West Point's motto reads "Duty, honor, country." But from the start, America has always had some military leaders who couldn't distinguish between serving self and selfless service.
Take Horatio Gates. An indispensable field commander, he was the hero of Saratoga.
He was also after George Washington's job. Throughout the American Revolution, Gates spent as much time scheming how to embarrass and humiliate Washington as he did battling the British.
Gates had an avid co-conspirator in Brig. Gen. Thomas Conway, a man of whom Washington wrote: "[His] merit ... as an officer, and his importance in this army exists more in his imagination, than in reality." Conway, for his part, wrote blistering letters to the Continental Congress criticizing Washington.
When the accusations became public, however, public support swung heavily in support of the commander in chief. Conway resigned.
In turn, Gates disavowed Conway and apologized to Washington, writing not a bit disingenuously, "I solemnly declare I am of no faction. ... I heartily dislike controversy." Washington was not fooled. He spent the rest of the war with one eye on the British -- and the other on Gates.
In the American political tradition, elected civilian officeholders command military leaders. That's the way it should be.
Democracy, however, is not a suicide pact. Our top officeholders are politicians, but political agendas shouldn't trump responsible military counsel.
The rules of democratic warfare are pretty clear-cut. Generals are supposed to exercise principled, consistent, competent and honest leadership. Presidents are supposed to act as commanders in chief, not campaigners in chief.
The brass is supposed to be respectful of the prerogatives of its political leaders, but politicians are supposed to take the business of war seriously.
It is not clear that is happening to Washington today, where what was allegedly sound military advice in one administration is so easily discarded without apology in the next.
After a decade of developing a long-range missile defense plan, the Pentagon had no comment when President Obama decided to discard it. In fact, the White House now is getting some publicly supportive statements from the brass. But it's a tad suspect.
Consider Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton. He heads the U.S. Strategic Command, a job he got in 2007. He never once expressed public reservations over the Bush administration's plan to build a robust missile defense shield. Yet, last week he declared, "Missile defense can be destabilizing."
Why did the general not ring that alarm bell before? Maybe he voiced his concerns privately but felt they didn't rise to the order of being something worth resigning over.
But it's funny how his newly public concern that too much missile defense could be a problem dovetails nicely with the administration's plan to gut the program and rely on arms control and mutually assured destruction to protect America from missile attack.
The Pentagon's generals have also been strangely quiet of late on the right course to take in Afghanistan. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal frankly told an audience at a speech in London that a half-measure strategy would lead to Chaos-istan, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., criticized him for being honest in public.
The White House seemed none too happy either. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who often seems to speak for the administration on foreign policy matters, dismissed McChrystal's recommendations. Now, all Pentagon brass seems pretty tongued-tied when it comes to discussing the war strategies it is supposed to be implementing.
Finally, the response of the most senior military leaders to the cold-blooded shootings at Fort Hood is perplexing. Their remarks appear calibrated to avoid offending anyone, rather than reflect outrage that the service retained -- for even a moment -- an officer who openly professed that his religious beliefs outweighed his sworn duty to uphold the Constitution and justified killing U.S. troops.
The system failed our soldiers. Generals should be more interested in rooting out what went wrong than in parroting the administration's portrayal of the massacre as some kind of tragic accident and parsing the difference between the legal and the practical definition of a terrorist act.
In relations between military commanders and their civilian bosses, when honesty ends, democracy is in peril.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the Washington Examiner