Slate's Bizbox

explainer: Answers to your questions about the news.

Rumsfeld and the Retired GeneralsSix generals have spoken out against him. Is that a lot?

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Maj. Gen. John Batiste. Click image to expand.

Two more retired generals stepped forward on Thursday and called for Donald Rumsfeld to resign, increasing the faction of outspoken officers to six. Rumsfeld brushed off the criticism: "Out of thousands and thousands of admirals and generals, if every time two or three people disagreed we changed the secretary of defense of the United States, it would be like a merry-go-round." How many retired admirals and generals are there?

It's hard to get good numbers, but the Explainer estimates that about 4,700 general officers are enjoying their retirement in the United States right now. (For a detailed look at the data and the Explainer's calculations, click here.) That means the six former generals who stepped forward to criticize Rumsfeld make up about one-tenth of 1 percent of the total community.

Retired generals pipe up all the time. In March, five of them wrote a letter to the Supreme Court asking that Justice Scalia recuse himself from the Hamdan case. In January, nine generals and three admirals banded together as the "Retired Generals Against Torture" and sent an open letter to the Senate judiciary committee. During campaign season, retired generals issue small-group political endorsements.

Bonus Explainer: The group of six that have been in the news includes four major generals, one lieutenant general, and one general. What's the difference? The plain old "general" has the highest rank—he wears four stars on his uniform. Three-star generals are called lieutenant generals, and two stars get you the title of major general. Brigadier generals wear only one star. (The Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps all use "general" titles. In the Navy, the top four positions are admiral, vice admiral, and two levels of rear admiral.)

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Print This ArticlePRINTDiscuss this in The FrayDISCUSSEmail to a FriendE-MAIL
Share on FacebookPost to MySpace!Share with MixxDigg ThisShare with RedditShare with del.icio.usShare with FurlShare with Ma.gnolia.comShare with SphereShare with Stumble Upon
Daniel Engber is an associate editor at Slate. He can be reached at .
Photograph of Maj. Gen. John Batiste by Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.
Join the Fray: our reader discussion forum
What did you think of this article?

Remarks from the Fray Editor:

Many posters note that the article could use more denominators. How many retired generals served in Iraq, and how many are complaining in public? To weight the figure by rank, how many stars are in retirement relative to the number worn by the complaining generals? Some of the best responses, however, address the qualitative questions of judgment, rather than which quantitative standard to use. Examples are appended below. –G.A.

Remarks from the Fray:

The more I think about it the more I become skeptical of the idea that more US troops would have had a significant impact on the current situation in Iraq. […] What exactly could those more troops have accomplished? I think many of those complaining don't have a clue. They rely on a vague notion that more troops would somehow have better controlled the situation. I'm not so sure.

Some things I'm pretty sure about: more troops wouldn't have changed the fact that Saddam opened the prisons of criminals, sowing the seeds of chaos; nor would it have changed the fact that Saddam and/or his supporters organized a ruthless fedayeen resistance that would have continued the struggle by any means available; or that Al Queda types, present and nearby would have joined it and been well financed and supported by Iran or Syria. I'm also pretty sure that more US troops would have meant jerking more Iraqi's around trying to preserve order. Since US "atrocities" are the source of some of the resistance, wouldn't more troops lead to more atrocities and therefore more desire to resist?

Any Vietnam parallels are tenuous of course, but I remember clearly that many smart military guys kept on saying more troops was the answer there, and it wasn't, at least not anything remotely feasible.

At the end of the day, the American troops are in a foreign land, with some neighbors hostile to our purposes. To control that country requires knowledge we did not and probably couldn't have, and a commitment of troops that is not feasible. Remember that those who opposed us from the beginning were and are reactive. Whatever we focused on to control, they were bound to target what we left uncontrolled. So unless we somehow covered all potential targets, they would have found the means to work their will in some respect. […]

Where this logically leads is the following: the realistic choice may have been: Get rid of Saddam, and try to muddle through a limited occupation and hope for the best; or back off and let sanctions and other measures fail. The thought that there would have been some "perfect" or even well organized occupation after the invasion, is, IMO, a chimera.


(To reply, click here.)

If you have a brain in your head, it shouldn't take any generals to tell us how poorly Rummy has run the war. Too few soldiers on the ground, breaking up the Iraq Army, and the war of attrition since Bush told us that we had won, should tell you all you need to know


(To reply, click here.)

General officers have no standing to criticize the Secdef. The Secdef answers to the President, the Congress and the Constitution. These officers, even though retired, should stay away from criticizing their superior civilian bosses. Watching general officers do that always makes me think of tinhorn generals leading coups in banana republics. Shut up and enjoy your retirement.


(To reply, click here.)