Gates says officers’ criticism should be honest, but discreet
April 23, 2008
Read the full text of Secretary Gates' speech here.
ARLINGTON, Va. — Officers have a duty to provide “blunt and candid advice” to their superiors, including civilian leaders, but also to keep their disagreements private, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told cadets at West Point in New York on Monday.
“Listen to me very carefully here: If as an officer you don’t tell blunt truths — or create an environment where candor is encouraged — then you’ve done yourself and the institution a disservice,” Gates said during a speech on Monday.
Gates urged cadets to follow their conscience while being “respectfully candid” with their superiors, even in situations where their career is at risk.
“The time will come when you must stand alone in making a difficult, unpopular decision,” he said. “Or when you must challenge the opinion of superiors or tell that them you can’t get the job done with the time and resources available — a difficult charge in an organization built on a ‘can do’ ethos.”
Gates cited the example of Army Gen. George Marshall, who disagreed with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt over Army funding before World War II.
Rather than being fired, Marshall was appointed Army chief of staff, Gates said.
But Marshall would also carry out President Roosevelt’s decisions when he disagreed with them, such as when Roosevelt decided to make sending arms to Britain a priority over arming U.S. forces, Gates said.
“The significant thing is what did not happen next: There was a powerful domestic constituency for Marshall’s position among a whole host of newspapers and congressmen and lobbies,” Gates said. “And yet Marshall did not exploit and use them. There were no overtures to friendly congressional committee chairmen, no leaks to sympathetic reporters, no ghostwritten editorials in newspapers, no coalition building with advocacy groups”
Gates later encouraged the cadets to engage in “fearless, thoughtful, but loyal dissent” when called for by writing critiques in the Army’s professional journals.
Asked Tuesday by a reporter, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Gates’ comments about Marshall were not an allusion to Adm. William Fallon, who resigned last month as head of U.S. Central Command after an article in Esquire magazine made it seem as though Fallon was the lone adviser to President Bush who opposed a war with Iran.
Gates’ speech may have been prompted in part by upcoming elections, in which servicemembers’ public comments will be politicized, said Anthony Cordesman, an expert on strategy with the Center for Strategy and International Studies in Washington.
Another issue is that in recent years, defense officials have made their disagreements with policy known only after they’ve left the government, Cordesman said Tuesday.
“There has been far too much careerism, far too little dissent when dissent really matters, which is when you are in government and serving, and a tendency to take revenge after leaving,” he said.
Cordesman declined to name specific officials.
Gates’ speech did not come “out of the blue,” Cordesman said.
Beginning with operations in Afghanistan and accelerating after the invasion of Iraq, many junior and midlevel officers lost confidence in their military and civilian leaders, and now the issue is how to move from “careerism to responsible leadership” through both open and private dissent, he said.
“Careerism is what sends your men home in body bags,” Cordesman said, “and blunt, honest statements are what keep them alive.”