The secretary of war was Henry L. Stimson. But it is General George C. Marshall whom we remember, the man who shaped a war-winning strategy and then went on to win the peace with the Marshall Plan. Secretary Stimson’s performance was competent and constructive, but he did not interfere with military operations. By contrast, everyone remembers that Robert S. McNamara was the secretary of defense as the Vietnam war went awry, but few could name the nation’s most senior military officers in any given year of that conflict.

Unpalatable as it may be to those raised on Oliver Stone’s reinvention of history, the truth is that our nation’s most successful wartime partnerships have been between presidents and generals: Lincoln and Grant, Wilson and Pershing, FDR and Marshall. Such professional, non-political relationships brought us a remarkable century of victories, from Mexico City to Tokyo Bay.

Thereafter, the miserable road to Saigon–and Baghdad–was paved with the best intentions. Six decades ago, the National Security Act of 1947 inserted buffers between presidents and their top military men, leading immediately to a series of military debacles or, at best, stalemates. Instead of Marshall speaking–respectfully but frankly–to FDR, we got McNamara huddling with LBJ and, now, Donald Rumsfeld, who never saw combat, interpreting warfare to a president who never saw combat. Instead of making battlefield decisions based upon military necessity, the rise of powerful secretaries of defense resulted in combat decisions based upon political expediency.

Defense secretaries, not dissident retired generals, have politicized our national security. As for the recently invented “requirement” for retired officers to remain silent and apolitical, would we really like to strike George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower from our history books? After all, it was Eisenhower, the former soldier, who warned us so presciently of the military-industrial complex, while secretaries of defense–one after another–merely shoveled money into its maw.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act, an echo of Vietnam, was supposed to guarantee unfiltered military advice to the president. It didn’t work. The elaborate superstructure of the contemporary presidency, with its many gatekeepers, excludes the nation’s senior military leaders from the frequent, intimate, and unconstrained contact with the president that served us so well in the past. Too much has been delegated: While the president has the indisputable right to dismiss military leaders (as Lincoln certainly had to do), he also has the duty to study the professional advice of those who will lead our troops into battle before overruling it. With the approval of Congress (and increasingly without it), the president makes our strategic decisions, but it is his obligation to the American people to make informed decisions.

Today, however, our presidents do not hear unvarnished, de-politicized military advice, and the situation has never been graver than under the current administration. Presidential interviews with generals are essentially pre-scripted, with vetted talking points–political courtiers control access to the president and determine what the president will hear. Only the president himself could change the situation by demanding to hear a range of military views (without commissars at the shoulders of the generals). President George W. Bush, who has chosen war as a policy tool, may be the American president most isolated from sound military advice.

At least six retired combat commanders have now gone public with the sort of technical–not political–criticism I’ve heard for years in private conversations with our generals. None of the critics has anything to gain personally. Indeed, each has much to lose by speaking out against any aspect of the most vindictive presidential administration since the Nixon era. Dissenters are automatically blackballed from the lucrative defense industry jobs that corrode the ethics of retired senior officer and they’ll never be offered plum posts in any future administration, Republican or Democrat. In addition, they’ve had to undergo savage and dishonest personal attacks in the media from support-the-administration-at-all-costs conservative columnists, from retired officers who draw their paychecks from a defense industry that has plentiful reasons to be grateful to Donald Rumsfeld, and from serving officers promoted by the secretary of defense–not least the chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Peter Pace–who are not supposed to take public political positions, but who have nonetheless been slavish in their praise of Rumsfeld.

Remarkably, our gotcha media have given Rumsfeld’s high-ranking uniformed supporters a pass while falling for the red-herring issue of civilian control of our military. Nor have our media investigated the defense industry and Bush administration ties of the retired officers who appear as television talking heads or write op-eds condemning the critical retirees. Were reporters or broadcast producers to do the slightest legwork (or keyboard work), they would uncover blatant conflicts of interest–it’s as if a talk-show host interviewed an oil-industry executive on the rising price of gasoline without revealing his corporate allegiance.

