So the word is out: Marine Gen. Peter Pace is done as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Which renders obsolete, before it got picked up for publication, this news story that I wrote on Wednesday:
"Missteps by general raise concerns that, in the military, free speech is a right for the few, the proud, the high-ranking"
Few convicted felons could count on the admiration of as many luminaries as Scooter Libby could. Nearly 200 politicians, administration officials and personal friends wrote letters supporting Libby before his Tuesday sentencing for obstruction of justice. But one supporter didn't seem to jive with the others: his name is Peter Pace, and he just happens to be a Marine general, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the nation's highest-ranking military officer.
According to the letter, Gen. Pace wrote it "at the request of Mr. Scooter Libby." Pace and Libby sometimes crossed paths in their jobs, and Pace's letter was not a glowing political endorsement, especially when compared with the favorable missives Libby received from former colleagues like Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Henry Kissinger. "He served the United States Government extremely well," Pace concluded simply.
But Nancy Sherman, a Georgetown philosophy professor and military ethicist, said that even if it isn't a breach of professional ethics, it seems imprudent for a country's senior service member to write a character reference for a presidential partisan convicted of engaging in a political cover-up. "He's not just your ordinary officer," said Sherman, who used to chair the ethics department at Pace's alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy."You're talking about someone who is talking in his professional role, and the role is one where he's supposed to be nonpartisan."
A public affairs officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff declined to comment on Pace's memo Wednesday, saying only that the letter spoke for itself.
This isn't the first time this spring that the chairman's words have come under public scrutiny. In March, Gen. Pace told the Chicago Tribune that homosexuality was immoral, and he didn't believe "the United States is well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way." His remarks were criticized in the mainstream media; President Bush publicly distanced himself from them. But the Pentagon and the White House gave no indication that Pace's comments - or his recent letter supporting Libby - warranted disciplining.
Some experts say the latitude given to Pace highlights a hypocritical attitude in the military: the higher your rank or the more conservative your speech, the freer you are to express yourself. "It's very arbitrary," said Washington-based attorney and Army reservist Mike Lebowitz. "Absolutely, there's a double standard when it comes to free speech in the military." Lebowitz represents Adam Kokesh, the former Marine and Iraq veteran who had his discharge downgraded from "honorable" to "general" for wearing a uniform at an anti-war rally.
"The military has been very progressive on some aspects," Lebowitz said, "but it also has a very conservative mentality." In this culture, the expression of political viewpoints is fine, as long as they don't challenge existing policies. War critics like Kokesh can be liable for their activities even after they leave active duty. But vocal conservatives, such as evangelical service members who proselytize for the faith, rarely face such punishments. "They get a slap on the wrist," Lebowitz said.
That proved true for Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, a Special Forces veteran and outspoken Christian selected by Donald Rumsfeld to be deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence. In 2003, according to the Los Angeles Times, Boykin went on a cross-country church speaking tour. In Oregon, while in uniform, he told churchgoers that the U.S. was hated "because we're a Christian nation," and America's enemies would "only be defeated if we comea gainst them in the name of Jesus." Boykin's statements caused a firestorm on Capitol Hill, and a Pentagon investigative report leaked to the Washington Post in 2004 found that his speeches had violated three internal guidelines.
Today, Boykin still holds the same post and his three general's stars.
Whether or not there's a political bias on free speech in the service, critical attitudes are getting easier to find. The"long war" in Iraq and Afghanistan is conditioning junior grunts to exercise greater independence in making decisions. It's also a struggle whose reality often falls short of the ideals that attracted many young men and women to the service. As a result, said Sherman, it's fair to wonder if returning veterans "won't be able to compartmentalize their experiences abroad, if they'll feel restricted from thinking outside the box" back home. "The more independence we extend to service persons in the field," she said,"the less reasonable it might be to bring them home and expect them to be silent." Sherman saw this as a positive development. "You want the soldier to ultimately be able to express his conscience,"Sherman said. "Otherwise, you have mindless soldiers."
Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, agreed. "It's quite important that active duty military personnel feel free to express themselves when someone is under the gun," he said. Fidell saw Pace's Libby letter as "a real dividend in terms of justice for GIs. It was a reflection of a greater willingness among service members to come forward and speak freely." At the same time, Fidell conceded that all speech is not treated equally in the ranks. "It only becomes a matter of concern or interest if it is hostile to the government," he said.
Lebowitz sees this as an unfair catch-22: It's up to the government and the military culture to decide what's hostile to the government, and by and large, that's anything critical of the status quo. He's gotten calls and letters from a variety of military personnel sympathetic to Kokesh, but he can't get many to support an anti-war comrade on the record. "The military is a very small world," said Lebowitz, "and word gets around, even between the branches. There's definitely a chilling effect."
He's not expecting a letter from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs on Kokesh's behalf anytime soon.