We have to fix this or jeopardize a generation of junior officers.
After World War II, many of the top generals who obtained four stars and the respect of their country were in great demand after they retired. Well known ones, like Gen. George Marshall, who became the president of the American Red Cross, and Gen. Omar Bradley, who became the chairman of Bulova Watch, were able to use their expertise with nonprofit and for profit companies and live the American dream that they fought so hard to preserve during the war. Other notable generals from that war and the Korean War also had lucrative post retirement plans. Here is a short list:
Gen. Matthew Ridgway: Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Mellon Institute, board member for Gulf Oil. (Ridgway, as chief of staff of the Army, had the character to say he would resign if Eisenhower accepted the recommendation of the rest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to drop a nuke on Dien Bien Phu in support of the encircled French Army, thereby preventing a terrible tragedy; he also publicly opposed the Vietnam War).
Gen. James Gavin: President of, then Chairman of Arthur D. Little, a noted nondefense business consulting company (Gavin and Ridgway were among the greatest division commanders in the history of the Airborne; Gavin was the most anti-segregation general officer in the Army, attached a black battalion to the 82nd Airborne and led the vicious in-house fight to desegregate the Army after WWII).
Gen. Lucius Clay: Chairman Continental Can (General Clay was the incorruptible head of the US occupation of Germany and was almost single-handedly responsible for the successful early rebuilding of Germany, including preventing German starvation in the first postwar years, squelching the burgeoning occupation black market, preventing the French financial revenge on Germany and killing the vengeful Morgenthau plan to deindustrialize Germany).
Gen. Lauris Norstad: President of Owens-Corning Fiberglass (WWII Army Air Force officer, who rose to become supreme allied commander Europe – SACEUR – after Korea).
Gen. Alfred Gruenther: President of American Red Cross (also rose to SACEUR).
The more perceptive reader will find something odd about this list. None of these men went to work for a defense contractor. Why? I will quote someone who was able to talk to many retiring flag officers at the time. Pierre Sprey, the noted co-designer of the F-16 fighter and A-10 combat support plane explains:
… there was a time when retiring flag officers (at least those who weren’t associated with airplanes) thought it dishonorable to accept a job working for a munitions maker. High ranking WWII officers I knew told me that, in the decade after the war, it was considered entirely proper to accept an executive position with a major civilian corporation – and a number of the most distinguished WWII generals did just that. On the other hand, back then any general who retired to a job in the defense industry was viewed with contempt by his peers.
Now we jump to the present, where Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe recently wrote a thorough expose of the current decisions and character of our generals after they retire from serving our country. Here are his opening paragraphs of a two part series:
An hour after the official ceremony marking the end of his 35-year career in the Air Force, General Gregory “Speedy” Martin returned to his quarters to swap his dress uniform for golf attire. He was ready for his first tee time as a retired four-star general.
But almost as soon as he closed the door that day in 2005 his phone rang. It was an executive at Northrop Grumman, asking if he was interested in working for the manufacturer of the B-2 stealth bomber as a paid consultant. A few weeks later, Martin received another call. This time it was the Pentagon, asking him to join a top-secret Air Force panel studying the future of stealth aircraft technology.
Martin was understandably in demand, having been the general in charge of all Air Force weapons programs, including the B-2, for the previous four years.
He said yes to both offers.
In almost any other realm it would seem a clear conflict of interest – pitting his duty to the US military against the interests of his employer – not to mention a revolving-door sprint from uniformed responsibilities to private paid advocacy.
But this is the Pentagon where, a Globe review has found, such apparent conflicts are a routine fact of life at the lucrative nexus between the defense procurement system, which spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year and the industry that feasts on those riches. And almost nothing is ever done about it.
The Globe analyzed the career paths of 750 of the highest ranking generals and admirals who retired during the last two decades and found that, for most, moving into what many in Washington call the “rent-a-general” business is all but irresistible.
From 2004 through 2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives, according to the Globe analysis. That compares with less than 50 percent who followed that path a decade earlier, from 1994 to 1998.
In some years, the move from general staff to industry is a virtual clean sweep. Thirty-four out of 39 three- and four-star generals and admirals who retired in 2007 are now working in defense roles – nearly 90 percent.
In addition to these disturbing facts, the Pentagon started a “Senior Mentor” program where generals who had retired from military service had been hired back as consultants to offer advice to their colleagues. USA Today did an expose on that program in late 2009 and “identified 158 mentors and found that 80% had ties to the defense industry.”
So, these generals, who retire at full pay which ranges from about $100,000 to $200,000 a year and generous benefits including health care, were pulling down large salaries from a defense contractor to lobby and pressure their former colleagues (these defense contractors then bill the Department of Defense for their salary) and the Department of Defense (DoD) was hiring them back as mentor consultants making double or more money than their general’s salary (which they still also received).
To give you an idea of how much a general pulls in salary from a defense contractor after they retire, the USA Today article found that in 2008, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni made $946,000 from DoD contractor DynCorp along with a $129,000 in retirement pay. It is unknown exactly how much he made in the mentor program, but the Joint Forces Command said in a statement to USA Today that a three-star general (Zinni had four stars) made about $1,600 a day plus expenses.
