Free Speech for Generals

April 27, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Baltimore Sun on April 27, 2006.

A brouhaha has erupted over the criticism that various retired generals — eight at last count — have directed at Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Iraq war hawks have reacted with fury at the criticism, and many have impugned the judgment and the motives of Mr. Rumsfeld’s tormentors.

It is debatable whether the generals’ criticism of the secretary’s role in the Iraq intervention is fair. That mission certainly has not gone as the Bush administration planned, and it is roughly midway between a disappointment and a debacle.

Mr. Rumsfeld undoubtedly deserves some of the blame, but it is less certain whether he deserves to be held solely or even primarily responsible for a collective administration failure. His supporters may have a point when they accuse the generals of being unfair.

Much more disturbing, though, is the allegation of some hawks that the retired officers have no right to criticize the defense secretary. Conservative columnist Tony Blankley of The Washington Times implied that the generals were engaged in a conspiracy with active‐​duty officers to undermine the Iraq war, and suggested that such conduct may violate the law.

Likewise, Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot A. Cohen argued that “for recently retired general officers to publicly denounce a sitting secretary of defense is wrong, destructive of good order and discipline in the armed forces, and prejudicial to functional civil‐​military relations.” The clear implication is that Mr. Rumsfeld’s critics should have remained silent concerning their misgivings about the Iraq war.

The hawks are wrong and hypocritical. Let’s remember that the people speaking out are retired officers, not those on active duty. It would be highly improper for active‐​duty military personnel to criticize the defense secretary or any other civilian official. Section 888 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes that point explicitly: “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the president, the vice president, Congress, the secretary of defense … shall be punished as a court‐​martial may direct.”

But once those officers submit their resignations, they should enjoy all of the constitutional rights that all other citizens enjoy. Nowhere is it written that military personnel forfeit their First Amendment right to freedom of expression for the rest of their lives when they put on the uniform. Yet that is what the hawks seem to be demanding.

Conservatives used to take a very different position. Previous generations of hawks were willing to defend active‐​duty officers who criticized their civilian leaders for allegedly undermining the nation’s security. One need only recall the hero’s welcome that Republicans put on for Gen. Douglas MacArthur after President Harry Truman fired him for actions contrary to established U.S. policy during the Korean War.

Hawks were likewise effusive in their praise of Gen. John Singlaub, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea during the late 1970s, when he publicly criticized President Jimmy Carter’s proposal to withdraw U.S. ground troops from that country. Nor have conservatives changed their views about Mr. Singlaub’s conduct. I have attended several foreign policy events during the past decade in which hawkish scholars and pundits still praised him for his alleged courage and judgment. It is a bit much for members of that same ideological faction to now denounce retired generals for criticizing a civilian official.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s opponents have every right, morally and legally, to join the debate about the Iraq war and his management of the Defense Department. Indeed, given their military expertise, their participation should be especially valued. The hawks need to stop whining and instead try to rebut the generals’ substantive points.

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