Duty, Honor, Country — and Undermining the Chain of Command
The War Within, Bob Woodward’s latest book on the Bush presidency is out and the Washington Post has been running excerpts from it since Sunday. The section that ran on Tuesday really brought me up short.
It opens like this:
Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane came to the White House on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2007, to deliver a strong and sober message. The military chain of command, he told Vice President Cheney, wasn’t on the same page as the current U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus. The tension threatened to undermine Petraeus’s chances of continued success, Keane said.
Keane, a former vice chief of the Army, was 63, 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, with a boxer’s face framed by tightly cropped hair. As far as Cheney was concerned, Keane was outstanding — an experienced soldier who had maintained great Pentagon contacts, had no ax to grind and had been a mentor to Petraeus.
The line "as far as Cheney was concerned" is, of course, the critical phrase in that piece.
The rest of the excerpt tells how Keane used his contacts and that non-existent ax as he worked to protect Petraeus by undermining the military chain of command.
Keane went around the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He went around the Secretary of Defense. He went around the National Security Advisor. He went around anyone and everyone who had an opinion that he, Petraeus, Cheney, or Bush didn’t want to hear.
Not once, but repeatedly.
When decisions didn’t go the way he wanted, he whined to Cheney and Bush, who pushed back to get things squared away for Keane. All the while, Keane did this as a retired general. Retired, as in "not part of the chain of command" and "not accountable to anyone."
The point where I started to shout at my computer was near the end. Following the resignation of Admiral William Fallon as the head of Central Command, Secretary Gates invited Keane to give him some advice about who should take over (emphasis added):
"Assign Petraeus to CentCom," Keane urged. Delay the assignment until the fall. Make Odierno the new Iraq commander. Odierno was an unsung hero with intellect and moral courage, Keane said.
"Let’s be frank about what’s happening here," Keane told Gates. "We are going to have a new administration. Do we want these policies continued or not? Do we want the best guys in there who were involved in these policies, who were advocates for them? Let’s assume we have a Democratic administration and they want to pull this thing out quickly, and now they have to deal with General Petraeus and General Odierno. There will be a price to be paid to override them."
When I read this, it screamed out to me that General Jack Keane (US Army, Ret.) does not understand the military.
Yes, he has four stars and no doubt did much to earn them, and I’ve never served a day of my life in a military uniform. All I have are the conversations I’ve had with friends and parishioners who have served in all branches of the military, from first year enlisted folks to colonels and even a general or two, who served in wars from WWI to Iraq. Even so, I have to say that Keane’s remarks to Gates go against everything I have ever heard and ever learned from these veterans about the military and what makes it work.
Here’s why, and it’s pretty simple: there is nothing more sacred in the military culture than the chain of command. Nothing.
I heard this from high school classmates, home briefly after finishing basic training, and I heard it from flag officers after they returned from the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s. The military runs because the chain of command works.
Duty, Honor, Country — that’s the short version of the importance of the Chain of Command.
"Duty" is what the Chain of Command says it is. "Honor" is the devotion to that Chain. "Country" is that which the Chain serves. When orders come down the chain to you that seem odd, you have trust that the oddity is because the chain of command has something else going on that you don’t know about. When you pass something important up the chain, you have trust that it will get to where it needs to go.
And Jack Keane, a retired four star general, did about as much as one person could possibly do to damage the Chain of Command.
Bush did his part too, going behind the backs of the JCS to send Petraeus a message that oxymoronically started with "I respect the chain of command . . ." Given the stories of Bush’s Guard service, that’s almost to be expected. But when Keane messed with the chain of command, he should have known that even if he did it for "good reason," he would damage a vital part of the military culture. That "price" he spoke about is the repair bill for the damage he has caused.
Yes, putting Petraeus and Odierno in means that they’re in, and any future president would have to affirmatively act to remove them. In the short run, Keane got what he wanted. But if the military sees Keane as he is — Bush’s puppetmaster, pulling the strings to get his pals into place and game the system by going behind the backs of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, and the rest of the almighty Chain of Command time and time and time again — well, the military might just be delighted to see them gone.
I’d love to see a President Obama call General Keane and the JCS into the Oval office on the afternoon of January 20, 2009, ask him some pointed questions about these actions which undermined the authority of the chain of command, and then call up Petraeus and Odierno to inform them that their services to the nation are urgently needed in other posts.
This isn’t about retribution against Keane, but about rebuilding the military that Keane so badly damaged.
Calling Keane into the Oval Office like that would make it clear to the Chiefs that they have Obama’s full support. "I’m in charge," says the new president, "and I expect to get good information from my generals and admirals, and I expect to get it through the chiefs. I may agree with their recommendations, or I may disagree with their recommendations, but I have to get good information to do my job and they have to have it in order to do their jobs. You, General Keane, have made that a helluva lot harder for everyone involved, as you played "Chief-Behind-the-Scenes." By your actions, you sent the message that the chain of command doesn’t matter. You sent the message that going around the chain is OK. You sent the message that what matters is not rank or knowledge or competence, but having well-placed friends. You sent the message that even after you retire, it is fine to undermine the work of those on active duty with whom you disagree. General Keane, you will *not* send those messages again — not from my White House."
To borrow a phrase, "let’s be frank about what’s happening here." Keane is screwing with the most basic element of the US military culture, and he’ll no doubt keep on doing it until January 19th. On the 20th, I’d love to see him dressed down for his repeated actions to undermine it. Even if it’s a President McCain that does it and not a President Obama.
The members of the military of the United States of America, living and dead, deserve no less.
(photo: Randy Son of Robert)