- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s basically the impression I took away from reading Without Hesitation, the memoirs of retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 to 2001. Boy is he steamed.
There are plenty of other people Shelton pings in the book, most notably John McCain. But the unquestionable No. 1 villain of the book is the former secretary of defense who, in Shelton’s telling, elevated his old Princeton wrestling techniques into a management philosophy. "The McNamara-Rumsfeld model," as Shelton calls it, was "based on deception, deceit, working political agendas, and trying to get the Joint Chiefs to support an action that might not be the right thing to do for the country but would work well for the President from a political standpoint." (401) (As an experiment, I’m including page numbers — should I continue doing this in future book discussions?) He adds, "It was the worst style of leadership I witnessed in 38 years of service." (413)
After his first meeting with Rumsfeld, Shelton recalls thinking, "We’re going to need some heavy-duty cleaning supplies if all we’re going to do is waste time having pissing contests like this." (407) When Rumsfeld was proven wrong in a meeting, Shelton says, he wouldn’t admit it, but rather would press on and do "his best to stay afloat amid the bullshit he was shoveling out." (413)
At one point, Rumsfeld utterly rejected a plan for how to deal with Iraqi attacks on U.S. warplanes in the old "no-fly zones." Shelton liked the plan how it was, so when ordered to revamp it, he let it sit on his desk for a couple of weeks, and then sent it back to the defense secretary with a new label on it: "Rumsfeld Auto-Response Matrix." "He loved every word of it," Shelton reports with unconcealed contempt. (424)
This book is different from other senior generals’ memoirs I’ve read, such as those by Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Tommy R. Franks. Hugh Shelton’s telling stories and naming names. The first half of the book is a rather dull account of his earlier career, but that changes in his relation of his last year as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in 2001.
Overall, Shelton comes off like a good soldier and a decent and honorable man, but inexperienced in the ways of Washington, and so a bit of a babe in the woods when it comes to politics. I blame this situation on civilian officials, Democratic and Republican alike, who were so scared of the political clout that Colin Powell accumulated that they have picked a series of political non-starters as chairmen: Shalikashvili (his pop fought for the Nazis), Shelton (naïve about Washington), Myers and Pace (the two most pliable senior officers of recent memory). Admiral Mullen is proving to be an exception — he stands up for himself, yet isn’t trying to move into the political realm. I am not sure President Obama and his aides appreciate this.