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. John V.

    General, if you read this, I would love for you to take over at the gulf. I saw you on the cnn the other day and loved how you would take on the mission of defeating the oil. Was a great idea. I was in the military myself and wanted to say drive on solider drive on....:) Oh during the Katrina ordeal you did a outstanding job.:) Loved your choice of words once, that became a house hold saying ' YOU CAN'T FIX STUPID' lol I have a few of those sayings as well, but that one tops them all in my book...
    Take care and be safe.

    John

    June 23, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Greg

    I think General McCrystal should be made an example of to the rest of those much lower ranking soldiers. And I disagree with Guha, If as a General he has to be educated not to make comments like that to the press then he shouldn't be a General. Respect the Office of the Presidency. Honore should be advising the President

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

      Hooah!!!

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

      dude you are a sheep!!! McChrystal is a REAL leader not some draft dodger etc like many of our so called commanders in chief!! Gen McChrystal has the backbone and is a real man to tell the truth in a day and age when reality everything is everywhere why is it that one of the best leaders of our time has to resign because he told the truth and the powers that be ego's were bruised. This is nothing more than an abuse of power – power and control all base din fear

      June 23, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Spendlove

    I have a lot of respect for General Honore, he walks the walk.

    June 23, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Carlton

    For all none military people you swear to OBEY the President of the United States (no matter who it is) and the Officers appointed over you against all enemies foreign and domestic. This is to maintain proper order and discipline. Something many Americans lack and don't understand!!! Retired U.S. Army!!!

    June 23, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jed

      I say hooah!

      June 23, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Raiche58

    Generals can disagree with the Commander In Chief, they just have to have the courage to do it directly and/or face to face with the CIC and the executive team-not every Tom, Deidre, and Harry on their staff plus the media.

    June 23, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Greg

      Hooah! All the way!!

      June 23, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
  6. d. grand

    why are we not hearing more about paying millions of dollars per week to buy safe travel for military supplies, much of which goes to our enemy the taliban? if mccrystal was involved with this he should be fired regardless of his comments.

    June 23, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  7. c.i.a.

    bunch of gouverment meat,bunch of robots with no feeling this is not human. military arehere to kill not serve and protect

    June 23, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Believer in Judgement day

    General McCrystal is a great soldier and he is at the right place at the right time...look at General Patton and MacArthur...we would not have won the war without them and yet they were arrogant and obstinate. McCrystal is great gladiator and he is doing what he is supposed to do... Politics is a dirty game and he doesn't want to be part of it. Leave the General alone.

    June 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • glenn

      Great point, I was thinking the same .I donot think any of the reporters know any history at all . Have not heard one of them bring up this comparison.

      June 23, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rikka

      MacArthur was stripped of command when he got out of hand in Korea.

      June 23, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Cheryl

    Thank you Retired Lt. General. Russell Honore and every other member of the United States Military! Your lives, blood, sweat and tears allow the rest of the United States: "That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

    June 23, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Josh

    General McCrystal made a bad mistake. In his position he should never make public his opinions about what is going on. But I believe it would be a greater mistake by the President not to suck it up and try to learn from someone who knows a lot more about how to conduct a war than he does. I don't think that General McCrystal should get off scot free, but if he is lost because of this I believe that would be a greater lost to our efforts than the bruised ego of the President..

    June 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jaimondrow

    US military personnel shouldn't take sides in politics because we don't want our military taking sides in elections...

    June 23, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carole Clarke

      Very good comment. My father was 34 years in the Army and he and my mother never voted because he was career military and did not want to affect the vote in any way. A bit extreme but that was them. My sister and I vote but we are not in uniform. If our military is not subordinate to the civilian command we become a banana republic. It is the people's responsibility to do their homework and elect the best possible candidates. If they don't we all suffer. I cringe when I see a candidate touted because they are "cute" or telegenic or the media likes them. What does that say about the voters? It's no crime to be homely, especially if you've got the right stuff. It rests with the voters.

      June 23, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • CoolBeans

      Carole Clarke, I meant to 'reply' but i pushed "report abuse" so my bad!
      Jaimondrow, Very true. But becoming a General and being a General is nearly entirely politics these days. For a senior officer to get promoted they need the right resume and so they need the right assignments.. these assignments vary in importance and are chosen by higher-ups and chosen very carefully so that the "right" people are groomed.

      June 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mac65

    How long is it going to take for this Administration to recognize that Gen Honore is the real deal. The way he drew up the plans for the battle on the oil really impressed me and I bet somewhere in that great military mind of his, he has a plan to carry out the rest of the Afghan mission and allow us to exit/depart with honor and a sense of accomplishment. Something I can not imagine with this current leadership. BRING HONORE BACK!

    June 23, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
  13. El Vato

    While it may be true that the military is subordinate to the Commander in Chief, it is also obvious that the President's "Rules of Engagement Policy" is seriously compromising the efforts of Special Operations forces on patrols. Read the article. When criticized, even if it is done publically or outside of the Chain of Command, a great leader should always ask the question: Is the criticism true? The reason this entire matter has come to such a critcal point is not that McCrystal and his aides and soldiers in the field disagree with President Obama, it is much more serious than that. THEY DON'T RESPECT HIM AS A LEADER OR A MAN! That is what is really being left unsaid is it not.

    We have now found that The President is an eloquent speaker and nothing more. He is not a Leader of Men / Women. He was elected by modern marketing technique and now "We the People" are reaping the consequences of electing someone who appeals to our need for our President to be a "cool sophisticated" guy so we can "relate" to him. Please...As cool a guy Obama may be, is anyone really comfortable with him trying to execute a war while your kids are on the battlefield? His Generals don't respect him ! Get it. How do you think the Sergeant feels when he has to go out on patrol?

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

      Ummmm....the Rules of Engagement were drawn up by McChrystal, not the President. Please get your facts straight before you go shooting off your mouth...

      June 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  14. MilitaryMan

    Politic Aside!!! Rather you agree with the chain of command of not, no man is greater than the mission. McCrystal has lost his mind. If McCrystal was a private they would have him in the brig so fast his head would spin. No one agrees with everything the chain of command does. A lot of you folk out there are working people. I dare you to go to your job and talk trash. The POTUS deserves your respect. If you are a true AMERICAN you respect the office regardless if you respect the mine and his politics. There is a more deserving General ready and eager to get in there a follow the mission

    June 23, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  15. bigdawg

    Remember, my fellow Americans, that we wouldn't be in this mess in Afghanistan if W and Cheney hadn't decided to start a needless war in Iraq. We had the backing of the entire world when we went to Afghanistan in 2002, but W and Cheney just couldn't stand our oil being under the Saddam's feet. So, the started their war for oil and took the world's eyes off Afghanistan long enough for the Taliban to regroup and recruit!
    If we'd "stayed the course" in Afghanistan in 2002, we wouldn't be in this mess today! And that's THE TRUTH!!!

    June 23, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rush'in to cure

      We wouldn't be covered in Oil if it wasn't for Oil Slick Willy Clinton allowing for deep sea drilling. Lets not to mention Clinton also allowed the repeal of Glass-Stegal Act in 1998 which allowed for banks and brokerage to merge and making banks take more risk..

      June 23, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • AngieS

      Lets also remember that it was W and Cheney who allowed for the deregulation of the oil industry and decided that companies like BP should not have to foot the $500k bill for an acoustic trigger blow-out preventer as it was "just too expensive" for a $17 BILLION-PER-YEAR compay to be burdened with.

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