If this wasn’t enough, according to the Boston Globe, “Since the early 1990s, the Navy and Air Force have been sending retiring senior officers – in some cases a full two years before they leave the military – to taxpayer-funded career seminars on Coronado Island near San Diego. They are taught how to write a resume and to network in private industry.”
In the USA Today article, the generals claimed they policed themselves for any conflict of interest.
This triple dipping into the DoD fund was a tipping point, and after media and Congressional exposes, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates scaled back the mentor program and put in some restrictions that required some reporting of conflict of interests and other rules. but did not stop totally stop the practice. For more details on the restrictions, you can read about it here.
I worked on the problem of the revolving door for all military personnel in the 1980s. We worked to pass legislation requiring all retiring military to register where they were going to work and have a period of time where they could not work in areas they covered while in the service. Most of those rules have fallen by the wayside, and according to the Boston Globe, “[w]ith few exceptions, all the Pentagon requires now is for retired officers to wait one year before directly advocating for a contract before the specific military branch they served in.”
Some of the damage this does to our country is obvious, including the amount of money wasted on all the triple dipping, the influence that the generals have on pushing their former colleagues to buy overpriced and/or ineffective weapon systems on behalf of their new DoD contractor employers and even pushing Congress to make the DoD buy weapons that they don’t want for lucrative jobs in key Congressional districts.
But the insidious and long-term damage is what it does to our junior officer corps. These young officers are trained to live by a code of honor but then they look at their general officer corps and see their superiors retiring and taking advantage of a system that is suppose to buy weapons and fight wars. They watch while these general officers game the system for the most personal gain. Even before these generals retire, I have seen firsthand how knowing that they want these lucrative contractor jobs alters their behavior while they are still in uniform and they are reluctant to hold the errant contractors to task. While investigating weapon systems, I have seen that generals are not necessarily hired for what they can do for the contractor after they retire but for services rendered, i.e. what they did for the contractor while they were in the service.
The junior officers see this and if it is not altered, the ethical junior officers will leave the service before they become generals as to not play this game and the ones that remain and become generals will be the ones who accept this insidious system, play the game and will be terrible combat leaders because they have lost the respect of their troops.
Ray Kimball is a major in the US Army, graduated from West Point, comes from an Army family and is just the type of brilliant and ethical warriors that should become a general. I wrote about his trials and tribulations with the contractor logistics systems during the Iraq invasion in my book, Betraying Our Troops. When I met him, I was greatly impressed by his intelligence and personal ethics; he is a good indicator of whether this system is affecting the best and the brightest of our young officers.
He wrote about his concern of the general officer corps in a blog on the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s web site when a few retired generals gingerly questioned former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s dangerous approach to the Iraq war:
Welcome to the party, boys. Where ya been?… I know, I know, you were still holding out hope for that third or fourth star. And after all, there was that cushy board of directors gig for General Dynamics or Lockheed Martin or KBR hanging in front of you – can’t very well do that if you’re biting the hand that feeds them, now can you?
In 2008, he later wrote a Huffington Post blog on how upset he was that:
On Sunday, the NY Times published a damning indictment of what it called “a Pentagon information apparatus that has used [retired military] analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage”: The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.
He concluded by describing how this affects the junior officer corps:
You know, there’s been a series of pieces over the last few months about how junior officers are leaving the service in droves. Many familiar reasons are cited: the hamster wheel of continuous deployments, lack of an ability to meet family needs, frustration with a well-entrenched bureaucracy. I would humbly add the above episode to the list. I think more and more junior officers see the kind of political and moral compromise that seems to come hand-in-glove with the attainment of senior rank and want no part of it. What these men did is probably not illegal and is almost certainly not abnormal, but it is unacceptable in a Republic where military institutions are supposed to be subordinate to civilian ones in every respect.
So, could we ever hope that our generals would ever revert back to the honor of the generals from World War II? That probably is too much to ask. So, what is the solution to this problem? That is a tough answer and I believe that it would take enormous political courage to enact it. However, the deplorable facts that have been laid out here require bold action.
I suggest that the Congress pass a law that allows generals to work for any corporation that they want when they retire, but they must wait ten years before they are allowed to work or consult for any company that interacts with the DoD or gives financial advise on buying defense contractor stock. After ten years, most of the contacts in DoD will be gone so that they can no longer pressure their former colleagues and they will be giving advice based on their military knowledge, not the influence they had in the Pentagon while they were there. They also will not alter their decisions while in the service to please the contractors because ten years is too long to be hired for what you did for the contractors while in the service. Most generals who think that they cannot live on their retirement income will not wait to work for a defense contractor, but will go out and get gainful employment in the nondefense private sector or even help out nonprofit organizations doing good works for the general public. And if the Senior Mentor program continues, no general who works or consults for a defense contractor or defense oriented financial investor company will be allowed to participate. Only generals who work outside the defense field will be allowed to consult for the Pentagon.
I am not applying this to all military personnel because the general officer corps has special influence and power in the DoD, which requires a special responsibility toward ethical behavior. They set the standard for the rest of the military and are well compensated for their years of service. Based on the severely ethically-challenged system now, easier remedies will fall short. Therefore, they must set the highest standards when leaving the military, and this law will not let them succumb to monetary temptations that compromise our weapons and, most importantly, our troops.