The generals acted independently, coming in their own ways to the
agonizing decision to defy military tradition and publicly criticize
the Bush administration over its conduct of the war in Iraq.
What might be called The Revolt of the Generals has rarely happened
in the nation’s history.
In op-ed pieces, interviews and TV ads, more than 20 retired U.S.
generals have broken ranks with the culture of salute and keep it in
the family. Instead, they are criticizing the commander in chief and
other top civilian leaders who led the nation into what the generals
believe is a misbegotten and tragic war.
The active-duty generals followed procedure, sending reports up the
chain of command. The retired generals beseeched old friends in
powerful positions to use their influence to bring about a change.
When their warnings were ignored, some came to believe it was their
patriotic duty to speak out, even if it meant terminating their careers.
It was a decision none of the men approached cavalierly. Most were
political conservatives who had voted for George W. Bush and
initially favored his appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as defense
But they felt betrayed by Bush and his advisers.
"The ethos is: Give your advice to those in a position to make
changes, not the media," said Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, now retired. "But
this administration is immune to good advice."
Eaton has two sons serving in Afghanistan and Iraq; his father, an
Air Force pilot, was shot down and killed over Laos in 1969. He said
his frustration began festering in 2003, when he was assigned to
build the Iraqi army from scratch. His internal requests for more
equipment and properly trained instructors went unheeded, he said.
While on active duty, Eaton did not criticize his civilian bosses -
almost to a man, the generals agree active-duty officers have no
business doing that. But he was candid in media interviews. Building
an Iraqi army, he warned, would take years, and the effort might
In 2004, he was replaced by Gen. David Petraeus - now the military
commander in Iraq - and reassigned stateside. Sensing his once-
promising Army career had foundered, Eaton retired Jan. 1, 2006.
Two months later, on the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion,
Eaton criticized the administration in an opinion piece in The New
"I didn’t think my op-ed would be a big deal," he said. "It certainly
turned out to be otherwise."
Eaton said he wrote the piece because he believed that three pillars
of our democratic system had failed:
The Bush administration ignored alarms raised by him and other
commanders on the ground; the Republican-controlled Congress had
failed to exercise oversight; and the media had abdicated its
"As we look back, it appears that without realizing it, we were
reacting to a constitutional crisis," Eaton said in a recent interview.
Some of Eaton’s colleagues, both active and retired, endorsed his
decision to speak out. Others thought he had stepped out of bounds.
He became persona non grata with ethics instructors at the U.S.
Military Academy, his alma mater.
Eaton said he has no regrets.
Maj. Gen. John Batiste, former commander of the First Infantry
Division in Iraq, chronicled his painful journey from stalwart
soldier to outspoken critic in a post on the political Web site Think
Progress this month.
Once heralded by many military observers as headed for appointment to
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Batiste began his journey of introspection
after he retired with two stars in 2005.
The self-described arch-conservative and lifelong Republican made the
"gut-wrenching" decision to end his 31-year military career in order
to "speak out on behalf of soldiers and their families."
"I had a moral obligation and a duty to do so," Batiste wrote. "I
have been speaking out for the past 17 months and there is no turning
Code of silence
It is rare in U.S. history for even retired generals to step outside
the chain of command and criticize the nation’s civilian leaders.
That was true even at the time of the unpopular Vietnam War.
Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations
at Boston University, said several generals who served in Vietnam now
regret they didn’t go public when it might have done the nation some
"That has encouraged generals today to voice their unhappiness,"
Bacevich said.The once-sacred line between private and public opinion
began to blur during the 1991 Gulf War, Bacevich said, when retired
generals appeared for the first time as TV network analysts.
"But that war was brief, it seemed to go very well and the generals’
comments were almost uniformly positive," he said. "This war is very
long, it has not gone well and that’s a main reason we’re hearing the
voices we’re hearing."
For retired Brig. Gen. John Johns, the decision to finally stand up
against the administration was a deeply personal one.
"My wife lost her first husband in Vietnam," said Johns, who taught
leadership and ethics at West Point.
"To learn later that President Lyndon Johnson and (then-Secretary of
Defense) Robert McNamara knew as early as 1965 that we could not win
there, that hurts her deeply to this day."
Six months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Johns, who retired in
1978, agonized over whether to go public with a paper calling the
impending war "one of the great blunders of history."
He sent it to retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni and to Pete
McCloskey, the moderate-Republican former congressman from California
who had opposed the Vietnam War.
"At that time, they did not want to go public," Johns said.
Zinni has since become one of the most war’s most vociferous critics,
and McClosky now calls for bringing the troops home.
"And I was not convinced that the invasion would not be stopped
internally," Johns said. "Zinni was close to (then-Secretary of
State) Colin Powell; I believed sane heads would prevail."
But Powell’s notoriously inaccurate speech to the United Nations in
February 2003 "sealed the deal," Johns said, and he knew the war was
unstoppable. "I was very disappointed he did that. Powell was used."
Many sleepless nights, long talks with his wife and solitary walks
followed, said the veteran combat officer.
But Johns didn’t reach his tipping point until 2005, when a longtime
friend, retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, invited him to discuss the war
at tiny Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.
"Four out of five of us retired military panelists there said it was
a moral duty for us to speak out in a democracy against policies
which you think are unwise," Johns said. "The time was right."
The lifelong Republican-leaning conservative joined a pair of liberal
organizations opposed to the war and supported the Democrats’ call to
get the United States out of Iraq.
"I appreciate those who hold to the old school of not speaking out,"
said Johns, 79. "I hope they will appreciate my deeply held feelings
that led to my decision to do so."
One of those who falls into that old-school camp is Navy Vice Adm.
A one-time adviser to Pentagon chiefs, Richardson, who retired in
1972, said that while retired generals are "entirely within their
rights under the First Amendment," he was quite surprised to see so
many speaking out against the Iraq war.
"They may sound off as they please, but I don’t approve of that,"
said Richardson, 93, who served in World War II, Korea, and commanded
an aircraft-carrier task force during the Vietnam War. He now lives
in North Park and remains active in military circles.
"When we are at war, voices that may give aid and comfort to the
enemy can cost American blood," Richardson said. "I would not want
what I said to in any way affect our troops’ morale and effectiveness."
Gard, who retired from the military in 1981, displayed a stoicism
typical of old soldiers when asked about his decision to publicly
criticize the conduct of an ongoing war.
"I did some serious soul-searching," Gard said simply.
A West Point graduate with a doctorate in politics and government
from Harvard, Gard saw combat in Korea and Vietnam.
Gard’s introspection ultimately led him to conclude that patriotism
means more than following orders and keeping complaints inside the
"When you feel the country - to its extreme detriment - is going in
the wrong direction, and that your views might have some impact, you
have a duty to speak out," he said.
It may not have been that way during the Vietnam era, Gard added.
"But times have changed."