General Ham Is Still Commander of U.S. Africa Command
So did General Ham, the commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), really get fired? In fact, the answer to that question is no. General Ham is still the active commander of AFRICOM.
Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) appeared on the Howie Carr radio talk show on 31 October. Mr. Carr asked Representative Chaffetz about the rumors that General Ham had been forced out. Representative Chaffetz answered to the effect that he had visited General Ham in Stuttgart (headquarters for the Africa Command) on about 1 October; the two of them traveled to Libya, where General Ham was very much in command. (Audio of the interview is here.)
The Washington Times had previously reported (29 October) that Representative Chaffetz "said that General Ham told him during a visit to Libya that he had never been asked to provide military support for the Americans under attack in Benghazi." Representative Chaffetz reiterated this during the interview with Mr. Carr.
As of this writing, General Ham is still in command of the U.S. Africa Command. This is a definitive answer -- one of the few definitive answers available to us about the Benghazi scandal.
The Benghazi situation is, per the liberal press, obscured by the "fog of war." (See, for example, this Huffington Post piece.) I think a more apt description is obscured by the fog of politics -- the politics of the most transparent administration of all time.
Consider General Ham's assertion that he had not been asked to support the Americans being attacked in Benghazi. This tells us very little, if anything. We know there was no support rendered, and we suspect that the administration never intended to offer support. More appropriate questions for General Ham would have been:
- Did you have available assets and resources to mount a supporting mission?
- Were you preparing to engage?
- Were you asked (ordered) to stand down?
General Ham might not be permitted to answer these questions. I call it the General Officer's Dilemma, but more on that later.
General Ham is retiring sometime in the spring of 2013. There are puzzling aspects to the various reports of his pending retirement. In a 30 October comment to a press release, the public affairs officer (PAO) of AFRICOM quoted General Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying:
General Ham's departure is part of routine succession planning that has been on going since July. He continues to serve in AFRICOM with my complete confidence.
General Dempsey, like several others in recent releases, speaks of a long-term plan for retirement but makes no mention of why retirement would be necessary. There are several mandatory retirement markers such as age, length of service, and length of time in grade. As far as I know, none of these apply to General Ham, and even if one did, it could be easily waived.
The Washington Times, in an article dated 28 October, addressed the typical length of a tour as AFRICOM commander. They referenced a document titled "Manpower and Personnel Actions Involving General and Flag Officers" that states that "the tour length for combatant commanders and Defense agency directors is three years." I am told (see the comments to my original article) that had there been a known retirement date that precluded his serving three years, he would not have been appointed to the slot. General Ham has less than two years in the assignment and will have just two years when he retires. Why is his term so short?
So far, we have been discussing mandatory or pre-planned retirement. The previously linked 29 October Washington Times article included the following:
[O]n Monday October 29 a defense official told the Washington Times that "the decision [to leave AFRICOM] was made by General Ham. He ably served the nation for nearly forty years and retires after a distinguished career."
This sounds like General Ham made the personal decision to retire early. If so, why? And if he had so decided in July as implied by General Dempsey, why was the announcement delayed until this time, given the brouhaha over Benghazi?
Let me return to the General Officer's Dilemma. A combatant commander such as General Ham commands enough firepower to stop Genghis Khan and his entire Golden Hoard dead in their tracks. One does not reach General Ham's level of responsibility without talent, luck, and political acumen. But when all is said and done, General Ham and others at that level are simply soldiers, subordinate to civilian authority. God bless them, this is a large part of American exceptionalism.
Even so, there will be occasions where the combatant commander disagrees with the civilian authority. Secretary of Defense Panetta reported that he had met with Generals Dempsey and Ham and that the three of them "felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation." (See the New York Times article of 25 October.) The impression being given by Mr. Panetta is that the three of them agreed upon the course of action. This is not necessarily true. Mr. Panetta is in charge. Behind closed doors there may have been vehement disagreement, allowable to the extent permitted by the management style of the senior person. Once the senior person makes his decision, his subordinates are expected to show unanimity in public. This is the General Officer's Dilemma. What if he cannot accept the superior's decision? He must, in good conscience, resign (assuming he has not been fired beforehand).
If the superior's decision is illegal, the officer must disobey. Often, legality is not clear. Take the Benghazi situation. Was it illegal to withhold support from our people on the ground? Distasteful, certainly. Despicable? I would say so. Illegal? Probably not.
There is an additional dimension to this discussion. In the private sector, long-term employees become vested in their retirement rights. It is not exactly the same for a military officer. Typically, a military officer with a clean slate retires at the highest rank held. If there is a cloud, such as the potential of going public with a disagreement, the officer's retirement can be based on a lower rank, typically one grade down. There are other means of coercion; security matters comes to mind.
One wonders that we get such good, dedicated people to serve in our military. Thank you all for your service.
Mike Johnson is a concerned citizen, a small-government conservative, and a live-free-or-die resident of New Hampshire. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.