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ARLINGTON, Va. — Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker on Wednesday criticized retired generals who have come out against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other defense leaders, calling their comments “unfortunate” and “inappropriate.”

“I was retired, and you didn’t see me doing it,” Schoomaker told reporters during a Washington press breakfast. “If I thought what these officers were saying was true, I would not be here.”

Schoomaker suggested that if the generals were so unhappy with their civilian masters, they should have left their jobs in protest.

“I think we have a responsibility, while we’re in uniform, if we can’t put up with what’s going on, to pick up our saddle up and move on,” Schoomaker said.

Such criticism could break the trust between military officers and their civilian counterparts in the future.

“I think we’ve got to be very careful here,” Schoomaker said. “We do not want civil authority to distrust people who are giving them advice.”

Schoomaker is the latest senior officer to weigh in on the unusually public debate among current and former military officials over Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq.

In the past month, eight retired generals — including recently retired commanders with experience in Iraq — have called for Rumsfeld’s resignation, saying that he has mishandled the war on terror and lost the confidence of the military.

Many of the retired generals have made a point of noting Rumsfeld’s allegedly abrasive management style. But any officer who has made war his chosen profession, Schoomaker said, should be more than able to handle aggressive bosses.

“I’ve been in the Army 37 years, and I have worked for some tough people,” Schoomaker said. “We’re soldiers. We’re warriors. I’ve never been intimidated in my life, by anybody.”

Schoomaker said that he “offers a lot of military advice, and I have never not been heard.”

He noted, however, “that I can’t say I’ve always been agreed with.”

But no military professional should fool himself into thinking that “offering advice” and “having it taken all the time” are one and the same thing, Schoomaker said.

As top military leaders, “We are responsible to provide independent advice” to civilian leaders, who in turn have the Constitutional authority to make strategic decisions, he said.

“That doesn’t mean they agree with our advice all the time.”

And if a military officer’s advice is not taken, Schoomaker said, “You can’t run around here with your nerves on your sleeve, [protesting] every time someone does something you don’t agree with.”

Military professionals who respect the chain of command must learn when the time has come to accept that, having had their say, they must step back and allow higher-ups to make the final call, he said.

Instead, “I think you end up at a point [saying to yourself] look, is it legal, is it moral, is it ethical, can I live with the consequences?” Schoomaker said.

“If you can’t, you’ve got a responsibility to do something about it, and do it while you’re in the position,” Schoomaker said.

“But if you’ve gone through all of that, and lived with it, I’m not quite sure what we’re doing here cleansing our consciences afterwards,” Schoomaker said.

“I think it’s inappropriate.”

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