Military Leaders Must Be Free to Disagree With Civilian Bosses

One of the toughest issues we face as a democracy is the relationship between military and civilian leaders.

We have a long history of civilian control of the military. The civilians (president, secretary of defense, national security adviser) decide policy and the military executes it. For much of our history this has served us well. We don’t have military coups in this country and thus have a stable elected government.

However, it is now clear that top military officers must be free to speak truth to their civilian bosses without fear of retribution. If we learn nothing else from our involvement in Iraq, we should at least learn that lesson.

I was part of a Congressional delegation to Iraq in December of 2003, less than nine months after our invasion of that country. While there, our delegation was briefed by a series of high-ranking Army officers. One of the generals, a major general with significant combat experience, made it clear that things were not going as smoothly as the Bush administration was telling the press and the American public.

Upon my return to the United States, I told my wife, Army Major General Kathy Frost, what that particular general had said to us. She knew the general…they had served together as young officers in Berlin early in their careers. Her response was very simple: "He is an outstanding officer and he will not get his third star."

Some time later, we learned that the general in question had, in fact, retired as a two star.

Ironically, one of the other generals who briefed us during our 2003 trip, Lt. Gen. Rick Sanchez, had hewed to the company line and told us all was going well. Gen. Sanchez, also now retired, recently told the press exactly the opposite. He is now a strong critic of how we conducted operations in Iraq.

One high ranking military officer, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, did tell the truth while still on active duty. He told Congress that we needed at least 200,000 military on the ground in Iraq in order to pacify the country and seal the borders. The Bush administration rejected his advice and went with a much smaller force. The administration then embarrassed Gen. Shinseki, by publicly announcing his retirement a year before his actual tour of duty ended.

There must be a change in the relationship between active duty military and their civilian bosses. High ranking officers must be able to tell the truth to the civilians in charge of our government without fear of losing their next promotion. If not, then we will be doomed to more Iraq’s.

There clearly are occasions when the civilian leaders are right and the military are wrong. President Harry Truman relieved Gen. Douglas McArthur from duty during the Korean War, when McArthur disobeyed his orders. History proved that Truman was right to have taken the action he did.

But somehow we all learned the wrong lesson from the Truman-McArthur showdown. There are instances when the military have a better understanding of reality than their civil bosses and they must be free to forcefully tell the civilians what they think while policy is being determined. The civilians ultimately must be in control, but our military cannot be intimidated into silence. They must not face the Hobson’s choice of total acquiescence on the one hand or retirement on the other hand. There must be a middle ground.

I served in the Army and I understand the need to follow orders and achieve the military objective. Our military cannot be a debating society. Once a command is given, the subordinates must carry it out.

It is the decision process before the command is given that is in question.

During my marriage to Kathy I met a number of bright, capable high-ranking military officers. They are some of the best our country produces. But they must not be locked into a system that prevents them from giving their best advice to the people who ultimately make life or death decisions affecting thousands of American families.

The best military thinkers at the War College are looking at this exact question right now. Let’s hope they come up with some solutions.

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Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.