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. Nikki O

    Love L General Honore' –wish he was the President's adviser!

    June 23, 2010 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
    • DNSmith

      Obama should take heed of people like LTG Honore and give him full rein. As it is Obama's administration and various governmental agencies have dropped the ball in this oil spill which makes Bush's screw up after Katrina look like an efficient operation start to finish.

      June 23, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Darrell

      President Obama has put together the largest response in WORLD History to a man-made environmental disaster. On top of that he managed to get the Guilty Company to pony up 20 Billion to cover the costs in ADVANCE.

      June 23, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Failure To Communicate

      Bring back Gen. Honore to active duty and send him to Afghanistan to clean up that mess! The war would end very soon...

      June 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • L.A.

      @ willowspring That's why he said "...a general always has the option to resign."

      June 23, 2010 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • NBoney

      @Darrell - I'm not certain it is THE biggest response ever. Regardless, even if it is THE largest response ever, it is still neither enough or being run well.

      And as for that $20 billion shakedown . . . it is not the role of an AMERICAN Persident to INFORM (his words) a private sector enterprise that they will set up a compensatory fund in a situation like this. That is the proper function of the judiciary system after a thorough legal proceeding. Of course, I think that BP SHOULD HAVE done it voluntarily as a good PR move, but it is not the place of the President to FORCE them to do it outside of the legal process.

      Remember, this is the United States, not Venezuela. What Obama did here is proto-tyranny.

      June 23, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • ET

      Our Generals are great men but they are human and thats what i think we all forget. In saying that the general is the rock to is Brigade commanders and on down. Hell the soldiers dont really talk about the general or even know hims in some cases they just do there jobs. I thnk the general should have did like the soldiers and just done his job and Kept his opinions to himself. I have much respect for my commander and chief President Obama for what he did.

      June 23, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bull

      Obama proved he's a thin skin punk.2012,the voters will treat him the same way.

      June 23, 2010 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
  2. paul

    i think gen. mcchrystal did not take gen. de gaulle's advice to heart.....
    it sounds like gen. honore did and it served him well.

    June 23, 2010 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
    • saltydog

      "The politics of being a top general" ?? = Do a good job and keep your mouth shut to the media. You are not a rock star, you are a General. Act like one! Rolling Stone interview,,,, sheesh

      June 23, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Judy

    Oh how I wish he'd replace Thad Allen!

    June 23, 2010 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeffrey, an E-7 member of the military

      Yes Judy. I understand your issue with Mr. Allen, but I have seen both in action and they are cut from the same cloth. They would have done everything the same way. Mr. Allen is a very good leader and the press will make issues with the way he deals with the press, but there is no one better at getting things done.

      Very respectfully

      June 23, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  4. StIves

    Spoken like a true leader! Don't let words and actions come back to haunt you being a representative of the President of these United States. Follow orders if even if you think that they are wrong. That is what we do in the Military, we follow orders and do them well........we have not feelings, if so, they come after we accomplish the mission we are sent to do even in time of peace.

    June 23, 2010 at 11:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Ian

      Quite right in saying we should question our leaders but not so in the military. You follow orders and then complain later. It's the way they do it in the military like it or not.

      June 23, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • tunchris

      Well spoken pal. That is what we do in the Military. This is not a place for feelings. "Just do it". And by the way this is the United States Army not some third world or Banana Republic Army. McChrystal knows better and needs to go. There is no room for politics here. Whoever said he was the best for the job, of course there are hundreds of Generals waiting out there who can also deliver.

      June 23, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Just Me

      And, above all - do not criticize god!

      June 23, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • willowspring

      I fully agree with Gen. Honore, however doing something even when you know it is definitely wrong can be a slippery slope. That's what the brown shirts did; they obeyed Hitler without question.

      June 23, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Christopher

      Stlves, that is the LAST thing that you should do, just 'follow orders'. In fact, it is past time for the military to say that unless we are DIRECTLY attacked by another foreign country, they are NOT going to fight against another foreign country.
      Simply put, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan WERE NOT NECESSARY! We should have focused on rooting out Al-Qaida here in the United States, which is much easier to do then most people think it is.

      June 23, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Christopher: Having your opinion is one thing but when you raise your right hand entering the military you LOSE that opinion. You lose the freedom to protest. You have to. The military would and could not function if any opinionated person tried to act on their own account. As evil as some politicians can be you cannot go against their descisions. Generals are politicians too. A laiason between the U.S. Gov't and the military. So don't act like things must change. If it was to change then you give up your free lifestyle. Cause nobody will fight to protect you!

      June 23, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
  5. jordan

    so your job...or any military man's job is to not think, but simply do. Shouldn't we just develop droids to replace you then? I praise those who question why...that is what progresses our society. Speak your mind, question why, otherwise we are all slaves to another man...and that is NOT what we were mean to be

    June 23, 2010 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
    • HAWKPILOT

      Jordan, you missed the point. We as militarymembers are free thinkers, but in order to accomplish the mission there must be one voice or direction. This isn't a tupperware party, its war.

