As the new administration settles in, some colonels and Navy captains—and even a few lieutenant colonels and commanders— are moving into the offices of high-level elected and appointed officials, where they will serve as military assistants, executive assistants, advisers and, in a few cases, just plain “gofers.” This inevitably brings to mind the case of Oliver North. What lessons does that unfortunate affair hold for the senior officials of this new administration and for the military officers chosen to serve them?
I knew Oliver North, and I liked him. He served well under my command many, many years ago when he was a captain and I was a division commander. I would not presume to judge his guilt or innocence in matters that can only be decided by our system of justice. I can, however, suggest a few lessons that may be of interest to senior officials and their military assistants.
Point one is that senior officials at the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department must never forget just why they have the good fortune to be assigned serving officers. Officers selected for this type of duty are intelligent, energetic, and knowledgeable in their profession. They are generally doers. They do not sit around for half a day or half a week wondering what to do about something you may have told them. They go out and get it done. However, they are not assigned to be policy makers. They can advise, and should be called upon for that. They can shed light on military matters, and they can help senior civilians communicate with their senior military counterparts, both here and abroad. But they should not be forced into designing or implementing policy unless there are absolutely overriding reasons for it—none of which occur to me at the moment.
The second lesson is for uniformed officers who are assigned to assist policy makers. This lesson is a simple one: there is a shortage of oxygen in high places. It is not hard to fall victim to the kind of headiness—indeed, even giddiness—that comes from rubbing elbows with the mighty. An officer serving as an aide or an assistant must never allow himself to lose his humility. He should never forget just who is the President or the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of State. If he has to take an action that may have important consequences, he must always turn to his civilian superior for advice and guidance. He should take great care to ensure that he is carrying out the policy of that official, and not one of his own. .
The third lesson is for the civilian leadership: never let a military assistant stay around too long. Oliver North served at the
National Security Council for almost five years. Three should be the maximum. Any officer worth his salt should be eager to leave such a billet and return to his regular professional duties after two years. Five years in the stratosphere is simply too long.
My last point is a word of caution to military officers in high places. I offer it hesitantly, and with full knowledge that my own judgment in these matters is as fallible as anyone else’s. I do believe, however, that an officer should do his best to keep his uniform from becoming a symbol of anything but a high level of impartial professional service.
Oliver North, as a serving Marine lieutenant colonel, became a political symbol. To hardline right wingers, he became a noble crusader against communism, set upon by a liberal establishment too cynical or weak-kneed to let good men stand up to the Soviets and their evil agents. To the far left, he came to represent a sinister coalition of reactionaries and military adventurers intent on imposing their own policies without respect for democracy or the will of the people.
This is an unfortunate side effect of his wearing the Marine uniform as a type of visible character reference while defending himself and his actions before Congress and the public. His desire to make the best possible defense in the face of looming criminal charges is perfectly understandable. Unfortunately, it may have sent the wrong signal.
The military uniform has to stand for truthfulness, self-restraint, and self-sacrifice—the sort of values that inspire military people to defend the nation’s Constitution and to give their best on the battlefield. An officer’s preoccupation should always be to wear that uniform in circumstances where no reasonable man can fail to regard it as an emblem of service, pure and simple. Using the uniform as a form of defense can do the opposite. It can suggest to the public at large, however unintentionally, that a soldier is already a hero by profession, and therefore exempt from having to earn and keep the respect of others.
A citizen who wears his country’s uniform has to be particularly leery of any action that might force him to invoke his military training, his battlefield achievements, or his service status to buttress the defense of that action at some future date. In regard to legality or illegality, right or wrong, Oliver North’s actions must be allowed to speak for themselves, first through due legal process, and much later in the judgment of history. But right or wrong, the fact that he found himself having to testify in uniform on a grant of immunity has already detracted, however slightly from the luster of a profession in which bringing honor to the uniform—both in private and in the eyes of the world—is the highest mark of success.
A combat veteran of three wars, General Haynes is currently an executive with LTV Aerospace and Defense Company. In the early 1960s, he served as the militucy executive assistant to several senior civilian officials.