The crucial issue, though, is the bogus charge of insubordination threatening the good order of civil-military relations. It’s a spurious claim that has nonetheless been embraced uncritically by the orthodox on both the left and right. Instead of being alarmed that former soldiers–with no political ties or agendas–searched their consciences then went public with their criticism of a notoriously imperious defense secretary, we should celebrate the fact. Each of these men played by the rules, retiring before speaking out. None prejudiced good order. Not one stands to profit from his courage (quite the contrary).

If former officers cannot speak out on complex military issues, to whom can we turn for expert advice? To politicians who never deigned to serve in uniform themselves? To pundits equally lacking in military experience? To defense industry publicists? Surely, lifelong expertise should hold some value in our specialized society.

As someone who supported the destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime, who continues to support our efforts in Iraq, and who recently returned from Baghdad humbled by the commitment and courage of our soldiers and Marines, I am outraged by the disinformation campaign this administration has conducted against honorable and patriotic critics. Those on the pious right never fail to invoke the First Amendment when it suits their purposes, but now that six retired generals, without coordination or organizational support, have criticized one of the least-popular figures in the Bush administration, freedom of speech is suddenly un-American, criticism is a threat to the republic, and, according to one newspaper aligned with the administration, military retirees who dare to question the performance of the Office of the Secretary of Defense should be prosecuted.

We celebrate whistle blowers in corrupt corporations such as Enron, in the worlds of finance and health care, and even in the FBI. Yet, what national endeavor deserves greater scrutiny than the conduct of our wars? Do we truly want even retired military figures to remain silent if the blood of our fellow citizens, our national prestige and our wealth is squandered through incompetence? Do we desire a Prussian military that excuses every action by claiming it was only following orders?

In 22 years of uniformed service, I never encountered subversive speech among my peers. Every officer I’ve known has taken seriously his or her oath to uphold and defend our constitution. Their ethos was loyal–and silent–service. For a retired officer to raise a voice in dissent is a grave act of individual conscience, so earnest a decision that I suspect few civilians can grasp its emotional intensity.

Of course, the administration’s no-holds-barred defense of Secretary Rumsfeld is really a defense of itself. From disseminating talking points against the critics to thousands of retired flag officers, to instigating op-eds (not a few of which have been bluntly dishonest), the administration’s response to criticism has been character assassination combined with a skillful effort to shift the terms of the debate. We have been told that the critical retirees are simply gripers, disappointed in their military careers. What we’re not told is that Major General John Batiste, the decorated former combat commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, turned down a third star rather than continue to serve under Secretary Rumsfeld, or that Major Gen. Charles Swannack, another critic, led the Army’s elite division, the 82nd Airborne, in combat in the Sunni Triangle. Every officer who’s spoken out has had a successful career and is respected by those still in uniform. Yet voices closely tied to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, some belonging to former officers who took off their uniforms well over a decade ago and who have never walked an infantry patrol in Iraq, insist that Rumsfeld’s critics somehow don’t have the “big picture.”

This is just a lie. Who better to understand and explain the unnecessary challenges our troops have faced and continue to face than the combat leaders who signed the letters of condolence to bereaved families (not using an autograph machine, as the Secretary of Defense did)? Should we put our trust instead in biased pundits, administration surrogates and a battery of yesteryear’s military retirees who’ve fed heartily at the defense-industry trough and rely on continued access to the Pentagon?

There is a cost to our nation from celebrity defense secretaries such as Robert S. McNamara, who shrugged as 50,000 American troops died; the tragic Les Aspin who, for political reasons, would not provide our troops in Somalia with a single company of tanks; and now Donald Rumsfeld, who seeks to take credit for the successes of others, while shunning blame for the casualties his obstinacy caused. The common denominator of these defense secretaries is that they politicized our military and its decision-making processes. It hasn’t been the generals or admirals who have done so.

