13 April 2006

If You Can't Take a Joke...

Of late, there has been a groundswell of criticism for the civilian management of the DoD. An article in today's WaPo quotes a recently retired Army two star as saying:

"I think we need a fresh start" at the top of the Pentagon, retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004-2005, said in an interview. "We need leadership up there that respects the military as they expect the military to respect them. And that leadership needs to understand teamwork." Batiste noted that many of his peers feel the same way. "It speaks volumes that guys like me are speaking out from retirement about the leadership climate in the Department of Defense," he said earlier yesterday on CNN.

"Rumsfeld Rebuked By Retired Generals" (13 Apr 2006) (fake paragraphing corrected for clarity).

For obvious reasons, the article concentrates on retired flag officers (and on ground-force commanders). One commentator asserts that these statements could undermine civilian control of the military 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" (quoting the article, not Professor Kohn). This does not match my experience—which, admittedly, was not at the flag-officer level!—or, rather, understates it. The problem is that any need for excessive care is on both sides of the argument: Military officers have long needed to be careful about how they perform their duties around politically connected civilians. Civilian control of the military in the constitutional sense is one thing (and a good one); micromanagement and use of the military as a career-enhancing device by politically connected civilians is another.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the media isn't reporting much in the way of positive statements of support (and really hasn't since Vietnam). Apparently, it's only newsworthy if retired flag officers criticize the civilian management at the DoD. I suspect that a great deal of this reticence is left over from the discriminatory application of the draft following the Korean War until its discontinuance in the 1970s: There just aren't a whole lot of news executives (or reporters) with military experience any more. The executives won't accept that when a retired officer speaks out at all on civilian management issues, that's news.

Compare this to the DoJ's recent backdown over so-called "national security letters." The government has withdrawn its appeal of a judge's disapproval of the draconian prohibition of libraries (among others) revealing that they had even received an inquiry. I don't buy the purported "we now have discretion" argument; for one thing, choosing to appeal the judge's order was itself an exercise of discretion. In both the DoD and DoJ instances, what we're seeing is evidence that partisan politics are more important than performing the respective constitutional duties, at least among some highly placed political appointees. This is not unique to this Administration by any means; that makes it no less disturbing.