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. bigdawg

    So, El Vato, you would've trusted you kids to the idiot Bush and the draft-dodger Cheney?

    June 23, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • George Mac

      Hey bigdawg, if W is an idiot what your boy Oby is????

      June 23, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • AngieS

      Hmmm...President Obama is 1) Thoughtful, 2) Intelligent, 3) Educated, 4) Truly Disinterested, 5) Careful, 6) Methodical...the list goes on and on. Compare this to the illiterate, knee-jerk, draft-dodging, embarrassment on the world stage, idiot cowboy who just couldn't do anything to please his daddy that W was and I'll take Harvard any day of the week!

      June 23, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
  2. rhonda

    only a real soldier can understand.......................... Hooah!....................

    June 23, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
  3. bigdawg

    I worked for the Army for 25 years and I understand completely. Much more than the average American! To most Americans, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are background noise. They've gone on for so long that we're all just numb to anything that happens over there (except for the 2 percent of families who have a service member). We're too busy with our iPads and texting and Lady Gaga's next "adventure" that we forget we have hundreds of thousands of Americans in harms way!

    June 23, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • AngieS

      Not true Bigdawg...as an "average American" the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are of the utmost concern and importance. This scandal into which a decorated, intelligent, educated veteran soldier like General McChrystal knowingly walked has both confused and disheartened me. All of the men and women serving our country must be hanging their heads in shame right now, as am I for the disgraceful vignette that a trusted and capable man like McChrystal has painted of our country. It is a slap to all who serve without regret, sacrifice without stint, and obey without question.

      June 23, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tyler T.

      AngieS Do you speak for america?? Do you know what is going on AT ALL? Or do you process everything at face value. A vignette- is used in psychology experiments to collect information by presenting "hypothetical" and real situations and asking research participants a set of questions to reveal their perceptions and values. What do you think you are doing right now in these comment pages. We (americans) are simply participants in the american dream, chill I know its hot out there..

      June 23, 2010 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
  4. MilitaryMan

    Right move the President made. McCrystal should be relieved. If military men and women start politicking they lose the effectiveness to fight. The integrity of the chain of command must maintain its strength. Stay strong...Go Navy

    June 23, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Sony D

    General McCrystal is highly trained soldier. He knew what he was saying and to whom he was saying it to. I think he's tired and want to be released or be asked to resign. A soldier in his position don't make mistakes like he did,he knows better. It cost lives! He's not a Private, he's a General. But it's obvious, he's not perfect. It's up to the President to decide his punishment.

    June 23, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • AngieS

      I agree, but as a soldier and a commander he needed to man-up and do the right thing: either keep his thoughts to himself or ask to be relieved. It is the right of every member of our volunteer military to resign a command for which they do not feel they can commit their utmost as nothing less is expected of every man and woman in uniform.

      June 23, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  6. D.Pak Chaudra

    Well understandable the frusteration w/ pres. admin. It is just splendid the way Barry and Biden shoot their water guns all over the Rose garden like a bunch of kids.

    Funny Gen. McCrystal acted more like a Capt. in his interview with Rolling Stone pointing out everthing most americans feel about this admin. THANK YOU!! Capt. Obvious for your observations! You will be missed.

    June 23, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • AngieS

      I hate to tell you this, but, contrary to your little belief most of us DO NOT harbor any concerns or questions about the way this administration is handling the mess that was left to us by W and Cheney. In fact we are quite proud of the intelligent and mature way that President Obama has taken on the situation and feel that he will do the very best that can be done both for the United States and for Afghanistan. Please don't presume to speak for the majority of the country when you so clearly do not represent us.

      June 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rose Moette

      AngieS your webby hollow hackle is getting in the way of your clarity, it appears. Clearly you are not seriously saying that all the Golf games, water fights, soccer tourneys that our "leaders" are enjoying is ok with you? While oil is gushing out of that hole in the earth and we waste money on a war started by W. The shallowness of your answers are hazy, do you hate war, pollution, or do you just hate people based on political alignment? What do you stand for, what is your cause sister....

      June 23, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
  7. TLL

    It has to be hard to listen to what the politicians "demand" and still have to do what's right for the troops/mission.

    More and more of our congress are trying to write policy on our military and have no fricken clue at what they do. 98% of them have never been to the GHAN or Iraq to see how they operate. The only time you see them there is if they are running for president.

    June 23, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. M. Michele Brown Sr.

    I had the distinct honor of serving with LTG Honore and it was always understand clearly that the mission comes first and we will deal with everything after that..with that said, we do not question our Chain of Command..simply put EXECUTE and set the examples that are worthy of emulation..

    June 23, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  9. bigdawg

    I, too, worked with LTG Honore at 1st Army and during Katrina. He was born to run that task force!

    June 23, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. MilitaryMan

    Sony D, have you talk trash about your boss to get fire? Of course, you position yourself for transition, network, and secure another position. Think about what you're saying. These type of action will make the history books. This ain't quitting your job at the local burger joint. McCrystal is a professional soldier. I am sure he does not want to be a General whose spectacular military career to be remember for getting fired for PUBLICLY talking trash about a the Pres.

    June 23, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  11. bigdawg

    Bush and Cheney are war criminals and should be prosecuted as such!

    June 23, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • AngieS

      Absolutely!!

      June 23, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Frustrated

    It's unfortunate that he was dismissed. More power to him for speaking his mind. The inadequencies of the administration must be brought out into the open. When you let politicians run a war then you place your men in danger not to mention your country. They are playing with people's lives. I thought we learned that in Vietnam

    June 23, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. SYSPROG

    Amazing comments. The military is allowed to THINK, they are allowed to DEBATE but they are to do it in PRIVATE. This is not a banana republic. Thad Allen is not a jerk. Even I daresay, McChrystal is not a jerk. He fostered an environment that allowed his soldiers to speak out of turn. He knew better and now he is gone. It doesn't make ANY OF THEM, McChrystal, Obama, Eikenberry, etal, JERKS. It makes them human, it makes them take responsibility for their actions. I am so TIRED of the crap when you don't LIKE someone. When will we EVER get back to discussing ISSUES?

    June 23, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  14. bigdawg

    Frustrated, where were you during Bush/Cheney's war for oil in Iraq?

    June 23, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • 4 stack- Baconator

      Big Dawg, same can be said to you when we were in Somali or Bosnia and the first Gulf War...Dude give it a rest.

      June 23, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Hey!

    Why am I not surprised that Honore figured out how to turn the McChrystal resignation into way to get his name in the news? Does he have a contract with CNN to comment on this stuff?

    June 23, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • AngieS

      Read the article idiot...it says that Honore has a contract with CNN and THEY ASKED HIM TO COMMENT.

      June 23, 2010 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
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