General disagreement

April 30, 2003|By Michael O'Hanlon

WASHINGTON -- In recent weeks, former military officers who critiqued the Iraqi war plan during the course of combat have come under heavy return fire.

Retired Gen. Perry Smith, Republican Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, a number of Bush administration officials and many others have publicly chastised a number of retired generals, most of them Army officers, for their supposedly unpatriotic acts of critiquing military operations while U.S. troops were engaging with the Iraqi military.

These critics of the critics are wrong.

Vigorous debate is not only eminently American, it is good for the way we wage war. Let us hope that future would-be commentators are not deterred by their remarks. Otherwise, the only people we'll hear from on TV screens are civilian specialists like me -- and that seems a far worse fate to wish on the American viewing audience!

Of course, the controversy began when U.S. troops had to slow their march on Baghdad in the second week of the war. At that time, a combination of sandstorms and Iraqi harassing fire along supply routes required coalition forces to delay their continued forward progress. Much of the controversy centered on whether the Army was perhaps a division or division and a half short of the force that it should have had. In my judgment, it was a bit short -- but the problem never threatened the basic integrity of the war plan.

As such, former military officers such as retired Gen. Barry M. McCaffrey may have overstated their points when criticizing the war plan. At times they sounded as if they thought the sky was falling. But they were still probably right in some of their specific points. Indeed, the Pentagon surely thought so; even as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rebutted their critics, they hastened the deployment of additional units to the region to strengthen coalition forces.

The issue of whether retired generals should comment on ongoing military operations is not new.

To take another example, when NATO fought Serbia over Kosovo in 1999, retired military officers (and a number of civilians) criticized the war plan. No one seemed to mind then that retired officers were speaking out. The collective criticism was useful. It may not have greatly influenced the Clinton administration in detail, but it did help create public pressure on the U.S. government to strengthen its resolve and improve its conduct of the war, thus perhaps contributing at least modestly to our ultimate victory.

Americans are smart enough to know that retired generals speak only for themselves. Americans like to hear what the administration has to say, and they like to hear other takes, and they know the difference.

My guess is that few troops in the field suffered from anxiety because of the comments of retirees. U.S. military personnel know that generals have opinions; they also know that their generals and former generals are not always right. Never mind that they don't watch much TV when barreling toward Baghdad in an Abrams tank.

Vice President Dick Cheney had a nice rebuttal to the retired officers when he understandably, and humorously, took a moment to gloat shortly after Baghdad fell.

Teasing the pundits "embedded in TV studios," he took his fair shot at them during a speech to newspaper editors and then moved on. That would have been the right thing for Mr. Rumsfeld and General Myers to do, too. But for some reason, Mr. Rumsfeld in particular seems intent on sustaining the debate rather than resting secure in the knowledge that he will be recognized and remembered for an impressive military achievement. These critics of the critics underestimate the ability of American citizens to reach their own conclusions about how a war is going and to put even expert commentary in perspective.

Moreover, what's more important: to protect the thin skins of Washington officials during wartime or to have a vigorous national debate over how to make sure we prevail on the battlefield? I'll take the latter.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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