A confidential source told me late last week that after the
decade-long military debacle known as Vietnam, senior officers and
Pentagon personnel may have “unofficially” agreed with civilian leaders
to establish a code of cooperation for any future U.S. military
adventure. That code, unwritten in any policy manual, basically said
that if the civilian leadership was going to involve U.S. forces in
any conflict for any reason, give the military
“mission-type orders” and refrain from emphasizing political, rather
than military, objectives.
For several years following our hasty withdrawal from Southeast Asia
that “code” was largely honored and respected. My source, who adamantly
requested anonymity because of past and present associations, cited the
examples of Grenada, Panama, and even Desert Storm to illustrate how
effective military planners and their forces could be when left alone to
plan and execute missions given them by the White House.
President Clinton and his team of national security advisors,
however, have apparently arrogantly abandoned that unwritten code, and
it has led to an unprecedented level of dissent within the nation’s
military, as well as a series of military misadventures no serious
historian will ever call successes.
It is important to note that this dissent in no way approaches the
level of a third world country, where military commanders routinely
overthrow the civilian authorities they disagree with. But this
phenomenon is remarkable because of the ramifications it has had on our
current military force structure and the future ability of this nation’s
armed forces to fight and win wars, to say nothing of the trust
necessary between military and civilian officials.
Consequently the origin of today’s military/civilian imbalance has a
Many people have suspected for years that much of the Vietnam War,
for example, was run directly by the White House situation room. In
many instances, former military commanders have said, their forces and,
in essence, their assignments, were hamstrung because field commanders
had to wait to take actions against the enemy because they couldn’t get
an order to do so from Washington. “Political considerations” were
priorities rather than military objectives.
Now, fast forward 25 years or so and we find ourselves back in the
same situation Vietnam-era veterans and military commanders had to
face. After a short respite during the Reagan/Bush years, our military
is again hamstrung by an administration that repeatedly refuses to
acknowledge the Pentagon’s supremacy in deciding military strategy. At
the same time the Clinton White House has denied senior military
officials the latitude they require in order to take the assignments
they are given and produce militarily satisfactory results.
And like Vietnam, it has become dangerous to the careers of senior
officers to speak out against White House and Department of Defense
policies involving the improper use of military force. It is not as
though many senior officers have not offered their advice and
counsel; it is simply that no one making the decisions regarding the use
of American military power is listening. Worse, they are not leaving
much room for debate.
According to my source, an unconfirmed but highly reliable memo was
written and sent to him recently by a trusted colleague that provides
details of a mass U.S. military general staff exodus, which allegedly
occurred in 1997. According to the contents of the memo, upward of 24
U.S. generals, led by a former U.S. Air Force brigadier general,
confronted Defense Secretary William Cohen with a demand that military
conditions improve and U.S. defense policies change, or they would
resign in mass protest.
However, the White House and Cohen said they knew what the officers
were up to and immediately moved to quell any publicity they sought over
their resignations, hence saving the administration another
embarrassment. According to my source, the officers were then
threatened with courts-martial and reminded of their obligations under
the non-disclosure forms all officers sign when commissioned. Those
forms say retiring ranking officers cannot discuss classified military
policies and operations after leaving military service. To ensure
compliance, that policy, however, was allegedly changed to include a
statement that the officers could also not publicly discuss the nature
of their resignations or face “punishment and loss of retirement
Cohen, the memo said, then thanked them for helping to consolidate
the military’s officer positions (downsize them), told them their
positions would not be replaced so no one would learn of the mass
resignation, and told these career officers to get out of his office.
The air force general leading the exodus then watched “The Air Force
Times” for several weeks to see if any announcements of the protest
resignation were made. They were, but apparently the officers’ names
were released over a period of several months so as not to draw
attention to the incident. And true to word, only about four general
staff positions have been filled by the Clinton administration since.
If true, this story dovetails behind other documented and very public
protests of former lower-ranking military officers and retiring enlisted
personnel, and signifies the growing disconnect between the military and
the Clinton White House.
The significance should become obvious. The crux of all this rests
with the fact that militarily speaking, the nation has come full circle
from the days when President Truman was firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur
for speaking out publicly against Truman’s Korea strategies, to the days
following when military officers pledged to become blindly obedient to
all subsequent civilian authority. That kind of blind obedience,
necessary to maintain a government unthreatened by the influences of the
military’s obvious power, likely led not only to Vietnam but also to
Clinton administration debacles involving Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and now
In our system of government, it has to be this way. But what
this should illustrate even further is that Americans have to be more
mindful of the choices in leadership they make. A lack of character or,
at worst, a lack of respect for our constitutional way of life, leads to
this kind of friction and, ultimately, to more military debacles, both
small and large.