The ‘General’ Uproar: Military Protest and the Press

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By: Greg Mitchell

Since an impressive group of retired generals started calling for Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, and offering other critiques of our actions in Iraq, the press hasn’t known quite what to do with them. On the one hand, this group of six or eight dissidents (or whatever the number is today) represents a tiny percentage of ex-officers. On the other hand, these were former top guys, many of whom played a role in the Iraq debacle.

Other conflicts are teasing the media: Did the generals show disloyalty by speaking out? Or, on the contrary, why did they take so long to do it? In any case: What does it all mean and what is the likely long-term impact?

When questions such as the final one surface, an expert I often turn to for advice is my former collaborator, the famed psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton.

While he is best known for classic studies on earth-shattering events (the Holocaust and Hiroshima), he also has a strong military connection, as a veteran who served in the Far East during the Korean war and as a counselor of Vietnam veterans. Several of his books have featured in-depth interviews with generals and admirals who have confronted military or nuclear policies with which they were once intimately involved.

Long ago, he coined the term “retirement syndrome” to describe officials who dare to speak out only after they have left government or retired from the military. His current book is “Crimes of War,” a collection of views on the Iraq conflict that he co-edited with Richard Falk and Irene Grendzier.

I interviewed Lifton via telephone earlier this week, following the appearance of a New York Times article last weekend on the chances that active-duty officers might follow the generals in raising a protest today.


What’s your take on why the generals finally spoke out?

The media is right to pay special attention to those who offer criticism who have been on the inside, and especially military people. I experienced that in working with Vietnam veterans who were especially powerful on the foot-soldier level.

It’s indeed an expression of what I called the retirement syndrome or retirement wisdom. What it means is that these generals lived through certain military policies, adopted them, because that was their world, then had doubts, but suppressed those doubts. The syndrome depends on previously suppressed doubts emerging on retirement.

It happens because when they retire they are no longer responsible for those military policies and actions and can psychologically permit those doubts to surface. When that happens and they speak critically, they have enormous credibility with the press and public because they have lived these dubious policies. They frequently speak with extraordinary eloquence because they have knowledge from the inside about these events.

What’s the significance going forward?

The generals really become important, for one thing, as psychological models for younger officers. From what we read in the Times last weekend about the reverberations of those generals critical of Rumsfeld, younger officers are talking to each other and sharing in those doubts.

What we sense is at stake is their sense of military honor. I can remember talking to antinuclear admirals and generals in the 1980s and they told me that they began to oppose nuclear weapons because they threatened all military honor. Why? There is a very important quality of military idealism that is necessary in a democracy. As I’ve heard them define it, it includes a commitment to defending their country–and doing so with a minimal loss of lives. With nuclear weapons, and certain other actions, it’s almost impossible to do that.

I also interviewed one of the men who refused to fire at My Lai during the massacre there, who talked about military idealism as the source of his restraint.

The classical example of military idealism is Eisenhower — the mother of all retirement syndromes. As many know, in 1961, after presiding over a very large nuclear and conventional buildup as president, he left office giving a strong and prescient warning about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. He understood viscerally what those dangers were, as a military man and president who lived in the atmosphere of the “national security state.”

The retirement syndrome can emerge gradually and with conflicts. We can see this with Robert McNamara, who struggled painfully over his part in the Vietnam war. With retirement he even raised questions about being a war criminal. He is still a tortured man.

The tragedy in these situations is you can have very good people who realize their humanity and wisdom only on retirement, or after leaving a project — such as Robert Oppenheimer after directing the building of the first atomic bomb.

What difficulties did the current generals face?

They retain very important friendships with peers on active service. So they still have one foot in that community and one foot out of it in the political and media or cultural community. We can see from that report in the Times that there are profound struggles to speak out. And those who have doubts about Rumsfeld or the war refuse to speak out in deference to their military obligation.

This is all a struggle of the military to retain its integrity. The military was corrupted by the Vietnam war, which was created by civilians. Of course, the generals there went along and endorsed policies of “free fire zones” and “body counts” that created what I call atrocity-producing situations. The military lost its bearings in that enterprise, then began a strong movement to regain its integrity.

I think these generals now are speaking out not only against wrong policies and a bad leader but speaking out for the integrity of an institution that they love and are still a part of. The military can be squeezed between integrity in its function of warmaking and pressures exerted upon them by their civilian masters.

Younger officers, of course, are exposed to the protests, in the press.

These younger officers, still on active duty, are talking about nothing less than the future of the military. Press reports say that a large number of them will not stay in the military. They are reflecting a tendency already obvious to military leaders, with very few staying in and moving up and becoming quality officers.

I have had the experience of speaking at War Colleges. It was uncomfortable for all of us, but there were always younger military officers who were interested in a strong critique of military behavior because they needed that critique for a sense of their own integrity.

So we have generals speaking out for integrity and the younger officers having questioned already what is going on in the military, now legitimized by the generals. One can even see the beginnings of a crusade for reform.

It’s retirement syndrome but also what I’ve called “survivor meaning.” They have survived their experience in the Iraq war, many of them, and the meaning they give to that survival is a kind of wrongheaded policy responsible for too many American dead and Iraqi dead too. So it’s also “survivor mission” and “survivor wisdom.”

What happens next?

A lot of useful criticism, and leaks, will continue to come from the military and conservative forces and people who have known these policies from the inside. The media is right to focus on those who have struggled on the inside and have visceral knowledge of those policies — and the harm they do.

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