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Military's officer corps: too political?

Some detect overt support for President Bush. Others just see more polarization.

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Many analysts believe the warm response to Bush at the Army War College indicated how many officers see eye-to-eye with this administration more than they did with Bill Clinton - notorious among career officers for having avoided military service and instituting a "don't ask, don't tell" policy allowing homosexuals to serve in uniform. "The military despised Clinton, so in Bush...they see a more principled president," says retired Army Col. Dan Smith. "That is, of course, arguable. But that's what is behind the applause lines."

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Other observers see a trend toward "careerism" among the officer corps - working for advancement based as much on success in Washington as on competence in the field.

"Sea duty, for us Navy types, began to be a box to be checked between Pentagon assignments more than the point of one's career," says retired Navy Capt. Larry Seaquist. "It was a careerist's game. One's skills on the Washington battlefield were the personal, political skills of the staff officer and the courtier, not of the combat team leader. The result is, we have grown several crops of senior officers who are very good at Washington politicking, excellent at program acquisition, or at least PowerPoint program sales, but rather shallow on the combat command and troop leadership end."

Though some - perhaps many - career officers oppose actions of the president and other senior civilians in charge of the military in Iraq, they know that speaking out can quickly end a career - or worse. The Uniform Code of Military Justice states that "any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President...shall be punished as a court-martial may direct."

Such inside opposition is often communicated through retired officers appearing regularly on television. Others, such as retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who declared the administration's conduct in Iraq a "failure" last Sunday on "60 Minutes," are well known for their outspokenness.

"There is a lot of dissension right now about the Iraq war plan, or lack of plan, within the uniformed community, both at leadership and rank and file levels," says Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "It may well be that more retired folks are speaking out because they feel that the uniformed folks cannot."

In any case, says a retired Army colonel, "Retired military's involvement pro and con is unprecedented in my experience and memory of history. Even with Ike [Eisenhower], it was much more muted than now."

The conflict in Iraq - the first extended US combat with live TV and soldiers on the ground sending home e-mails and digital photos - has brought the war directly into living rooms, which makes it especially political in an election year. This phenomenon may be all the more evident because so many reserve and National Guard troops are involved. These citizen-soldiers are much more inclined to speak out, especially when so many have had their combat tours extended and families back home are complaining.

"We are in a no-kidding war, and most people don't remember Vietnam firsthand," says John Pike, director of "Those that do remember Vietnam, remember it on tape in black and white, and this war is live, in color, and high definition to boot."

That's one reason the president has used military settings to counter bad news and emphasize his agenda, analysts say. Some in the armed forces may object. But most are either enthusiastic about Bush or used to saluting and doing what they're told.

"The military has no choice if the president chooses to use it as a backdrop. He is commander in chief," says Colonel Smith, now a military analyst at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington. "But no other president that I can remember has so tied his political fortunes to military success - not even Lincoln in the Civil War."