      June 23, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • CTYank

      Timing is everything here. When a subordinate is asked for advice, he is expected to give his best, then when decision is made and order is given, he is expected to say something like "yes, sir." Unless it's unlawful.
      It's not a democracy. (Read the UCMJ.) You take an oath which covers many duties. If you can't comply, you resign.

      June 23, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • AutosPak

      If everyone started thinking in the military and started questioning WHY? then jordan these wars won't take place. A soldier is to execute the orders the Why question is left to the politicians.

      June 23, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      Pay attention to the article, no one said the military did not question, everyone has conversations and disagreements. But when the president (or other boss) says that's it- this is the decision. Salute and move out to accomplish the mission.
      Androids can't replace thinking beings

      an old Sergeant

      June 23, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • tunchris

      You idiot. Those orders just don't emanate from the blues, they are well thought out. In Mcchrystals case tell me what part of the decision that was not acceptable to him, He requested for troops and he was given. Bad mouthing everyone around you to the press is the most dishonorable thing not only for a man in Uniform but every employee.

      June 23, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • poppy

      The military requires absolute obedience to orders for the protection of everyone. No soldier is an individual; every soldier is a part of something much bigger. Every soldier has every other soldier's back. This is not slavery; it is duty. Every soldier in our military agrees to this philosophy when they enlist. They are willing to give up individual rights in order to be a part of something much bigger and much more important than themselves. General McChrystal forgot this, and in doing so, he jeopardized the mission. He should be fired.

      June 23, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • uiopjkl

      You wouldn't run the military like an art studio any more than you would run an art studio like the military. It is a different culture and it's like that for a reason just like a creative organization is run a certain way with a certain culture.

      I am not military, but I can respect the way they do things. It is not a matter of being a free thinker or not. It is a matter of being part of an organization where accomplishing the mission is paramount to everything including the individual. This does require a strong respect for the chain of command as well.

      You can think freely and present your points, but at the end of the day, if the decision is not the one you want, you are expected to agree to disagree and commit to carrying out the decision.

      June 23, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Greg

      Jordan,

      I truly understand your rational way of thinking and to an extent you're correct. Every man or woman should think and speak accordingly. However, when a person raises his/her right hand and swear into the military there are a few words that makes his job different from civilians (he swears to obey the orders of the President of the United States). There is no left or right of this. When afforded the opportunity express his or her differences it is not done publicly. In most cases, a leader doesn't always have the time to explain why he/se order someone to do something but for the most part when time is available good leaders will explain the reason(s) for orders given.

      June 23, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • rhonda

      It is obvious you have no knowledge of collective thinking. The training a sevice member receives is the foundation of the orders that will be presented to them in a peace time and war time environment and YOU cary them out; simple as that. Objectors are removed from uniform and the rest of us resume duties as normal. Far from being a droid Jordan....

      June 23, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • DNSmith

      You must have a screw loose. Military men and women do think, and do so well. As others have pointed out, once a decision is made it is past thinking time, rather, it is time to act, and to act decisively. This is true in every situation. The dummy who whines and cries should be fired be he military or civilian. I think Obama is a fool based on his actions so far, especially in the gulf situation, but as Commander in Chief, a job he was elected to do, his orders must be followed. A good leader like McChristal always thinks, but he still must follow orders and if he believes them wrong he resigns, he doesn't whine and cry.

      June 23, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Loan Nguyen

      I really like your point, Jordan

      June 23, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • CB

      Question leaders? Jordan, that's why you either never served in the military or if you did serve and you questioned your leaders, you probably had a tough time.

      In this situation, is wasn't a matter of the General questioning the President's orders. He was running off at the mouth about the administration and he has to pay for it! That's the military way, like it or not!

      USMC until I die!

      June 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • JD

      And you Jordan it appears have never served in the military. When you put that uniform on there is code of standard you MUST follow. Until you put on the uniform and serve, I would advise you not post on any boards regarding this incident.

      June 23, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • FormerArmy

      Your's is not to wonder why, but to do or die.

      June 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jules Jean Jack

    This guy was an enforcer, I like him for that.
    Nonetheless, Assumption on the BFD bomb Biden dropped is a little off. It was NOT behind close doors. These people represent all of us. If our heads are acting in this manner what does that say about you and me??

    June 23, 2010 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
  7. AdamT

    Jordan, the JOB of soldiers is to REMEMBER and HONOR the OATH they took to join the ALL VOLUNTEER FORCE!!!!! Like it or not, Obama is the president and Commander in Chief, END OF STORY, there are NO ifs, ands or buts about it!!

