Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.
The primary criticism in the Sept. 13 op-eds by retired Lt. Gen. David W. Barno [“Who decides when we go to war,” Washington Forum] and Michael O’Hanlon [“No military consensus on Syria,” online] is that in my Sept. 6 commentary, “A war the Pentagon doesn’t want,” I purported to speak on behalf of serving soldiers.
Guilty as charged.
I have made sharing the voices of soldiers and military leaders virtually my sole passion since I retired in 2001. Many of my writings and speeches illustrate this. O’Hanlon wrote that he is hearing a different story from his Pentagon contacts. But my observations of military opinion are on the mark. Tuesday night, just minutes after President Obama’s speech on Syria, Fox News moderator Bret Baier asked me what percentage of the military thought the president’s plan was in the national interest. I replied that, based on information obtained from my contacts, it was about 80-20 against.
The next day, the Military Times published a poll showing that 80 percent of the serving military agreed that getting involved in Syria’s civil war is not in our national interest. Perhaps O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, finds differing opinions because he works for a liberal think tank. Very few soldiers today would risk a “Rolling Stone” moment by speaking the truth to Brookings.
O’Hanlon listed examples of poor military advice put forward by generals in the past, implying that history has shown that generals are not terribly effective counselors to the president. Of course I disagree that generals are intellectually inept. I also disagree vehemently that generals should stay silent when great decisions are made. Recall the titanic clash of wills between a raging President Lyndon Johnson and Gens. Harold Johnson and Earle Wheeler, the two Army members of the Joint Chiefs. Johnson profanely shouted them into submission in 1965 and for the rest of their lives these generals lived under the guilt that a more resolute stand, or resignation, might have saved 58,000 American lives in Vietnam.
For his part, Barno suggests that an influential retired general somehow threatens the constitutional framework of civilian control of the military. I disagree. The republic is safe. There will be no “Seven Days in May.” But I do stand by another part of the Constitution: the First Amendment. I’ve been retired for 12 years. Unlike some of my more politically active peers, I have never stood on a television stage behind a candidate acting as a political potted plant. I’ve never signed a petition advocating any candidate. While on active duty, I never cast a ballot. I do not seek public office. I do not receive a dime from the Defense Department, a think tank or a defense contractor. Therefore, I feel perfectly comfortable exercising my constitutional right to free speech.
Barno said that arguments such as mine “imply that the military has a voice and a vote of its own . . . [and] that channels outside the chain of command are fair game.” I agree that serving members of the military should not get involved publicly in the debate, particularly if their civilian masters demand silence. But, again, I’m long retired and don’t think that my opinions are likely to crack the foundations of our democracy.
Barno suggested that I implied that “only the military has the experience appropriate to judge the risks and rewards associated with going to war.” This is absurd. The president makes these decisions — end of story. But compare the atmospherics of, say, the Johnson and Obama administrations with that of President Dwight Eisenhower, who kept intimately involved with the military men he had mentored in wartime. They did not always support Ike’s decisions. But he listened and refused to go to war eight times in so many years in office. This comparison shows the relative value of seeking unfettered military advice vs. shutting out those voices for any reason.
I suspect that much of Barno’s and O’Hanlon’s vitriol is directed against my perceived bias rather than the danger I pose to civilian-military relations. To my recollection, the six who led the “revolt of the generals” against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2006 were not accused of threatening the Constitution. Perhaps the media generally agreed with those generals’ ultimate purpose: to chase a Cabinet secretary from office. My good friend and West Point classmate Wes Clark ran for president shortly after retiring. Today he supports all Democratic causes and beats the media drums for an act of war against Syria. Yet he fails to raise the ire of the press or devoted defenders of the Constitution. Perhaps think-tankers O’Hanlon and Barno — now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security — targeted me less for my opinions and more for my connection to Fox News.
George Washington set the tone for future civil-military relations when he repeatedly cautioned his generals never to threaten the republic through political interference. Yet Washington also knew that soldiers should never sacrifice citizenship for service.He wrote in 1775: “When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen.” More than 200 years later, the words of our first soldier-president still redound with wisdom.