June 23rd, 2010
10:23 AM ET

Security Brief: The politics of being a top general

Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore knows about the pressure of being a top general.

As a lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, Russel Honore was never one to sugarcoat anything. He became known as the "Category 5 General" for the way he commanded the military response to Hurricane Katrina, which was also a mission that thrust him squarely into the media spotlight.

"I learned from six weeks of almost 12- to 18-hour days, about dealing with the media," says Honore, who now is a paid consultant to CNN on issues such as the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

"When I was in Katrina, I was always asked how I feel about it. What the sh** do you mean, how do I feel about it? This is what I think. If I'm a leader, I have a mission,"  Honore says.  "I ain't answering no feeling question."

The man in charge knew that anything he might say at any point during those long days might come back to haunt him, and in fact, there were some who didn't like Honore's style at all, but he says he tried hard never to let his guard down too much when talking with the media.

But in retirement, Honore was a little more willing to talk about his feelings, even putting pen to paper last year in a book that included a passage about how to handle yourself during a crisis. In "Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save You and Your Family," Honore lays out the simple lessons he learned about when and how a general should deal with the press:

Rule 1. Keep your mission in mind when answering any questions.
Rule 2. Never give praise of criticism to political leaders.
Rule 3. Remember that you've taken an oath to obey the orders of the president.
Rule 4. If you don't want to hear or see it again, don't say it.

"There is no such thing as off the record, 'cause you can say things when you're tired, frustrated, and in war, all kinds of negative stuff is said, and I knew that my style of operating, there were a lot of retired officers who didn't like my demeanor, 'cause I was direct and sometimes used colorful language and sometimes became a little too passionate," Honore says, "but one of my other rules in dealing with the press is that it's a battle drill between you and the press in terms of speaking to the American people."

During the course of his 37-year military career, there were times when internal battles raged within him when he didn't agree with a course of action, or the way something was being handled. But a general always has the option to resign, he says.

"There were things I disagreed with, " Honore says, "and that was done privately, and I had to ask myself a few times, 'Do I stay and deal with this, or do I let it go?' There were a couple of times when I was a three-star general and things came at me, and I seriously considered sending in my papers, but I thought about it, and you know, they say never send an e-mail when you're mad."

Honore made it clear that he didn't want to talk directly about the current situation involving Gen. Stanley McChrystal, but he did share some insight about those backroom conversations that happen everywhere from the battlefield to the Pentagon to the White House.

"This is a big f***ing deal, he didn't say that for mass consumption, but it got put out there. We have to take into account that in the adult world we live in, there are private conversations in the White House and hey, welcome to the real world, that's the human dimension and that's the little thing that keeps life interesting," Honore says. "When you form a team, why do you try to form a team? Because teamwork builds trust and trust builds speed. There's always the undercurrent of a little friction in that team, but if that's made public, then it can deteriorate the public trust between people. Whoever hasn't violated that trust should cast the first stone."

What if a general becomes so important to a mission that he feels like he can say almost anything? What happens then? I ask. Honore quotes back another famous general to me. This one, the legendary French Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who once said, "Graveyards are full of indispensable men."

"He had something there," Honore says.

soundoff (155 Responses)
  1. Athena Damian

    The President should call on Gen Honore to assist Mr Allen, I met him when I volunteer in Kitrina and I watch this man, and was also glad that we have these kind of people serving our company. Call him Mr President.

    June 23, 2010 at 8:45 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. D. Berry Smith

    Big fan of Adm. Mullen. I hope he can get a handle on this mess. One of the few who has not gone off the deep-end up there. Between Mullen and Petraeus we'll get this show on the road! I am, however, uncomfortable with the attention our Mil Leaders are attracting. If you are to not mix politics and mil. affairs then who auth. the interview with Rolling Stone Mag.?

    June 23, 2010 at 9:56 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Chris

    I served with General Honore in S. Korea. There was not a week that I did not see the man at lease 3 times. He is a great General and I think there should be more like him. Modern Day General Patton.

    June 23, 2010 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. mmi16

    Ask MacArthur how his hurbris fared with Truman.

    June 24, 2010 at 3:56 am | Report abuse | Reply
  5. 25A

    i currently work in the Army, both: as a civilian and as a Soldier. i work in Public Affairs and Protocol and let me be clear... this general didn't run what he said through his chief of staff, or secretary general staff or any public affairs officer. they would had told him: DO NOT SAY THAT SIR! also this wasn't an accident at all. All deployed Soldiers get training about dealing with the media. they are told what not to say and they are even given a pocket card with how to address the media.

    this general didn't make it to that many stars by mistake. i work with generals and let me tell you that they all are good politicians, leaders and speakers. this guy calculated what he said and was more than ready to resign. watch him as he publishes a best seller book and runs for office. he will use this resignation as his ticket to white house and how he is a man that sticks to what he believes is right and he takes responsibility for his actions, how he led troops against insurgents and he was there and saw it first hand and really knows what's going on, blah blah, etc...

    this is not the end for general McChrystal... this is just how he changes hats and from uniform to suit.

    on being a servicemember...we follow our leaders and have to trust their leadership because they have the big picture. i have disagreed or thought at times that my commanders gave me an order that wasn't the best. i gave my feedback or recommended things at times just in case they were not awared of something... but all that was done during planning or behind closed doors... NEVER in front of troops! of course all officers, we know not to follow an unlawful order or one that when you are on the ground will get your Soldiers kill. aside from that, when my boss gives me a mission and i have his/her intent and guidance i just say one of the following:got it, too easy, will be done by ..., yes Sir/Maam, or HOAH!

    June 24, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Innamoel

    They all look pretty and srlgnoty pigmented. I want to take a look at Rue Bonaparte as a pencil to possibly use on my waterline to make my eyes look bigger because the white Santa Monica Blvd. is too white. Christine can you please tell me when this collection will go outside of the US? I'm in London at the moment.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse | Reply
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