Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

At Pentagon, a Delicate Civilian-Military Balance ; Behind Calls for Rumsfeld's Resignation Are Issues about Who Does What - a Distrust Going Back to Vietnam

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

At Pentagon, a Delicate Civilian-Military Balance ; Behind Calls for Rumsfeld's Resignation Are Issues about Who Does What - a Distrust Going Back to Vietnam

Article excerpt

In their denouncements of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, seven retired generals have directed their criticism mostly toward his handling of the Iraq war.

In some respects, however, the issue goes much deeper.

It is a matter of the military's distrust of its civilian decisionmakers, which emerged in Vietnam and has never fully dissipated. It is concern over an administration that has sought not only to ramrod major changes through the military, but also - some say - to micromanage battlefield tactics.

Iraq has lit the fuse, as those who dislike the style and substance of Mr. Rumsfeld's tenure point to the war as a failure of his policy. But a deeper concern is that Iraq is worsening the delicate relationship between the military and its civilian leaders.

It is highly unusual for retired or active officers to openly question their leaders. At stake, experts say, is the effectiveness of a primary constitutional tenet: civilian control of the military.

"[The criticism] does undermine civilian control," says Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "It is an attempt to change policy - to go over the heads of the civilian leaders to the president."

Principles from the nation's founding

The framers of the Constitution believed that the military could be held in check and serve the needs of the nation only if it were guided and governed by civilians. When lawmakers created the Defense Department in 1947, the same principles applied: It is run by both civilian secretaries and military officers, but the civilians always have the final word.

Traditionally, the military has embraced this role. It has advised the civilian leadership and carried out orders. Under this arrangement, it would leave the policy decisions to the civilians, and the civilians would leave the on-the-ground tactical decisions to the officers.

Recent weeks have offered an example of when this order has broken down publicly. But other examples are rare. Most famously, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was relieved of his duties in 1951 for criticizing President Truman's cold-war strategies.

Even today, the fact that a vast number of generals have stayed silent about this shows that public criticism remains the exception, says Professor Kohn. One reason: "Do the American people really want the secretary of Defense and the president accountable to the Army?"

Yet the relationship between military officers and their civilian leadership at the Pentagon has clearly evolved during the past few decades.

"This has been a trend ever since the Vietnam War," says Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

In Vietnam, many officers felt betrayed by the civilian leadership. As a result, "the officer corps is very wary of civilian leaders' willingness to embed the military in unwinnable wars, and then to leave them holding the bag," says Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who is now a professor at Boston University. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.