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What happened to courage of convictions?

Why haven't senior military leaders spoken out while on active duty?

MSNBC video
Grandstanding or watershed moment?
May 10: Is the President changing his ways after being confronted by Republican moderates about the war or was it all an act? Countdown host Keith Olbermann asks Newsweek's Howard Fineman and Nixon White House Counsel John Dean.
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Jack Jacobs
Military analyst

Last week, influential Republican politicians spent some time with President Bush to deliver the stark and irrefutable message that the administration’s management of the mess in Iraq was putting Republicans in great electoral peril. Republicans feel properly vulnerable to getting thrown out in next year’s election, and they are correct in assuming that Iraq is the lever that their opponents will use to pry them out of office.

The meeting with Bush came on the heels of obvious attempts by Republicans to distance themselves from Bush’s war policies, with some of them actually voting with the Democrats to limit Bush’s ability to use the American military in Iraq. While Bush himself is not yet radioactive, one can imagine that very few Republicans will clamor for the president to campaign for them, and next year, his travel outside Washington is likely to be only to his spread in Crawford, Texas. It’s not all that unusual for a president to find himself at odds with members of his own party. A generation ago, Democrats convinced their own president, Lyndon Johnson, to retire.

But last week, the most stunning break with the administration was the vocal opposition of Maj. Gen. John Batiste, a retired officer who had held significant positions of leadership in the U.S. Army. Although he is no longer on active duty, he is presumed to represent the views of at least some, if not most, among this nation’s professional military.

Like me, Batiste is retired from the Army, which means we draw an annuity from the U.S. government. Effectively, we are still in the military service…we are just getting paid not to show up for work. It is interesting to note that, because he is retired and is thus receiving pay, Batiste is still subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in which there are several articles under which he could be prosecuted for making intemperate remarks.

That’s in theory. In practice, though, he’s pretty safe and will get into trouble only if he becomes truly seditious, a very unlikely prospect. His greatest career risk was during his active service, not after. And therein lies a lesson.

It’s very unusual for our general officers to be so vituperative in public, particularly in the midst of a war, but it has happened before, perhaps most famously when Douglas MacArthur took the Korean War into China, against President Truman’s wishes, and Truman fired him with more than a little fanfare. It was great theater, but it also demonstrated the strength of the chain of command, at the top of which are civilian politicians, not military professionals.

But whatever else you can say about MacArthur and the incident -- he was a self-centered, vainglorious megalomaniac; he refused to obey the lawful order of his superior; his military decision was tactically and strategically wrong -- he certainly had the courage of his convictions. And, still on active duty, he acted when his career and reputation were at great risk.

MSNBC video
Batiste speaks out
May 10: Gen. John Batiste was fired as a consultant for CBS after appearing in a series of scathing ads sponsored by an anti-war veterans group.
Batiste says he retired in protest, but that was years after he and his fellows began employing a strategy they knew to be injurious to the Republic. Indeed, it is proper to ask why senior military leaders, who know how to be successful in the environment in Iraq, have not until recently tried to exert some muscle inside the organization. The typical response is that they think they can be more effective inside than outside. But that is a reason, not an excuse, for inaction and compliance in the face of decisions to use the military instrument of power in a manner that had a patently high probability of failure.

Among the animals, humans are a rare species with the capacity to speculate about the future. But this requires the ability to think clearly about the past. One hopes that the lesson from Iraq will not just be better ways to combat improvised explosive devices and to deliver supplies. For the military establishment, the most important lesson is that with rank and authority come responsibility.

Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

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