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Attack of the Generals | The Nation

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Attack of the Generals

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Like jonquils in April, no less than six retired American generals, one after another, have popped up out of the ground with the suggestion that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would do the world a favor if he would quit--or, failing that, if somebody could be found to fire him. They were not too specific about who that somebody might be, but most of us out here in Day-to-Day-Life Land thought we knew who the boys with the brass stars had in mind.

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Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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The six have caught considerable flak for their foray into politics. There has been much talk that generals, even retired ones, ought to keep their mouths shut. Or if they do talk out loud, it should be in support of the President--provided, of course, that he is a Republican. So you didn't hear a peep of protest when Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who conquered Iraq almost single-handedly in 1991, materialized on the deck of the battleship New Jersey to videotape a special message to the delegates assembled at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

That oratorical effort was soon forgotten, but not Gen. Douglas MacArthur's 1951 speech to a joint session of Congress delivered after President Harry Truman had canned him for insubordination and also for having a hatband size equal to the distance between Washington and Tokyo. A lot was said about that, and it's in the history books, too.

MacArthur was a single general without public support from his fellow officers. This is different. This is the first time we've had a covey of them mounting a political attack on a cabinet officer. They say their efforts were uncoordinated, and if you believe them you may also be under the impression that the United States is prevailing in Iraq.

You can also be reasonably confident that the retired generals would not have banded together with this attack had they not talked it over with other generals still on active duty. We can surmise that Rumsfeld has driven nuts more generals than just these six. Obviously, they could no longer stand taking orders from a jut-jawed loser who is endowed with the unshakable confidence only bestowed on people who do not know what the hell they are doing.

You do not have to be a constitutional scholar to know, even if they are right--and they are--that a cabal of generals going after their civilian boss is not a happy idea. The system depends on the civilians issuing the orders, and God help us when the civilians are arrogant idiots.

The generals might not have broken tradition and silence if there had been a civilian political party with the onions to attack Rumsfeld. Instead, all that could be heard from the bunch of tapioca-eaters in Congress, collectively known as the Democrats, was the murmur of demurral. Make an exception for Representative John Murtha and Senator Russ Feingold, who don't lack onions but do lack followers. Somebody had to do something, and soldiers are doers. So this time, at least, forgive the generals. Let's hope the Democrats can give us a plausible imitation of impassioned, fighting politicians. Then the generals can go back to their war games.

Left out in the open with the feeblest of support from the Democrats, the generals have been taking return fire from Rumsfeld, who says they are against him because they oppose his much-boasted plans to modernize the American war machine. What he has in mind is to replace boots-on-the-ground with machines-on-the-ground. He wants to replace yes-man generals with yes-man robots, but robots lack charm and they cannot tell right from wrong.

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