Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Why I think Adm. McRaven is wrong

Adm. William McRaven is a smart and likable guy, but I think he is wrong in this essay arguing against the removal of Rear Adm. Brian Losey.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 28:  United States Navy Vice Admiral William McRaven testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill June 28, 2011 in Washington, DC. Credited for organizing and executing Operation Neptune's Spear, the special ops raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, McRaven has been nominated to command the United State Special Operations Command.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 28: United States Navy Vice Admiral William McRaven testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill June 28, 2011 in Washington, DC. Credited for organizing and executing Operation Neptune's Spear, the special ops raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, McRaven has been nominated to command the United State Special Operations Command. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 28: United States Navy Vice Admiral William McRaven testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill June 28, 2011 in Washington, DC. Credited for organizing and executing Operation Neptune's Spear, the special ops raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, McRaven has been nominated to command the United State Special Operations Command. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Adm. William McRaven is a smart and likable guy, but I think he is wrong in this essay arguing against the removal of Rear Adm. Brian Losey.

He begins by saying the right things about civilian control of the military. But he ends by stating that, “we cannot afford to have a military that loses respect for its civilian leaders.” To my ear, this amounts to a veiled threat: If you guys keep acting like this, we will lose respect for you.

Why do I think that is wrong? Because when it comes to civil-military relations, I’m a fundamentalist. It is, as Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins has written, an unequal relationship. Part of civilian control of the military is that the civilians have “the right to be wrong,” and to have their orders carried out anyway, without kvetching.

Adm. William McRaven is a smart and likable guy, but I think he is wrong in this essay arguing against the removal of Rear Adm. Brian Losey.

He begins by saying the right things about civilian control of the military. But he ends by stating that, “we cannot afford to have a military that loses respect for its civilian leaders.” To my ear, this amounts to a veiled threat: If you guys keep acting like this, we will lose respect for you.

Why do I think that is wrong? Because when it comes to civil-military relations, I’m a fundamentalist. It is, as Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins has written, an unequal relationship. Part of civilian control of the military is that the civilians have “the right to be wrong,” and to have their orders carried out anyway, without kvetching.

The reason for this is, despite what a general might believe, the civilians might not be wrong. For example, General George Marshall — a man for whom I have great and abiding respect—was wrong in his opposition to Operation Torch, the allied landings in North Africa in November 1942. He and Eisenhower both thought that FDR wanted to do them for base political reasons, with congressional elections being held that month. Whether or not that was the case, it turned out to be exactly the right thing for our military to do. The U.S. military had a lot to learn and needed to do a couple of these major movements — Africa and Sicily — before crossing the Channel. Had they tried to send a force across the Channel in 1942, or even in 1943, I think the landings might have been disastrous and demoralizing. And so the war might have gone on a year or two longer.

As for losing respect, it certainly won’t be the first time. Gen. George McClellan greatly disrespected Lincoln. But Lincoln was more often right in his conception and direction of the war than was McClellan. Or most other Union generals, for that matter.

At any rate, I hear brazen military disrespect for civilians — both in the White House and in Congress — far more than I hear the reverse. It is not good for the admiral, however well meaning, to fan those flames of contempt.

And extra demerits to the admiral for publishing this in Tampa, where it seems to me to be aimed at people at SOCOM and CENTCOM headquarters.

Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images

Thomas 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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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