A growing number of retired generals are publicly opposing US conduct of the war in Iraq, breaking a decades-old tradition of not criticizing ongoing military operations.
The focus of their ire: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Four generals have called for his resignation, saying he ignored military advice and made key strategic mistakes.
The Pentagon needs a fresh start, retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste said in several interviews Thursday. "We need a leader who understands teamwork, a leader who knows how to build teams, a leader that does it without intimidation," he told CNN.
General Batiste, who led the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq until he retired last year, is the latest high-ranking officer to speak out.
The criticism has reached such a pitch that Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Tuesday publicly refuted the criticisms - particularly the notion that generals and admirals at the Pentagon are somehow cowed by the strong-minded secretary of Defense.
"We had then and have now every opportunity to speak our minds, and if we do not, shame on us because the opportunity is there," General Pace declared (without being asked). "We're expected to [speak out]. And the plan [for invading Iraq] that was executed was developed by military officers, presented by military officers, questioned by civilians as they should, revamped by military officers, and blessed by the senior military leadership."
With Rumsfeld at his side, Pace added, "this country is exceptionally well-served by the man standing on my left."
Still, the criticisms keep coming.
Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of US forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, blames Rumsfeld for a "series of disastrous mistakes."
Writing in the New York Times, Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton accused the Defense secretary of "ignoring the advice of seasoned officers and denying subordinates any chance for input.... I have seen a climate of groupthink become dominant and a growing reluctance by experienced military men and civilians to challenge the notions of the senior leadership." General Eaton was in charge of training Iraqi forces from 2003 to 2004.
In a Time magazine essay this week, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, former operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says US military policy in Iraq has been marked by "successive policy failures." Among these: "distortion of intelligence ... micromanagement that kept our forces from having enough resources ... failure to retain and reconstitute the Iraqi military."
Other former military officers have criticized the war strategy without directly attacking Rumsfeld.
"Serious mistakes [were made] in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghdad," Colin Powell, former secretary of state and Joint Chiefs chairman, said in a speech last week. "We didn't have enough troops on the ground. We didn't impose our will. As a result an insurgency got started, and it got out of control."
In this, Powell echoed former Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who told Congress just weeks before the 2003 invasion that several hundred thousand US troops would be necessary to secure Iraq after the invasion. For this he was publicly contradicted by then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Rumsfeld named General Shinseki's replacement a year before he was to retire and broke custom by not attending his retirement ceremony.
"What's remarkable to me is how long it took military resentment of Rumsfeld to surface in public," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
"Rumsfeld apparently has convinced the president that military criticism of his performance is traceable mainly to resistance to change," says Dr. Thompson. "That interpretation of the criticism isn't totally wrong. But much of the officer corps thinks he simply doesn't understand technology or operations in sufficient depth to grasp the consequences of his policies, and yet he routinely uses his position to quash dissent."
During the Vietnam War, it wasn't just the civilians in the White House and at the Pentagon who failed to adequately address the strength and determination of the enemy, concluded then Major H.R. McMaster in his 1997 book "Dereliction of Duty." Senior military officers were just as culpable for not speaking up.
His book became required reading at the Pentagon. Today Colonel McMaster commands the Army's 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq, where he is a rising star, lauded last month by President Bush for his unit's work in securing the city of Tal Afar. In press briefings, the colonel is enthusiastic about the Army's accomplishment. And if McMaster has any concern about officers failing to speak up he's keeping it to himself.
Asked about that for a recent New Yorker magazine article, he laughed and said, "I can't even touch that."
Though some retired senior officers are critical about the conduct of the war, that doesn't mean they want a quick pullout.
Gen. Merrill McPeak, retired Air Force chief of staff, says if anything the number of US troops there needs to be doubled - to around the figure Shinseki predicted would be needed three years ago - if Iraq is to become truly secure and democratic.
General McPeak lost friends when he started speaking out against the war several years ago. Now, he says, "everybody is sending me e-mails and cards and letters saying 'I wish I had seen it the way you saw it from the beginning,' and I've gotten some of those friends back."