    June 23, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • rhonda

      thansks AdamT................you hit the nail on the head

      June 23, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • CB

      Thank you Adam! I am getting tired of these cry babies who probably would have never made it in the military. When they find out you served, they always say "Thank you for your service". Do you know that I served in the military supporting my President no matter who it was and I took an oath that I would never speak out about him? These people disgust me!

      We are truely seeing the ignorance of some of our American people!

      June 23, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Abhijit Guha

    I don't think General Mccrystal should be sacked. He should be educated not to make comments outside his brief to the press which might jeopardise the nation's official policy in Afghanistan. The General should remember he is part of the establishment. Let him go back and do the job the nation has entrusted to him.

    June 23, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • OriginalO

      The Fact that his is a 4 Star General means that he has been trained in all these areas and has advisors. If he makes a flub like this then he needs to go. There is a chain of command in the military and he violated that. Most forget that promotion to General ranks are approved by Congress – thus making it a political appointment of sorts.

      June 23, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • rhonda

      That's the problem, can we trust him to do what he was assigned to do? The jurors, President Obama and his advisors, are deliberating that now..................................

      June 23, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patsy

      He was already educated on the matter BEOFRE he got the job. This is not a matter of I didn't know. It's a matter of he knew and he didn't care. That no good, time to go.

      June 23, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Anthony Ravenell

    You got to love this guy! He is a true leader as what he says and what he does is what it is. He does not talk out of both sides of his mouth and this is what is missing in the world today. Life is tough, but it does not have to be when people do what is right. The trouble in the world today's stems from SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE AT SOMETIME failed to do what is right and now the world is paying the price for it.

    June 23, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
  10. ping2low

    perhaps obama thinks its a tupperware party...

    June 23, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • tunchris

      Ping2low,

      Don't get petty here. This is not about Obama's personality. It is about the integrity of the Military which is at stake here. Thanks to loud mouth McChrystal or is it MCCHRISLAUGH. A four Star General in the Greatest Army in the world ? His role as a General goes beyond creating war strategies, it includes adminstation, management, etc. If he is not discplined, the world will see us, our military and everything we do differently.

      June 23, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marine13

      It sounds like you should follow your own advise and not get petty. The General spoke his mind and he will receive the appropriate punishment and then will settle into a well deserved retirement. The problem you libs are overlooking though is that he was correct. This President is out of his league while dealing with every issue facing this country today.

      June 23, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • CB

      Marine13, please tell me you are not still in my beloved Corps? Please tell me you just made the statement you made? If you are still in the Corps, do me this favor, go to your local newspaper and tell them what you really think of let's say your Commanding Officer and make sure it goes on record and get's published. Then let me know when you get busted down to private and lose 2 months pay. You want to know why? BECAUSE MARINES DON'T QUESTION THEIR LEADERS AND THEY DON'T TALK NEGATIVELY ABOUT THEM.

      USMC/E-5

      June 23, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  11. frenchbungler

    I am not surprised at anything I hear in this crappazzed world, whether it comes from generals, presidents, gurus, popes or theives/politicians and political wannabes...we now live in an insane world where presidents act like kids and generals need to be playing with tinkertoys....that sums it all up. Crooks and thieves and idiots abound....just laugh and let it all pass like a fart in the wind!!! Have a nice day!

    June 23, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mike in Texas

    I'm impress with him.
    He handle Katrina superbly.
    And diffused potential misunderstanding by getting the cowboys to lower their weapons to a less threatening posture.
    I think he also has the grit to neutralize a fighting threat.
    He may be the one that needs to be executing the war against insurgents.

    June 23, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • rhonda

      yes he did! he told them to put those D**n weapons down and kept marching thru and those civilian cops put those D**n weapons down.......................... that was toooooooooooooo funny to me

      June 23, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marine13

      He didn't tell the cops to put their weapons down. The cops were not disarmed by the military. Pure ignorance. He did a great job with Katrina and he is a born leader but he doesn't have the authority to do that.

      June 23, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
  13. frenchbungler

    and oh yea...try to stay away from hospitals where u might have ur left testicle sewn on where ur right arm was removed, by ACCIDENT!!!

    June 23, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Snow

    What GEN McChrystal did goes on everyday in the military. I know because I'm a Soldier. But when you take those kind of words to the press/media/magazine and make them public, then you better be ready to take the consequences that comes along with it. No matter how much we disagree with President Obama's administration, he is still our President. And GEN McChrystal knows better than anyone that we in the military live by a different set of rules and articles. If I would have said things like that about GEN McChrystal I would be in front of a court martial right now!

    June 23, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Chris

    You can complain in the military but you never complain in front of your soldiers which also means in public. It kills the morale and the confidence of the individuals in your command because you are not showing a unified front. Thinking is very much encouraged and opinions are welcome but once a decision is made and an order is given you follow it. There can only be one leader. That being said i have a lot of respect for this General and i hope he is not fired and he learns to keep the dirty laundry out of the press.

    June 23, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6