Scoping Out the Political Battlefield

When candor can be a career killer.


Gen. Eric Shinseki.

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FORT LEAVENWORTH, KAN.—Generals who have taken a stand in a polarizing war like Iraq at risk of professional peril have made an impression on the group gathered here at the Command and General Staff College. A case in point: the February 2003 Capitol Hill testimony by then Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki and then Pentagon No. 2 official Paul Wolfowitz. Shinseki called for a larger Iraq troop deployment than sought by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "I'll never forget watching that," says one major. "They asked Shinseki directly for his assessment, and it differed so much from what Wolfowitz was saying. And then Shinseki was gone. He was gone. Period."

It was a shock for junior officers. "It set a really bad precedent for many of us down at this level," says the major. "Personally, I looked at it," adds another. "Imagine, you've been doing this, soldiering, all of your life. All your life. And they ask for your input. Then you've got this guy who's never put on a piece of body armor or worn a helmet. Who do I consider to be more credible?"

Generals like Shinseki have been "a tremendous example for a whole generation of leaders," says Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the military assistant to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He draws a comparison with the blunt-talking Gen. George C. Marshall, who offered up an opinion to Franklin D. Roosevelt that many would have considered career suicide. "It was Marshall who told FDR that an idea he had wasn't necessarily the brightest thing he'd ever heard," says Chiarelli. "That impressed FDR so much, and we all know what happens next." Marshall was promoted to Army chief of staff on the eve of America's entry into World War II.

The majors here all know what happened next to Shinseki, too: Following his Hill testimony, he finished out his tenure as a lame duck after Rumsfeld named Shinseki's successor one year before he was scheduled to take over.

But while the majors say they hope for a great deal more candor from the generals who command them—particularly when briefing political leaders—they debate the extent to which military leaders should stand up to their civilian masters. After all, they point out, one of democracy's most fundamental principles is that its military operates under civilian control. "I have a sense that if it's not illegal or unethical," says a major, "then it's our job to make a situation work."