The Beliefs of Generals

Retired U.S. Marine Corps General and former NATO commander John S. Sheehan created a firestorm last month during his testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.  He was there to express his opposition to repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – the policy implemented in 1993 by President Clinton that allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the US military as long as they stayed in the closet.  President Obama and the Senate Democratic leadership are now considering a repeal of the policy.  General Sheehan, an ardent opponent of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly, was asked if he could think of an example where it had created any significant problems with unit cohesion or effectiveness.  He casually proclaimed that the best example he could give was the Serb attack on Srebrenica during the Bosnian War in 1995.  He asserted that the Serbs were able to walk into Srebrenica and handcuff Dutch soldiers to telephone polls in part because the Dutch had allowed gays to serve in its military.  Simply put, the Dutch defense policy at the time – that allowed gays to serve – was more concerned with social re-engineering than with combat capabilities.

Wow.  Exactly where did that come from?  For the past fifteen years, the events of Srebrenica have been extensively investigated and reviewed, and there is no evidence to even remotely support Sheehan’s statement.

The Dutch defense ministry agreed.  Defense spokesman Roger van de Wetering told reporters "It is astonishing that a man of his stature can utter such complete nonsense. The Srebrenica massacre, and the involvement of UN soldiers, was extensively investigated by the Netherlands, international organizations and the United Nations. Never was there in any way concluded that the sexual orientation of soldiers played a role." (My emphasis) 

General Sheehan later apologized to the Dutch military, but only for his "inaccurate" recollection of a conversation he had with a former Dutch military commander, not for the complete nonsense of the substance.

What is so striking about Sheehan’s testimony (and his response to the firestorm) is how ideologically rigid yet analytically casual he was in his thinking.  His spoke disdainfully of how in the 1960s, the effort at "social engineering" during President Johnson’s Great Society opened the door for weaker soldiers to serve and how this almost "destroyed the military."   His neglect of how the Pentagon needed to lower standards to meet force structure requirements to fight the war in Vietnam – or similarly, how the Bush administration relaxed recruiting standards in 2005 to replace rotating units during the Iraq War – is indicative of the overall sloppiness of his testimony.

Yet, as striking as Sheehan’s testimony was, it seems to be part of a broader trend over the past twenty years in which active and retired military leaders have openly challenged civilian leaders on military policy positions.  To be sure, civil-military relations have always been contested and military leaders have often been at odds with various civilian approaches to military policy.  This contestation is often healthy and appropriate.

But, it does seem that since the end of the Cold War, military leaders have become increasingly outspoken in their views.   We are seeing more instances of military commanders simply disdainful of civilian leaders and very aggressive in their responses to them.

For example, in the fall of 1992, General Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff undertook an unprecedented public effort to block consideration of greater American involvement in Bosnia.

As the Bush administration began an internal debate on whether or not to provide more support to Bosnia’s imperiled Muslims, General Powell penned an op-ed in the New York Times titled "Why General Get Nervous."  Powell lashed out publicly at those who were calling for a more robust response to the war.  Powell wrote:  "So you bet I get nervous when so-called experts suggest that all we need is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack…..The crisis in Bosnia is especially complex. Our policy and the policy of the international community have been to assist in providing humanitarian relief to the victims of that terrible conflict, one with deep ethnic and religious roots that go back a thousand years."

Because of Powell’s authority as both a former combat commander and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it was difficult for groups advocating intervention to challenge his position, and his views ultimately carried the day.  It's worth noting however, that three years later, it was those US-led airstrikes that helped end Bosnia’s "thousand years" old conflict on a dime.

Similarly, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, General Tommy Franks publicly rebuked those – both in and out of government – who opposed his planning for the reconstruction of post-war Iraq.   He ridiculed opponents as simple-minded and naïve, and defended his as one of the most comprehensive reconstruction plans ever developed.  Hence, there was no need for further review from other U.S. government departments or agencies.

The input of military advice, experience, and expertise into national security decision making is imperative to the proper functioning of civil-military relations.  However, as military policy and domestic policy converge on issues such as allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly, and as the military’s role expands to non-traditional functions of state building, economic development, and civil society building, there will be more opportunities and incentives for military elites to weigh in on public policy issues.  Their experiences and their expertise will be increasingly necessary.  But their views are only as good as the analytical judgments that underlie them.  We need careful analysis to support sound policy development and less casual and shoddy analysis motivated by rigid ideological beliefs.