Officers debate Rumsfeld role

Active-duty military, many of them combat veterans, see mistakes by president, generals, too


WASHINGTON --The revolt by retired generals who publicly criticized Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has opened an extraordinary debate among younger officers, in military academies, in the armed services' staff colleges and even in command posts and mess halls in Iraq.

Junior and midlevel officers are discussing whether the war plans for Iraq reflected unvarnished military advice, whether the retired generals should have spoken out, whether active-duty generals will feel free to state their views in private sessions with civilian leaders and, most divisive of all, whether Rumsfeld should resign.

In recent weeks, military correspondents of The New York Times discussed these issues with dozens of younger officers and cadets in classrooms and with combat units in the field, as well as in informal conversations at the Pentagon and in e-mail exchanges and telephone calls.

To protect their careers, the officers were granted anonymity so they could speak frankly about the debates they have had and have heard. The stances that emerged are anything but uniform, although all seem colored by deep concern over the quality of civil-military relations and the way ahead in Iraq.

The discussions often flare with anger, particularly among midlevel officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and face the prospect of more tours of duty.

"This is about the moral bankruptcy of general officers who lived through the Vietnam era yet refused to advise our civilian leadership properly," said one Army major in the Special Forces who has served two combat tours. "I can only hope that my generation does better someday."

An Army major who is an intelligence specialist said: "The history I will take away from this is that the current crop of generals failed to stand up and say, `We cannot do this mission.' They confused the cultural can-do attitude with their responsibilities as leaders to delay the start of the war until we had an adequate force. I think the backlash against the general officers will be seen in the resignation of officers" who might have stayed in uniform.

One Army colonel enrolled in a Defense Department university said an informal poll among his classmates indicated that about 25 percent believed Rumsfeld should resign and 75 percent believed he should remain. But of the second group, two-thirds thought he should acknowledge errors that were made and "show that he is not the intolerant and inflexible person some paint him to be," the colonel said.

Many officers who blame Rumsfeld do not fault President Bush. But some furiously criticize both, along with the military leadership, like the Army major in the Special Forces. "I believe that a large number of officers hate Rumsfeld as much as I do, and would like to see him go," he said of conversations with other officers.

"The Army, however, went gently into that good night of Iraq without saying a word. For that reason, most of us know that we have to share the burden of responsibility for this tragedy. And at the end of the day, it wasn't Rumsfeld who sent us to war, it was the president. Officers know better than anyone else that the buck stops at the top. I think we are too deep into this for Rumsfeld's resignation to mean much."

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