On the surface, the question raised by six (at last count) retired generals of whether Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld should resign has an obvious answer: of course he should. He was a key man in the cabal that lied us into the war in Iraq, and he may have been the key man in losing that war. What happens to the COO of a major corporation who swindles his company into a risky deal, then blows the deal so the company faces bankruptcy? In today’s business world he probably pops his golden parachute and leaves with $100 million. But at least he does leave. So should Rumsfeld. Off with his head!
At that point, the picture grows murkier. Who replaces him? Almost certainly, someone no different. He is, after all, the COO, and this company’s problem is that it has a dunce for a CEO. Far from learning any lessons from the previous failed venture, he wants to repeat it, this time in Iran. A fish rots from the head, as the old Russian saying goes, and until this head falls the rot will spread. Where is the Queen of Hearts when we really need her?
Then there is the question of why so many generals (not all of them retired) want Rummy gone. That varies general to general, but when Rumsfeld’s defenders argue that some of his critics are dinosaurs who resent “Transformation” because it disrupts business as usual, they have a point. As anyone who has dealt with the higher ranks of the U.S. military knows, they put the La Brea tar pits in the shade as a dinosaur graveyard. As wedded to old ways of doing things Second Generation war to be specific as any other group of senior Gosplan apparatchiki, they hate any hint of change. Years ago, when an unconventional Air Force chief of staff had me give my “Fourth Generation of Modern War” talk to the Air Force’s “Corona” gathering of three- and four-stars, I felt like Milton Friedman speaking to the Brezhnev Politburo.
But here too the story is not so simple. While Rumsfeldian “Transformation” represents change, it represents change in the wrong direction. Instead of attempting to move from the Second Generation to the Third (much less the Fourth), Transformation retains the Second Generation’s conception of war as putting firepower on targets while trying to replace people with technology. Its summa is the Death Star, where men and women in spiffy uniforms sit in air-conditioned comfort zapping enemies like bugs. It is a vision of future war that appeals to technocrats and lines industry pockets, but has no connection to reality. The combination of this vision of war with an equally unrealistic vision of strategic objectives has given us the defeat in Iraq. Again, Rumsfeld lies at the heart of both. But, again, his removal and replacement contain no promise of improvement in either.
At least one of Rumsfeld’s retired general critics, Greg Newbold, understands all this. I’ve known and respected Greg since he was a captain teaching at The Basic School, and many of us hoped he would be commandant some day, the first commandant since Al Gray who would try to move the Marine Corps beyond Second Generation war (in more than its doctrine manuals).
But the Imperial Court gets what is wants, and what it wants are not generals like Greg Newbold. It wants senior “leaders” who are, above all, compliant, and it finds no shortage of candidates. They may growl about Rumsfeld in private, but in public they bow and scrape, not only to the SecDef and the catastrophic policies of a failed presidency, but even more to “high tech” and its magical ability to expand defense budgets. At some point they will make a break, because the military does not want to wear the albatross of (two) lost wars. But not until they have extracted the uttermost farthing.
The play is titled, No Exit. Unless, unless Rumsfeld’s head should not be the only one to roll.