In 2006, the war in Iraq was moving in a bad direction, with hundreds of Iraqis and dozens of American soldiers being killed weekly. As violence escalated and defeat seemed imminent, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stubbornly clung to a strategy of withdrawing American troops. When the hour was darkest, an unlikely set of heroes emerged.
Retired generals — Paul Eaton (Army) and Gregory Newbold and Anthony Zinni (Marine Corps) — began to speak publicly against Rumsfeld’s leadership of the war in Iraq. The “Revolt of the Generals,” as Time termed the criticism, was a rarity in American history; it may well have contributed to the Republicans’ losing control of both the House and the Senate in the 2006 midterm elections. After what he described as an electoral “thumping,” President George W. Bush fired Rumsfeld and replaced him with Robert Gates, who implemented the president’s troop surge into Iraq — a complete reversal of his predecessor’s policy. With a new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, in charge, violence in Iraq dropped by two-thirds over the next 18 months.
The retired generals who spoke out likely helped change the course of a war, saving thousands of lives, giving Iraq a chance at freedom and preventing it from becoming a terrorist haven.
Today, there are increasing signs that the nation’s security is again in great peril, and retired military leaders — all of them with four-star distinction — are again sounding the alarm. This time it is not the defense secretary whose policies and inclinations are perceived as the problem, but his boss: The commander in chief.
These military leaders’ expressions of dismay and alarm have been uncoordinated but earnest. The first came from retired Adm. William McRaven, the Navy SEAL who commanded the 2011 mission that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. In August 2018, McRaven wrote a Post op-ed in the form of a letter to President Donald Trump, saying, “Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.”
In late December, Stanley McChrystal, retired Army general and former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, said in an ABC News interview that the president was both immoral and less than honest. Also at the end of December, retired Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, who had served as the president’s chief of staff for 17 months, told the Los Angeles Times that he was proudest during his White House tenure of the things that he prevented Trump from doing. Retired Adm. and former NATO commander James Stavridis wrote for Time on Jan. 3 of a “sense that the President’s moral structure was, shall we say charitably, unconventional to the military mind.”
Much of this commentary followed the Dec. 20 resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general. Mattis’s accomplishments leading the Pentagon included persuading Trump not to withdraw the United States from the NATO alliance. (Breaking up NATO has been a dream of Russia, and before that, the Soviet Union.) In his resignation letter, Mattis suggested that the president was harming U.S. alliances that have kept America and the world safe. Although Trump apparently at first did not understand the implications of Mattis’ letter, he soon seemed to grasp the criticism and ordered Mattis to leave before his replacement had been found. The country was thus deprived of a farewell ceremony that might have given Mattis an opportunity to sound an even clearer warning about the threats to the nation, without once mentioning the president by name.
But Mattis’ resignation letter, and his resignation itself, spoke volumes. The letter dovetails with the public statements by the remarkable array of American military leaders cited above, men who devoted their careers and risked their lives in the nation’s defense. They are not afraid of much, but they are deeply concerned by what they see and know about the president.
During the war in Iraq, when the retired generals assailed Rumsfeld’s leadership, they were saying in public what their friends still in uniform were saying in private. Then, the generals were worried about saving democracy in Iraq; today, the former military leaders speaking out are worried about something far more important: Preserving the liberal world order. I would not be surprised if they have acted on behalf of their serving peers in an effort to save American lives and honor. I know for an absolute certainty that when these four-stars speak, we should be paying attention.
John Nagl, headmaster of the Haverford School outside Philadelphia, is a retired Army officer who served in both Iraq wars and is the author of “Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice.” He wrote this column for the Washington Post.