From the era of Winfield Scott through that of George Marshall, there was a logical, practical distribution of labor between the executive branch, Congress, and senior military leaders. Our presidents and legislators decided if, when, and with whom we would go to war (this process, too, has broken down under a series of imperial presidencies). Presidents, while keeping Congress informed, determined the broad outlines of our grand strategy. But our elected and appointed leaders allowed military professionals to determine the details of how our military would organize for war and how wars would be fought on the ground. It was an imperfect system, but it delivered a history of victories.

While the generals and admirals should never be given a blank check, we must return to our lost tradition of listening with an open mind to their professional advice about how to defeat an enemy we have determined to take on (or who has determined to take us on). The president will always be the ultimate “decider.” But his or her decisions must be made after hearing unfiltered military advice, not the spin of a fellow political insider. If war is too important to be left to the generals, the battlefield is too deadly to be left to the politicians.

Yet, unwilling to address the what-happened-in-Iraq issues raised by his critics, Secretary Rumsfeld has attempted to play a shell game, blaming a hidebound Army reluctant to reform itself for all of his problems. At the same time, the Army reforms that paid off handsomely on the road to Baghdad and thereafter–for which the Secretary of Defense has tried to seize credit–were inaugurated in the late 1990s and then developed aggressively by General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff sidelined by Rumsfeld for suggesting that an effective occupation of Iraq might take hundreds of thousands of troops.

To identify an organization truly unwilling to change, we need look no further than Rumsfeld’s beloved Air Force. Far from driving “transformation” as he claims, the Defense Secretary has continued to buy hyper-expensive, virtually useless aircraft that were conceived in the 1980s to combat the Soviet air force. Rumsfeld’s transformation program boils down to reducing our ground forces–the soldiers and Marines who rescued him from a fiasco in Iraq, where progress has been made despite his incompetence–in order to send massive welfare checks to the defense industry. One of the key worries within the military is that the administration is ignoring the serious lessons of our recent wars while continuing to purchase unaffordable and useless weapons systems that will lock our armed forces into 20th-century war-fighting models for decades to come. The defense secretary’s major procurement programs are reactionary, not revolutionary.

Even if we did have a “hidebound” military reluctant to move, would we want it any other way? Contrary to left-wing myths, our generals and admirals tend to be reluctant to go to war, insisting on laying out the potential costs for decision-makers (Colin Powell might serve as the archetype of the ideal military professional). Would we prefer a military anxious to invade others? Would we prefer generals and admirals who abet the madcap visions of ideologues, right or left, rather than offering sober assessments of the risks of war? The institutional conservatism of our military occasionally has impeded the progress of new ideas (to my personal frustration during my own years in uniform), but it has generally served our nation well. Better a military that changes cautiously and eyes foreign adventures suspiciously than one that embraces every passing fad and cries for war at every provocation.

The administration will win this time around. It is able to bring to bear so much power that a half-dozen men of conscience haven’t a chance. The word on the military-retiree street is that anyone else who speaks out against the secretary of defense will lose his defense-industry job or contracts. All the favors have been called in and scraps of access have won the allegiance of partisan columnists and talking-head generals alike. The six critics stand against the coercive powers of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the administration behind it, the Republican Party and its loyalists–and all the wealth of our unscrupulous defense industry.

Doesn’t it tell us something about the administration’s awareness of the depth and breadth of its failures that it feels compelled to mobilize so many of its resources against six retired veterans exercising their First Amendment rights?

Americans who care about our country should be very skeptical of the administration’s line that no military dissent–not even from retirees–is ever permissible. As a nation, we need to ask ourselves some very uncomfortable questions about the rise of hyper-political defense secretaries, the politicization of military affairs by both Republicans and Democrats, the isolation of the president from frank military advice and civilian interference in the smallest details of combat operations.

When a presidential administration will not tolerate honorable, legal criticism from those who dedicated their lives to uniformed service, we should be far more worried about ideologues in power than about a few retired infantrymen on pensions.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer, strategist, columnist, and the author of 21 books, including the forthcoming Never Quit the Fight, to be published in July.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer, strategist, columnist, and the author of 21 books, including the forthcoming Never Quit the Fight, to be published in July.