In 2006, the war in Iraq was moving in a bad direction, with hundreds of Iraqis and dozens of American soldiers being killed weekly. As violence escalated and defeat seemed imminent, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld stubbornly clung to a strategy of withdrawing American troops. When the hour was darkest, an unlikely set of heroes emerged.
Retired generals — Paul Eaton (Army) and Gregory Newbold and Anthony Zinni (Marine Corps) — began to speak publicly against Rumsfeld’s leadership of the war in Iraq. The “ Revolt of the Generals,” as Time termed the criticism, was a rarity in American history; it may well have contributed to the Republicans’ losing control of both the House and the Senate in the 2006 midterm elections. After what he described as an electoral “ thumping,” President George W. Bush fired Rumsfeld and replaced him with Robert M. Gates, who implemented the president’s troop surge into Iraq — a complete reversal of his predecessor’s policy. With a new commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, in charge, violence in Iraq dropped by two-thirds over the next 18 months.
The retired generals who spoke out likely helped change the course of a war, saving thousands of lives, giving Iraq a chance at freedom and preventing it from becoming a terrorist haven.
These military leaders’ expressions of dismay and alarm have been uncoordinated but earnest. The first came from retired Adm. William H. McRaven, the Navy SEAL who commanded the 2011 mission that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In August 2018, McRaven wrote a Post op-ed in the form of a letter to President Trump, saying, “Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.”
In late December, Stanley A. McChrystal, retired Army general and former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, said in an ABC News interview that the president was both immoral and less than honest. Also at the end of December, retired Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, who had served as the president’s chief of staff for 17 months, told the Los Angeles Times that he was proudest during his White House tenure of the things that he prevented Trump from doing. Retired Adm. and former NATO commander James G. Stavridis wrote for Time on Jan. 3 of a “sense that the President’s moral structure was, shall we say charitably, unconventional to the military mind.”
But Mattis’s resignation letter, and his resignation itself, spoke volumes. The letter dovetails with the public statements by the remarkable array of American military leaders cited above, men who devoted their careers and risked their lives in the nation’s defense. They are not afraid of much, but they are deeply concerned by what they see and know about the president.