TO A LARGE PART of the public, Air Force Gen. George S. Brown, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who died of cancer on Tuesday, was probably known mainly for making regrettable remarks. On two occasions, anyway, the general's clumsy and unfortunate observations on political and diplomatic matters caused a great national uproar and got him in a lot of trouble. We thought on each occasion -- and think now -- that the uproar was deserved. But there is much more to reflect on in the career of Gen. Brown than those two disturbing incidents.
Gen. Brown, whose father was a cavalry officer and who was himself a 1941 West Point graduate and a World War II Army Air Corps hero, was eventually to move from the purely military realm in which he had lived to the high point of Washington politics -- that sensitive, complex and ambiguous place at the top where military power and civilian authority intersect. Generally, the Joint Chiefs have this to look forward to: When they speak up forcefully for a service position that the civilian leadership finds questionable, they are described as Strangeloves and right-wing maniacs; but when they support a civilian-political position that is not popular throughout the military and that involves some sort of de-escalation or withdrawal or arms limitation, they are dismissed as toadies and tools of the politicians, who do not really represent the best of service thinking.
Gen. Brown in his time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, from the summer of 1974 to the summer of 1978, got his share of both criticisms. Yet, odd and ironic as it may seem to those who knew him only for the grief of his two most famous public pronouncements, he was known among the military and civilian leadership with whom he served for an exceptional capacity to represent fairly and diplomatically the various competing interests of the services themselves, and also for a willingness to take positions that were bound to be unpopular with the military as a whole.
Another kind of chairman of the Joint Chiefs would have tried to convert the withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 into the "nightmare of acrimony" at home that so many people feared. But Gen. Brown did not. And his strong testimony in favor of the Panama Canal treaties was surely crucial to their approval. For this last effort, the general was (predictably) subjected to the usual sotto voce criticism from some treaty opponents: that he was just currying favor with his civilian employers. But by the time of the final Panama fight, George Brown knew himself to be retiring and also to be a victim of the cancer that has now taken his life.
Some of the general's political perceptions, it is true, were terrible. But in his professional capacity he was known for his honesty, integrity, straightfor-wardness and managerial and diplomatic skill. People deserve to be remembered for more than their lapses and mistakes. And from his bomber-piloting days in World War II to the time of his retirement last summer, George Brown's contribution to the well-being and security of the nation was substantial and well worth remembering.