July 1, 2006  

Rumsfeld and the Generals

It surprises and alarms me that ongoing criticism of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from several retired generals has not elicited deeper introspection by our president and Congress [“Rummy and his generals,” June].

This disagreement with a secretary of defense is but a symptom of a more serious underlying problem. What we are seeing is the principle of civilian supremacy over the military run amok, and our commander in chief should be greatly concerned. We are witnessing the culmination of a 46-year trend, beginning with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, during which the principle has gone from civilian oversight to prevent military mischief to civilian operational control of every facet of military affairs. I do not know Rumsfeld or the generals who have disagreed with him. My comments are directed at the system that I have watched grow up around the principle since the Defense Department’s inception in 1947.

There are no villains — it just happened. Civilian presidential appointees, dozens of them highly accomplished in their specialties, aggressive, get-things-done type men, were placed in office during the past 60 years. Gradually, their numbers and responsibilities grew until they replaced military leaders and managers or pushed them down the chain. It is not too far off the mark to say that all military career fields (personnel, logistics, intelligence, operations, research and development, public information, operational testing and others) are now capped off by civilians. The arrangement that has evolved appears to harness highly competent civilians and highly competent military officers in a frustrating, perhaps unworkable, relationship that is breeding discontent and damaging the principle of civilian supremacy.

The enduring principle is embedded in the Constitution, which states: “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices. …”

This principle is hammered into our minds at West Point and ROTC and Officer Candidate School. It becomes a part of our being. Its acceptance in spirit and letter by American Army officers is a national treasure. If anything is sacred to the officer corps of the Army, that principle is, and I believe the same to be true of the other services. It is the third rail of military service. We won’t touch it. If incoming presidential appointees demand control, they’ve got it — so powerful is the principle. As officers advance in rank, they gain a deeper understanding of the essentiality of the principle. Military organizations are potentially capable of the serious mischief that we see in rogue regimes around the world. Military officers can’t imagine it happening in America, but we know in our hearts that military power needs watching.

In the current system, the civilian oversight role is vested in presidential appointees to Defense Department headquarters and the three service secretariats. It is unfortunate that when the National Security Act of 1947 created the Defense Department, it did not at the same time eliminate the service secretariats. The 1976 Defense Manpower Requirements Report recommended just that, but was ignored. The result is two suffocating layers of civilian oversight. As the structure and workaday arrangements for implementing civilian supremacy over the military evolved during the past six decades, the secretary of defense appears to have become the de facto deputy president and deputy commander in chief, presiding over an all-powerful defense headquarters.

The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines spend millions of dollars every year training and educating their officers from the most basic level up through strategic national-defense planning. Every four or eight years, a new defense secretary appears on the scene, bringing many of his own civilian crew with him. Educated, trained and experienced professional officers find themselves working under temporary-hire civilian bosses. It is not an even match. Sitting across the table in important negotiations, all that a civilian assistant secretary of something-or-other need do is to invoke an intonation of finality to the discussion and it usually ends. He may think the overwhelming power of his logic carried the day, but more likely it was the absolute power of the principle of civilian supremacy, so deeply is it inculcated into military officers.

So, our government faces a situation in which civilian supremacy has grown beyond oversight and now finds civilians in firm operating control of all aspects of military affairs. They took control, made some mistakes that tarnished the military profession, and are being held accountable. If the commander in chief and Congress consider the current interpretation and application of the principle to be the best arrangement for the well-being of the U.S., then so be it. The principle is sacrosanct.

However, if the current interpretation and application of the principle is not that which was intended by the Constitution and is not best for the nation, then it is up to elected civilian officials, specifically the president, Congress, and perhaps the Supreme Court, to say so and quickly do something about it. A comprehensive review is long overdue. Continued failure to conduct such a review will be an ultimate dereliction of duty.

The military can’t handle this one and still retain its honored, subservient place in America’s democracy. Reform must come from elected civilian leaders. Leaving retired generals and an embattled defense secretary to slug out a matter so complex and vital is not a reasonable option.

Maj. Gen. John T. Carley (ret.)

U.S. Army

Clemson, S.C.