WASHINGTON — Former military generals are criticizing anti-war groups for helping to organize active-duty soldiers to urge Congress to end the war in Iraq.
In interviews yesterday, the generals were careful to say they have no objection to enlisted soldiers petitioning Congress as private citizens. It is a different matter, however, to coordinate this drive so close to the midterm elections and publicize it with the aid of anti-war organizations, they said.
Yesterday, a company that does public relations for the liberal activist political action committee MoveOn.org, Fenton Communications, organized a conference call for reporters and three active-duty soldiers to unveil the soldiers' anti-war group Appeal for Redress.
According to its Web site, Appeal for Redress is seeking signatures of active-duty soldiers for a petition that reads in part, "As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq."
The group says it now has 213 members.
"I think it is shameful because the timing is so close to the election. They ought to be ashamed of themselves," a retired Air Force lieutenant general, Thomas McInerney, told The New York Sun yesterday by phone from Israel. "The soldiers should be ashamed of themselves for being duped into this. It is to be expected from a MoveOn.org-type group. They have no standards."
A retired Army major general, Robert Scales, told the Sun he supports the right of enlisted soldiers to petition Congress about the Iraq war. But he said, "It is a little suspicious that something like this would appear 12 days before an election."
"My only concern is that soldiers may be used as unwitting instruments of a particular political view. It appears they are being organized," General Scales said.
Another retired Army major general, Donald Edwards, called the public relations effort "totally inappropriate" and said the soldiers should wait until they are out of the service to enter politics.
"The members of the military should not actively be involved in elections on a federal scale," General Edwards said. "As I understand the rules of military conduct, you are not allowed and should not be involved in political activity on the federal or state level."
A staff member at Fenton Communications who requested anonymity said his company was approached last week by a longtime peace activist and former director of the anti-nuclear proliferation front known as SANE/Freeze, David Cortright, to publicize Appeal for Redress. Mr. Cortright is now president of an Indiana-based nonprofit group, the Fourth Freedom Forum, and his biography on the organization's Web site says he helped raise "more than $300,000 for the Win Without War coalition to avert a preemptive attack on Iraq in 2002–03."
Yesterday, one of the founders of Appeal for Redress, Navy Seaman Jonathan Hutto, said he came up with the idea for the group after a professor at Howard University sent him the book "Soldiers in Revolt," about a similar petition movement of active-duty soldiers during the Vietnam War. Likening his experience in the military to that of soldiers during the Vietnam War, he said, "Many of us also have reservations about the orders."
Seaman Hutto said none of the members of Appeal for Redress were "pacifists, conscientious objectors, or anything that would go against the military contract." He does not discuss the new organization when he is on his base or in uniform, he added.
Still, the counsel retained by Appeal for Redress, J.E. McNeil, runs the Center for Conscience and War, an organization whose mission is to defend the rights of conscientious objectors. Its mission statement reads: "The center is committed to supporting all those who question participation in war, whether they are U.S. citizens, permanent residents, documented or undocumented immigrants — or citizens in other countries."
Ms. McNeil said yesterday that she first got in touch with some of the soldiers in Appeal for Redress through a military hotline the Center for Conscience and War runs for active-duty servicemen to find out what rights they have. According to the center's Web site, the group's lobbyist is Pat Elder, a co-founder of the D.C. Area Anti-War Network, which has organized civil disobedience demonstrations against military recruitment offices in shopping malls.
The Pentagon has no objection to soldiers privately petitioning Congress about the Iraq war, a spokesman, Major Stewart Upton, said. "The members of the Armed Forces are free to communicate with their members of Congress in a lawful manner that does not violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In regards to the media teleconference, our position is that members of the Armed Forces that choose to speak to the press in their private capacity may do so, but must not do so in uniform and must make clear that they do not speak on behalf of their military unit, military service, or the Department of Defense unless they are authorized to do so," he said.
The soldiers who spoke to the press yesterday said they were speaking only in a private capacity. A retired Army Special Forces colonel, David Hunt, said he believes the soldiers were brave to put their names on the petition to end the Iraq war. "If anyone can complain about a war, it's a soldier. I think you have to listen to them. They know how much trouble they are in. They will be vilified by the unit. This is a brave thing to do," he said.
But "you have to watch you are affiliating with," Colonel Hunt added."The problem is that people like to use soldiers, cops, and firemen as props for politics. There is no question they are being used."