces in Iraq, and his successor, Gen. George Casey. "And yes, I did have a meetings in Iraq with Mr. Wolfowitz and Mr. Rumsfeld. Regarding the disputed meeting during Rumsfeld's trip, he says, "In our culture within the military, you don't air the dirty laundry, certainly not with the international and national press." But Batiste adds: "I do remember speaking to both those guys about the frustrations of picking up a brigade element of 3,000 to 5,000 troops in contact with the enemy and moving to another location in Iraq 200 to 300 miles away to deal with an emergency. When you do that you create an immediate vacuum. … It's the whack-a-mole game. They're doing the same thing now."
Batiste adds that the U.S. Army is now "at a breaking point." America's armed forces won't leave Iraq right away—even if the president agrees to withdraw. "It will take between eight and 10 months to uncoil all that stuff and move it out in good order. We have an obligation to leave that country in best shape we can. But what's more important for us right now is to get our great military home. We need to rearm it and refit it and get ready for next phase. Iraq and Afghanistan are the first two chapters in a very long book."
The question lingers: should the debate between military commanders and the civilian leadership at the Pentagon have been more robust in the crucial early stages of the war? Even Dubois admits that the Army can't afford to lose top performers like Batiste. As a result, we may be witnessing a new set of rules being drawn up for civilian-military relations—rules that could forever change this crucial partnership in American political life. Today's sense of frustration among the military brass has been redoubled by the knowledge that this is the second time in the last two generations that things have broken down. In Vietnam too, generals stayed silent when they should have voiced their reservations about how the civilians were handling and politicizing a war. Col. H.R. McMaster, a highly regarded Army officer whose tactics in Tal Afar, Iraq, have been praised by Bush, made this argument in his 1998 (and recently reissued) book, "Dereliction of Duty." The point was also raised eloquently by former secretary of State Colin Powell in his 1995 memoir, "My American Journey." Powell wrote: "Many of my generation, the career captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels seasoned in that war, vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in halfhearted warfare for half-baked reasons…" As we now know, almost all of these military officers did quietly acquiesce, along with Powell.
The debate rages on today. Even Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of multinational forces in Iraq, has been recently accused of concealing his true assessment of the Iraq situation by backing Bush's surge plan. (Interviewed last fall by Iraq Study Group members at Fort Leavenworth, where he was finalizing the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, Petraeus was quite plain in backing an accelerated effort to train Iraqis, not add more American troops, according to former Rep. Leon Panetta, a member of the group.)
Batiste says he remains a "diehard Republican" and has no intention of wading directly into the presidential campaign à la McClellan and MacArthur. He took part in the VoteVets.org campaign, he says, because it's a "nonpartisan group." (VoteVets.org describes itself as a political action committee whose goal "is to put Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans in Congress who are critical of the execution of the war in Iraq." The cofounder, Jon Soltz, said he "came up with the concept" for the ad himself. He and Wesley Clark, the former general and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, recruited Batiste and Eaton.)
Still, Batiste and the other rebellious ex-generals are testing the limits of military decorum, shifting lines that have been in place for two centuries. While they disagree about who said what and when, both Batiste and Dubois concur on one central point: the importance of the military speaking candidly in real time to the Pentagon. "The flip side of civilian control is [for the military] to speak truth to it—not impertinently, not with disdain, but you have an obligation," Dubois says. Will the generals working with the new secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, handle things differently? The course of the Iraq conflict—and the way America wages future wars—may depend on it.