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Calling Out a Top Defense Official

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The tally now stands at six. Over the past few weeks, six retired generals have called on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign, one of the latest did so on this program yesterday.

However, no generals currently serving have said Rumsfeld should go. Commentator Douglas Waller is a reporter for Time magazine, he's also author of a book about a maverick World War I era general. Waller has this historical perspective on dissent in the ranks.

DOUGLAS WALLER reporting:

The question of how far a senior officer can go in speaking out was put to the test in Washington 79 years ago, it happened in one of the most spectacular court martials the U.S. Army has ever staged. The defendant in that case was Billy Mitchell, he was the flying general of World War I who led the largest Allied air force in a single battle.

In 1921 Mitchell became an international celebrity when his rickety bi-plane sunk a surplus German battleship off the Virginia coast. That proved to the world that airpower could defeat the mighty dreadnaughts.

But Mitchell became increasingly frustrated with his bosses who ignored his calls for an Air Force separate from the Army. Finally, in 1925 he lashed out at the War Department, at the Navy, and in effect at the President of the United States. He accused them of treason and criminal negligence in the handling of national defense.

No president could tolerate an outburst like that from such a prominent officer and Calvin Coolidge didn't. Mitchell was ordered to stand trial in Washington for insubordination. His seven-week court martial became a media extravaganza. Washington society ladies and the capital's political elite lined up each day for seats in the audience. Even Will Rogers visited the proceedings.

You won't find generals in today's Pentagon who swing verbal two-by-fours like Billy Mitchell did. He once called the Navy's battleships useless for national defense and he accused the Army of needlessly killing pilots because they were forced to fly in old planes.

So how far can military officers go in voicing their criticisms? Billy Mitchell thought he had not only a right, but a duty to speak out. But civilians control our military and decisions on when to go to war and how much to spend on national defense are political ones. Can senior officers go too far in voicing their opinions? The jury of generals who heard Billy Mitchell's case believed he had.

Mitchell was found guilty. He was eventually forced out of the army.

NORRIS: Commentator Doug Waller is a correspondent at Time magazine, he's also the author of A QUESTION OF LOYALTY: GENERAL BILLY MITCHELL AND THE COURT MARTIAL THAT GRIPPED THE NATION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.