Young Officers Join the Debate Over Rumsfeld
By THOM SHANKER and ERIC SCHMITT
Published: April 23, 2006
WASHINGTON, April 22 — 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.
Mr. Rumsfeld at the 2004 graduation ceremony of the United States Military Academy. Many young officers have expressed concerns about the quality of the relationship between the military and civilian leaders.
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 the civilian leaders and, most divisive of all, whether Mr. Rumsfeld should resign.
In recent weeks, military correspondents of The 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 many midlevel officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and face the prospect of additional 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 otherwise 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 that Mr. Rumsfeld should resign, and 75 percent believed that 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 Mr. Rumsfeld are not faulting President Bush — in contrast to the situation in the 1960's, when both President Lyndon B. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara drew criticism over Vietnam from the officer corps. (Mr. McNamara, like Mr. Rumsfeld, was also resented from the outset for his attempts to reshape the military itself.)
But some are furiously criticizing 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.
"The Army, however, went gently into that good night of Iraq without saying a word," he added, summarizing conversations with other officers. "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.
"But this is all academic. Most officers would acknowledge that we cannot leave Iraq, regardless of their thoughts on the invasion. We destroyed the internal security of that state, so now we have to restore it. Otherwise, we will just return later, when it is even more terrible."
The debates are fueled by the desire to mete out blame for the situation in Iraq, a drawn-out war that has taken many military lives and has no clear end in sight. A midgrade officer who has served two tours in Iraq said a number of his cohorts were angered last month when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that "tactical errors, a thousand of them, I am sure," had been made in Iraq.
"We have not lost a single tactical engagement on the ground in Iraq," the officer said, noting that the definition of tactical missions is specific movements against an enemy target. "The mistakes have all been at the strategic and political levels."
Many officers said a crisis of leadership extended to serious questions about top generals' commitment to sustain a seasoned officer corps that was being deployed on repeated tours to the long-term counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the rest of the government did not appear to be on the same wartime footing.
We are forced to develop innovative ways to convince, coerce and cajole officers to stay in to support a war effort of national-level importance that is being done without a defensewide, governmentwide or nationwide commitment of resources," said one Army officer with experience in Iraq.
Another Army major who served in Iraq said a fresh round of debates about the future of the American military had also broken out. Simply put, the question is whether the focus should be, as Mr. Rumsfeld believes, on a lean high-tech force with an eye toward possible opponents like China, or on troop-heavy counterinsurgency missions more suited to hunting terrorists, with spies and boots on the ground.
In general, the Army and Marines support maintaining beefy ground forces, while the Navy and Air Force — the beneficiaries of much of the high-tech arsenal — favor the leaner approach. And some worry that those arguments have become too fierce.
"I think what has the potential for scarring relations is the two visions of warfare — one that envisions near-perfect situational awareness and technology dominance, and the other that sees future war as grubby, dirty and chaotic," the major said. "These visions require vastly different forces. The tension comes when we only have the money to build one of these forces, Who gets the cash?"
Some senior officers said part of their own discussions were about fears for the immediate future, centering on the fact that Mr. Rumsfeld has surrounded himself with senior officers who share his views and are personally invested in his policies.
"If civilian officials feel as if they could be faced with a revolt of sorts, they will select officers who are like-minded," said another Army officer who has served in Iraq. "They will, as a result, get the military advice they want based on whom they appoint."
Kori Schake, a fellow at the Hoover Institution who teaches Army cadets at West Point, said some of the debates revolved around the issues raised in "Dereliction of Duty," a book that analyzes why the Joint Chiefs of Staff seemed unable or unwilling to challenge civilian decisions during the war in Vietnam. Published in 1997, the book was written by Col. H. R. McMaster, who recently returned from a year in Iraq as commander of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment.
"It's a fundamentally healthy debate," Ms. Schake said. "Junior officers look around at the senior leadership and say, 'Are these people I admire, that I want to be like?' "
These younger officers "are debating the standard of leadership," she said. "Is it good enough to do only what civilian masters tell you to do? Or do you have a responsibility to shape that policy, and what actions should you undertake if you believe they are making mistakes?"
The conflicts some officers express reflect the culture of commander and subordinate that sometimes baffles the civilian world. No class craves strong leadership more than the military.
"I feel conflicted by this debate, and I think a lot of my colleagues are also conflicted," said an Army colonel completing a year at one of the military's advanced schools. He expressed discomfort at the recent public criticism of Mr. Rumsfeld and the Iraq war planning by retired generals, including Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, the former operations officer for the Joint Chiefs, who wrote, in Time magazine, "My sincere view is that the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions — or bury the results."
But the colonel said his classmates were also aware of how the Rumsfeld Pentagon quashed dissenting views that many argued were proved correct, and prescient, like those of Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff. He was shunted aside after telling Congress, before the invasion, that it would take several hundred thousand troops to secure and stabilize Iraq.
Others contend that the military's own failings are equally at fault. A field-grade officer now serving in Iraq said he thought it was incorrect for the retired generals to call for Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation. His position, he said, is that "if there is a judgment to be cast, it rests as much upon the shoulders of our senior military leaders."
That officer, like several others interviewed, emphasized that while these issues often occupied officers' minds, the debate had not hobbled the military's ability to function in Iraq. "No impact here that I can see regarding this subject," he said.