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

    Hey Hey! Yes, he DOES have a contract with CNN, and CNN asked him to comment. He didn't call CNN and demand that they print this article. You should consider yourself damn lucky to have a man such as Honore watching America's back!

    June 23, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hey!

      Oh. Well, that explains it then.

      Watching our back? What is it that Honore does these days?

      June 23, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Mike

    I have to say, I served in Iraq 2003 – 2005, and I remember several times when NOT following orders kept people alive. There are idiots all the way up the chain of command. McChrystal is not one of them. Unfortunately, the President is. This is a guy who has served in combat several times over. Commanded in combat. He's a Special Forces soldier. They are trained to think outside of the box (I should say allowed). This is a smart guy. We have civilians make policy, which is fine. But military strategy should be executed by the generals. You want to go into Afghanistan? Fine. This is how we're going to do it.

    June 23, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Darrell

      Keep this in mind that General's are not elected, they serve at the PLEASURE of the President. President Obama is the Commander in Chief and in CHARGE of the war. Combat training is NOT a requirement for the Office of President, if that were the case we would have elected what's his name. There is a good reason the Commander in Chief is a CIVILIAN.

      June 23, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hey!

      Agree!

      Iraq 2004-2005

      June 23, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • AngieS

      The military policy was made by and executed by General McChrystal, himself, idiot! None of this was made by the President. In fact McChrystal faced serious criticism over his Rules of Engagement because soldiers accused HIM of making their jobs harder and of not allowing them to defend themselves. The civilian government is in charge of the military. Period. There are very good reasons and vast historical precedents for this – try reading a book, sometime! – and if McChrystal didn't like it he needed to man-up and resign. I agree that he is an intelligent, experienced, heroic soldier and a good leader of military units. But he knew exactly what he was doing and he knows the UCMJ like the back of his hand. He knew better. He chose to mouth-off in a very dangerous game of chicken and the President was forced to call his bluff.

      June 23, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Good Riddance

    Good riddance to the general and hopefully all of his insubordiante yes men who chirped in with their BS!!!!

    June 23, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Bush The Failure

    It is evident the rules and policies of the US Military wasn't upheld by this general McCrystalBall. He was kicked to the curb and rightfully so. If you can't follow the policies and rules then it it time to quit or be fired. Nothing can be said to debate this.... either follow the rules and policies or get FIRED!

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

      OR this is the beginning of the last wheel to come off the Barry's Banana Bus. McCrystal did this on purpose (why else whould you let an anti-war mag follow you) and more will come of that later. Lets remember, No respect was given to him when he was left on a tarmac by some civilian who happen to become president.

      June 23, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Malik

    Mike, you might know a story here and there of some lives being saved by not following orders and I can tell you a story about how many Confederate soldiers lost their lives because they didn't. There's always an anomaly Mike, you need to look at the bigger picture. As a Marine, I was allowed to respectfully voice my concerns, opinions or strategies when the opportunity presented itself in private, but not publicly. Now as a civilian, I can openly criticize my elected leaders, the military make sure I have that right, but they can't practice it, and I'm ok with that

    June 23, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  6. "On the Cover of the Roll'in Stone!"

    The Trustless will be ruled by the Lawless ones..

    June 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Josette Grimsley

    typo:
    never praise OR criticize.... not praise OF criticise

    June 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. c

    to hell with this trator he need to go suck on bush.

    June 23, 2010 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. "Roll'in on the river"

    Doesn't really matter...u think anything is going to change in Afgan. We should have gotten out of there a long time ago. Who are we really liberating & from what? This is an unfunded and costly war. We could be using these resources elsewhere. Gen. Petraus, I just hope he doesn't pass out again... may God help him.

    June 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. GaryNH

    Obama is the traitor, if he didn't trust the military in the field he should have sent someone else less qualified to judge the situation. As it was, all Obama did was give the enemy time to re-arm, and re-man.. All American blood goes directly to Obama's ignorant hands. IMO

    June 23, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • AngieS

      Idiot! The President *DID* trust McChrystal and this is how the General repaid him.

      June 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  11. CoolBeans

    UCMJ pretty much requires the resignation of McCrystal. However, McCrystal has been given the task to command an army through hell with both hands tied behind his back–fighting a counter insurgency war, guerilla war, and war on terror. None of these operations are easy to do and requires incredible patience, courage, and the stomach to see it through. You cant fight a counter insurgency war and say we are pulling out in a year. Doesn’t work that way. McCrystal was frustrated with what he was given and the lack of attention he received from the white house didnt help. Obama has met with McCrystal more times in the past week than he has in the past year, and waited until after the elections to send the surge troops to Afghanistan. We have a thin-skinned CIC who only responds to the whims of his media friends and when his expert makes it public that he disagrees with the president– only than does the president do anything. I'd rather the commanding Gen speak out while he and his troops are getting the short end of the stick instead of quietly resigning only to allow the continuation of half-a** military campaign by politicians. What would we have done in Vietnam if a General said the President is handling the war poorly and their should be fewer troops and less troops involvement? Probably give him a medal. There wasn’t much said about Generals speaking out against Bush either. I don’t get it. So sometimes its ok for a commander to speak out but other times not??? The fact is Generals have a duty to serve their CIC and their country but they also have the job and responsibility to insure that their men are sacrificing their lives for a just cause and not being needlessly killed by weak politicians with even weaker stomachs.. more often than not these to lines cross and it is difficult for me to choose what action the General to take.
    Sgt. 10th Mountain Light Inf.

    June 23, 2010 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • "Keep roll'in, roll'in, roll'in"

      You got my vote CoolBeans..

      June 23, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Wayne

    It aint who you know but who ya blow that puts you on top, but when it comes to actually getting the job done, it's the man who is not afraid to say what needs to be said. Having the balls to say it to the face of the person who needs to hear it is what makes the difference. That is a Hillary Clinton method.

    June 23, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Willie Dee

      Damn Right Wayne and Hillary has those balls to do it!

      June 23, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Wayne

    Never, ever trust
    the media. Not a one
    of them.

    June 23, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Wayne

    Much larger than Bills
    but she went out of
    the country to say what
    should have been said
    in Arizona.

    June 23, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  15. V Saxena

    Fascinating piece. I appreciate the insight into military culture.

    June 23, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
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