Tuesday, April 18, 2006

When Generals Speak

There’s been a number of former flag officers (that’s Generals and Admirals, for the military-speak challenged out there) speaking out about Secretary Rumsfeld and his handling of the war in Iraq. And of course, there’s been a flood of editorials and stories in the press about them. While I don’t intend to discuss my opinions on their claims and demands here, I thought that some of what the press is saying deserves a little explanation.

Many pundits have claimed that the number of Generals speaking out is insignificant, and that they obviously represent a fringe element that can be ignored. I have to disagree. There is a deeply-engrained tradition in the military NOT to speak out against our political leaders regarding military matters, even after we return to our civilian lives. Remember, the principle of civilian control of the military is written in the Constitution. It is taught in detail in each service academy and ROTC class. Every unit orderly room has pictures posted of the entire Chain of Command – and the people at the very top of that chain are the ones without uniforms, who nonetheless rate a salute from any soldier that they encounter. In addition to their civilian duties, they are by law and custom our superior officers, ranking above even the most senior General or Admiral.

For six retired officers to break that tradition over a single issue in such a short time is a major shock to those of us who live in that environment. It forces me to take their concerns very, very seriously.

I read another editorial that complains that the Generals took the cowardly path by waiting until they retired to make their statements. The writer claims that the officers were protecting their “sweet retirement packages” by waiting until they were safely out of the service to speak up. Again, I have to disagree.

First of all, that “sweet retirement package” isn’t all that sweet. Let’s take a Major General “Smith”, in charge of a Division. He’s effectively the CEO of a company employing as many as 20,000 people. His annual pay comes in at around $180,000. Yes, he also gets some benefits – travel allowances, expense accounts, and so on, much like any other senior executive does. For comparison, I found that the Goldman-Sachs Group employs about 19,500 people. Their CEO, Henry Paulson, Jr., made out a little better than our MG Smith – he made $21,400,000 last year, or almost 120 TIMES as much. Plus, of course, whatever expense accounts come with THAT position. Of course, MG Smith gets the bonus of getting shot at. But we were discussing retirement pay…well, a military retirement is not a “Golden Parachute.” MG Smith, after 30 years of service, will get 75% of his base pay. When you take out the various allowances that are not part of the base pay, and then take away another 25%, that works out to around $102,000 a year…before taxes. I’ll grant you, that’s a significant chunk of change, but odds are pretty good that any random Major General can get out and make over a million a year by working for a lobbyist, or contracting firm, or maybe taking a CEO slot at a smaller company. Even half a mil is a pretty impressive pay raise, even if his retirement pay gets taken away at the last minute.

So our Generals did not hold their tongues to protect their financial future. Why did they wait? Well, remember that I said those civilians at the top are effectively our superior officers. It turns out that Disrespect to a Superior Officer is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, punishable by Court-Martial. A conviction by Court-Martial, by the way, is considered a Federal felony conviction. I’m sure that, depending on the wording, various other felony charges could be added – Conduct Unbecoming an Officer, Incitement to Mutiny, and so on…some of those carry the death penalty in time of war, too. When a soldier still in uniform speaks out against his civilian leaders, he isn’t just risking his job and his retirement, he is potentially risking his life. Remember I said that we have a tradition of respecting our civilian leaders? I wasn’t kidding. This is an example of just how engrained that tradition is.

So, anyway, six or so former General Officers are speaking out against our civilian leaders and the conduct of this war. Whether I agree with them or not, I believe they have earned the right to be taken very seriously.

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