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

    LTG Honore is a very wise man, he knows as a leader you have to pick your battles and keep things within your family and private. He states as below he did not always agree with the task at hand however going public was not his option.
    McCrystal should in the future take the LTG's following quote to heart and would no doubt be a more effective leader

    "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?

    June 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  2. D

    I am sure VP Biden has never stuck his foot in his mouth, why isn't he relieved of duty.. For example

    Joe Biden was giving shout-outs to local lawmakers during a rally in Columbia, Missouri, yesterday, when he got to Missouri senator Chuck Graham. "Senator Chuck Graham is here! Stand up, Chuck! Let 'em see ya!" he shouted spiritedly. And then: A look of absolute horror crosses his face. Graham is a paraplegic. "Oh, God love ya, what am I talking about?" Biden stammers, and then tries to save. "You can tell I'm new," he quips. "Everybody else stand up. Stand up for Chuck, everybody!" Nice.

    June 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  3. EA The Gardener

    I wonder what the general knows about oil????

    June 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. armygrl

    For the record, most military members, regardless of rank, hold college degrees and many speak at least 2 languages (common ones include Farsi, Pashtun, Arabic, Spanish, German and Korean). They know more about foreign cultures and policy than most of you so how 'bout you thank them for their sacrifice, be glad we don't have mandatory service like many countries and holster your opinions every once in a while. They put their lives, lifestyles and many freedoms that you enjoy on hold to go into dangerous places and risk their lives so you can enjoy the freedoms they cannot while they're serving. This narcissistic country is always fighting against itself by abusing rights to opinions – thank God the military doesn't work that way, thank God there are people who are willing to work together to accomplish the mission.
    - And for the record, the media just repeats what they hear and what they see. Honore is right, "If you don't want to see it or hear it, don't say it or do it."

    June 23, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Chris H

    The only politics here is the media game Obama is playing to cover his own butt from the oil spill.

    June 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Randy

    Just as this General should have kept his feelings about his Commander In Chief PRIVATE (and those people keeping private in private as well), our Commander in Chief shouldn't have been making ANY comments about his Generals UNTIL he spoke with them FIRST to get the "first hand skinny". I didn't like how the General publicly derided his Commanding Officer, and I sure didn't like the President making public statements about the General's prior to their meeting or first direct conversation.

    When the media becomes the "trusted" partner of the chain of command and its communications, we might as well get rid of all our defense programs because they will be useless if they have to rely on people who lie, exaggerate, misquote, misstate, in order to get headlines and ratings.

    June 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • "On the Cover of the Roll'in Stone!"

      The Trustless ones will be ruled by the Lawless one.
      -and so it begins a merger of politics, war, media, religion into the murky soul soup. WE can then blame society for this awkward evolution into a blend of an unfamiliar color.

      June 23, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Wayne

    Facts are facts armegrl. Good read.

    June 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  8. WinningSmile

    The phrase "The graveyards are full of indispensable people" , is from the Rubaiyat of the great Persian Poet and mathematician, Omar Khayyam. BTW, I am not Persian...or anywhere from that region... Just a lover of great romantic poetries.

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

      http://quotationsbook.com/quote/19783/:

      The graveyards are full of indispensable men.
      Gaulle, Charles De

      June 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  9. whatthe

    it's funny how everyone criticizes the president for the bp fund but yet criticize him even more for the lack of progress on the oil spill. i'm quite sure the president doesn't know diddly about leaking oil in the gulf. all he can do his bring on advisers, or should i say professionals in the field, to resolve the oil spill.

    it's equally as funny that republicans cry the government shouldn't meddle in the private sector but yet again, they criticize the president for his slow response to a private sector mess.

    give me a break.

    June 23, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  10. calvin morris

    Interesting. So let's go back to the second world war. The Nazi soldier was doing the right thing. He was "following orders". He is not responsible for the Jews that were killed. The cry is, the nazi soldiers were very bad soldiers. No!!! they were obeying soldiers.

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

    ok so if you were told to go shot yourself in the foot by this commander in chief would you?

    June 23, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Malik

      David, Please grow up. Military personnel have to follow ALL LAWFUL orders. Common Sense would tell you that shooting yourself in the foot is not lawful. I was in the service under Bush and I don't like them, but I would never openly question a lawful order coming from above, just do the job or get the F out

      June 23, 2010 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • armygrl

      Wow. Logic, coming from someone who can't speak English or write grammer in one short sentence. You're so smart. Thank God you're not in the military, or you probably would shoot yourself in the foot.

      June 23, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mike

    Amazing how little people know on this subject. Generals become Generals thru politics. My base Commander made 2 stars in 6 months. McChrystal is there for President Obama, nothing else. If their is that riff than Obama has the priviledge to get rid of a dissenter. The military is obliged to follow the orders of the U.S. Gov't. When you raise your right hand you lose the freedom to protest. You follow all direct orders given to you and you follow a chain of command. Having opinions and feelings are okay but voicing them inappropiately will get up you know what creek without a paddle and deservedly so. If soldiers could disobey any command at anytime trust me, you free lifestyle would be inexistent because we would live in an anarchy.

    June 23, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Waiting2C

    I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to a presentation by LTG Honore while providing audio-visual support for him a few years back. He was larger than life, and you couldn't help but like and respect the man, considering all he has done for his country and for the people caught up in the onslaught of Katrina. To accompany his powerpoint presentation, he requested two things – a microphone and a broom handle. He used both with incredible effectiveness. Top generals like Honore and McChrystal don't get to their level of command by chance. A prime example of this is Colin Powell. Anyone who has served in the military can attest to the tough road to the top. These generals are dedicated to the service of their country, and in times of war, it would be wise for our politicians to listen more closely to their recommendations and counsel. As Commander-in-chief, President Obama is the top man and final deciding authority, but as most top executives and commanders might tell you, the secret to successful leadership is surrounding yourself with good people, then letting them do the job you hired them for.

    June 23, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  14. slayga

    General Honore was a hell of a leader, i served under him as an E-5 when he was a Major. I had the priviledge to run into him again when he had 2 stars in South Korea.

    June 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Renaldo

    Admiral Thad Allen is an admiral (4 star) and one of the strongest flag rank officers in the military. A military service that also has a law enforcement mission. I'm an Air Force veteran but I support the Coasties a damn fine group of troops that have a large mission.

    June 23, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
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