Nation & World

U.S. system politicizes war

Alex Roland, a Duke University professor who studies military history, recently spoke to Q editor Carole Tanzer Miller about the lessons that history holds for the war in Iraq, and parallels between Vietnam and Iraq.

The N&O: The advice military officers give to the Pentagon and the White House has been an issue at various times. What's at the root of it?

Alex Roland: This problem goes back to the beginning of warfare and Sun Tzu in the 4th century B.C. There is a famous book supposedly written by him called "The Art of War," which stated the military's preferred position, and it's always been true through the rest of recorded history. The head of state tells the military commander what objective he has, and then the military commander is on his own to run the war the way he wants. In practice, of course, it's never that way, and the United States has a particularly vexed history on this issue going back to the very beginning of the republic.

The reason is that the founding fathers worried about the tyranny of the military and the possibility of a military coup, and of course, they had in mind the Civil War in England in the middle of the 17th century. In the Constitution, they made several attempts to guarantee civilian control of the military. These include annual funding for the Army -- that is, the Army has to go back to Congress every year to get its money; the president is commander in chief of the military; and military officers are appointed by the commander in chief. All of these provisions in the Constitution are meant to ensure that civilians will always control the military. That means that the military is always going to be politicized because the civilian authorities can interfere in military affairs to any extent that they want to. If that's the case, how do you get the military to tell their civilian masters things they don't want to hear? That's the dilemma we're in now, and in some ways we've always been in.

The N&O: Top generals and the joint chiefs have obligations to three groups -- their troops, their commander in chief, and to the American public. What is their obligation to each?

Roland: First of all, they are responsible to the commander in chief, an elected public official. They have a certain obligation of loyalty to carry out orders of the commander in chief so long as they're legal and moral, whether they agree with them at all. It's not their place to disagree with the politics of using force. By the same token, they must tell the commander in chief what their best estimate of the situation is. The problem, of course, is that if senior officers become noted for their candor and perhaps even their disagreement with the president's policies, they probably won't get promoted. So they're in a real bind.

They have a second bind, which is just as complicated. It surely is not their place to speak out in public or to criticize the president or the president's policy. But there is one circumstance when they may be called upon to do it -- that is, if they go to testify before Congress and a senator or congressman says, "General, give me your candid, professional assessment of this situation." Then they're in trouble. If their candid, professional assessment differs from that of the president, do they give that candid assessment or do they remain as good soldiers, loyal to the commander in chief? Nobody has yet found a satisfactory answer to that dilemma that we put them in all the time.

The N&O: What is their obligation to the troops -- to minimize casualties or is it something else?

Roland: Not necessarily. Suppose they say to the president that the policy you are directing us to carry out is, in our opinion, going to cause excessive casualties and the president says go ahead anyhow? It is the president's decision to make whether the national interest requires those casualties, not theirs. They have to make the informed, professional assessment of what casualties might be, but they cannot refuse the order simply because the president is pursuing a policy that might result in high casualties.

The N&O: So what is their obligation to the troops?

Roland: If the order is legal, moral and ethical, the obligation is to salute and carry it out or resign. We have had very little experience with resignation in protest by senior military officers.

The N&O: Any noteworthy examples?

Roland: Yes. All of the joint chiefs of staff during the Vietnam War at one point actively discussed resigning in protest together. Ultimately, they concluded that it would not serve the national interest.

The N&O: What about other wars?

Roland: We won most of our wars, and so the kinds of problems we have faced recently, especially in Vietnam and Iraq, are new to us, where some military officers believe the nation is pursuing unwise military policies and producing casualties and are calling upon military services to carry out the wrong orders. This is fairly new in the American experience.

The N&O: Isn't there an analogy to be drawn with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, where he basically defied orders and did what he wanted?

Roland: It is the same thing, but there was such a consensus about that that it became an issue of a single megalomaniac against most of the civilian and military establishment that virtually all of the senior military officers supported Truman's decision to fire him. It was the McCarthy era, so some of the political establishment did support him, but most supported Truman.

The N&O: In Iraq there seems to be a failure of generals to say before the invasion and during the occupation what specifically is needed to accomplish the mission. What can be done about this sugarcoating?

Roland: This dilemma in which we find ourselves places a burden both on senior military officers and on the political establishment. The president and the executive branch of government must allow senior officers to speak their minds without jeopardizing their careers.

The N&O: When Gen. Eric Shenseki did that, he got canned.

Roland: Right. Gen. Anthony Zinni, a Marine officer who was head of central command at one time, told of his experience in the first Bush administration of disagreeing with the president's policy and being allowed to, of being brought back to the United States to talk to the president and explain why he disagreed. That's the way it should work. A general officer should feel free to do that. Gen. Zinni was forced out in the current Bush administration, so he paid the price just as Gen. Shenseki did.

Without being too political about it, I would say that the current Bush administration is the perfect example of how not to conduct our civil-military relations -- that is, punishing career military officers who disagree with policy. It is fair, i think, to punish them if they refuse to carry out the policy or if they resist the policy, but just to disagree with it should not be grounds for ending their careers.

The N&O: What are the lessons here?

Roland: There are two lessons here in the sense that both parties have behaved badly. The senior military officers were not sufficiently resolute in voicing their concerns about the plans for the war, and secondly, the Bush administration was censorious in limiting advice and information at odds with its prepared plan. They decided early on that they were going to war and then they filtered information -- not just intelligence on Iraq but also evaluations and recommendations coming from the military. The result was that they were receiving only the information that they wanted to. Which is a dreadful way to run the military.

Senior officers are clearly in a very uncomfortable position, especially when they find themselves with a civilian leadership like the Bush administration, but part of the problem also arises from rampant careerism in the military. There aren't enough Gen. Zinnis in the higher ranks of the military who are willing to risk their promotion to speak candidly, and too many officers, it seems, who want to get ahead and, therefore, espouse the policies that they know the civilian leadership wants to hear.

A lieutenant colonel at the Army War College, Paul Yingling, wrote earlier this year in the Armed Forces Journal a scathing critique of senior military leadership. He compared Iraq to Vietnam and concluded that the military leadership made the same mistakes all over again for wont of courage and moral backbone. Most of what he says, I think, is true, but he exculpates the civilian leadership, which was equally to blame.

The N&O: Anything to add?

Roland: Iraq has been a repeat of Vietnam, and by this time, we should have known better.

There's an interesting story about one of our graduate students, an Army officer named H.R. McMaster, who as a young officer was a bona fide hero of the first Iraq war. The Army sent him here to UNC-Chapel Hill, where he got a Ph.D. in history. From his dissertation, he wrote a book called "Dereliction of Duty," which is an indictment of the joint chiefs of staff in the Vietnam War. He maintained if they had only told the truth, that disaster could have been averted. We wondered what impact that book would have on his career. Apparently, they thought long and hard about it and decided to reward his candor and insight, so his book became required reading for the staffs of the joint chiefs of staff. Then, when the time came to carry out the lesson of that book, the joint chiefs ignored it. So they can hardly claim they were unprepared for this challenge.

Interview by Q editor Carole Tanzer Miller