Sunday, April 16, 2006


Perspective is good:

Two more retired generals stepped forward on Thursday and called for Donald Rumsfeld to resign, increasing the faction of outspoken officers to six. Rumsfeld brushed off the criticism: "Out of thousands and thousands of admirals and generals, if every time two or three people disagreed we changed the secretary of defense of the United States, it would be like a merry-go-round." How many retired admirals and generals are there?

It's hard to get good numbers, but the Explainer estimates that about 4,700 general officers are enjoying their retirement in the United States right now. (For a detailed look at the data and the Explainer's calculations, click here.) That means the six former generals who stepped forward to criticize Rumsfeld make up about one-tenth of 1 percent of the total community.

Retired generals pipe up all the time. In March, five of them wrote a letter to the Supreme Court asking that Justice Scalia recuse himself from the Hamdan case. In January, nine generals and three admirals banded together as the "Retired Generals Against Torture" and sent an open letter to the Senate judiciary committee. During campaign season, retired generals issue small-group political endorsements.

An important consideration is brought up by Cori Dauber in this brouhaha about Rumsfeld:
I did notice that the Times was to be commended for a front page article that focused on an angle of the story that was being, it seemed to me, completely neglected by every other outlet, as near as I could tell: the idea of generals, retired or not, attacking a sitting SecDef, much less asking for his resignation, is deeply disturbing, and the simple fact that they're retired doesn't change things. Up until this article I've only seen this brought up in one buried quote from my colleague, Dick Kohn (pretty much the top expert in the country on civil-military relations) in one Post article.
Kohn's point?
Military experts expressed some concern about the new outspokenness of retired generals.

"I think it flatly is a bad thing," said Richard H. Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina who writes frequently on civilian-military relations. He said he worries that it could undermine civilian control of the military, especially by making civilian leaders feel that that they need to be careful about what they say around officers, for fear of being denounced as soon as they retire.

"How can you prosecute a war if the military and civilians don't trust each other?" Kohn asked.
And consider this analysis by Wretchard at The Belmont Club, who, while putting the general's criticisms of Rumsfeld and the Iraq war into context, states:
The men who judge what works in their area of operations are the Commanders. Sometimes they will be wrong and sometimes get it right. The only demand one can make of command going up the line is to learn from their subordinates' experience and reflect it downward in changed guidance. The failure to adapt is the ultimate command failure. Stupidity was not sending men into the face of machine gun fire in August 1914 when that weapon was encountered in large numbers for the first time. What was stupid was to keep doing it even in the Somme in 1916. For that reason the New Republic's article, though slightly off-base puts its finger on the most disturbing aspect of the debate over the War. The press has made consistency in the prosecution of war a virtue; just as it has made the "failure" to live up to the initial plan the ultimate sin. In consequence so much of the debate consists of archaeology. What George Bush said to Tony Blair in Downing Street. What Joe Wilson heard in Darfur. Yet consistency in war is often not virtue but vice. The hobgoblin of small minds.

I don't care much one way or the other about Rumsfeld as SecDef. Personally, I rather like him, but that's only because his blunt style appeals to me. I can certainly understand why he stirs up extreme emotional responses. I happen to think that the prosecution of any war will involve many many mistakes--simply because no amount of pre-war planning can possibly consider all the variables or predict all the possible scenarios when human beings are involved. I think Rumsfeld has done a decent job simply because he has been willing to adapt to the unexpected and the unplanned contingencies. Ultimately he serves at the behest of the President, who will make the decision whether to replace him or not.

When it comes to predicting what people--or nations for that matter-- will do in any given circumstance, it is a best guess based on current, and almost always insufficient, knowledge. No one knows better than a psychiatrist that human beings are...unpredictable.

If things like wars and such are so predictable as the media like to pretend; and, if they are able to be perfectly planned and every contingency compensated for in advance; and then perfectly executed; then computers should be able to manage the whole affair. Computers don't make mistakes (unless they're programmed to), but they aren't very adaptable.

No one likes the unexpected; or the unplanned for; or for that matter, change of any sort--because all of those things are messy. Reality is messy, too.

Adaptability--not mindless consistency in living up to a pre-war plan--is the better virtue in a war. War--like reality-- is messy. And anyone doing the planning needs to understand that.

At least they do if they want to win.

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