Retired generals wary of Gates plan to downsize Pentagon from top
Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a retired Army officer, is familiar with the perks and pitfalls of power, having commanded tens of ...
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a retired Army officer, is familiar with the perks and pitfalls of power, having commanded tens of thousands of troops at Fort Benning, Ga., managed budgets exceeding $2 billion in Iraq and overseen layers upon layers of staff members who helped manage his professional duties and his personal life.
He has experienced the full range of lifestyles that come with military leadership, living at one point in an elegant antebellum mansion and at another with eight other officers crowded in a marble bathhouse behind one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces.
When Eaton traveled, he occasionally was able to justify the use of military aircraft but usually flew coach, he said. Today he lives on a pension worth 75 percent of his military salary, with health benefits that cover everything except dental and eye care for him and his wife.
"We are well-compensated, and we live very comfortable lives," Eaton said, referring to the military's most senior leaders. "But when you look at all the things going on around a general, the nation is getting a very, very high return on its money."
Not everyone at the Pentagon agrees. Two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a sweeping effort to improve efficiency that, among other things, takes aim at the military's sacrosanct corps of generals and admirals. He ordered his staff to cut at least 50 positions and made clear he would be happier if more were cut.
Pentagon officials said the measures were aimed at more than a number. Gates said he wanted to flatten a bureaucracy that had experienced significant "brass creep," swelling to "cumbersome and top-heavy proportions." He complained, for example, that a request to send a dog-handling team to Afghanistan goes through no fewer than five four-star headquarters.
Beyond that, Pentagon officials said, Gates wanted to push back against a culture of entitlement that had allowed some senior officers to pad their lifestyles and commands.
Gates is not the first defense secretary to order reductions at the military's highest levels. What is different is that his campaign comes as Congress confronts the largest budget deficit in U.S. history and the public grows increasingly impatient with what it perceives as government excess, even from a military at war.
According to the Pentagon, there are 963 generals and admirals leading the armed forces, about 100 more than on Sept. 11, 2001. Meanwhile, the overall number of active-duty personnel has declined to some 1.5 million from 2.2 million in 1985, even though the Army and Marine Corps have grown since the Sept. 11 attacks, to carry out the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The salary cap for generals is about $180,000, up from $130,000 a decade ago, said Todd Harrison at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a private research group. Like all officers and enlisted personnel, generals have the benefit of the military pension system, which gives everybody who serves 40 years a pension equal to their full pay.
"General Motors did not set out to become a benefits agency that occasionally built a car," said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general and head of an independent board appointed by Gates to examine Pentagon spending. "We don't want the Department of Defense to become a benefits agency that occasionally kills a terrorist."
Salaries and benefits, however, are the least of it. The biggest costs are created by the generals' staffs, including security details, senior advisers, communications teams, schedulers and personal aides. Harrison said the annual cost of salary, benefits and staff for each of the military's highest-ranking generals and admirals — 40 four-star and 146 three-star — easily exceeded $1 million.
"When you have a head dog, you also have a deputy dog, then a deputy deputy dog, and a deputy deputy deputy dog," Punaro said. "The layers are suffocating the bureaucracy."
Pentagon officials refused to speak on the record about how its generals live. Numerous active-duty generals were unwilling or unavailable to be interviewed.
Retired generals and former civilian officials at the Pentagon were more forthcoming. They said generals' commands and lifestyles varied according to rank and assignment, though the most senior uniformed leaders enjoyed privileges not unlike those typically associated with chief executives in major private businesses.
Maj. Gen. John Batiste, a retired Army officer who commanded a division in Iraq, said he had shunned a lot of the extravagances that came with his two stars, saying he polished his boots and pressed his uniforms.
"I believe in servant leadership," Batiste said, "and never forgetting who you are."
He acknowledged, however, that when he retired, it was difficult to adjust to such things as making travel arrangements and picking out what to wear to work.
"It was a hard transition," he said. "No question about it."
Several retired generals expressed empathy with the overall goals of Gates' effort, saying they agreed there was lots of room to downsize the Pentagon, particularly the civilian bureaucracy, which Gates also has pledged to do.
Still, their comments made clear that if Gates was preparing to push against a culture of entitlement, he should prepare to get pushed as well.
In a rapid-fire rundown of his life, Gen. Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine who once led the U.S. Central Command, said: "I've lived in 30 houses; some of them were nice, some were in God-awful places. The drapes never fit, the furniture is never quite right. My kids had to go from school to school. I was shot in Somalia.
"Lots of generals have made the same sacrifices. Many of us have children in the military, making the same sacrifices."
Then he asked, rhetorically, "And people think we have some sense of entitlement?"
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.
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