Firing the Wrong General

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Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey

Defense Secretary Robert Gates stunned an Army already reeling over charges it mistreated wounded Iraq war veterans when he ousted Army Secretary Francis Harvey Friday afternoon. Harvey, the Army's civilian leader, was by far the most senior official taken to task following reports that outpatients at the Army's Walter Reed hospital in Washington had been poorly treated while living in squalid conditions.

Although the Pentagon's formal statement said Harvey had submitted his resignation, Pentagon officials made it clear he had been asked to do so by Gates. The Defense Secretary strongly implied in his statement that he wasn't pleased by Harvey's decision on Thursday to cashier the two-star general in charge of Walter Reed and replace him, temporarily, with a three-star general who had run the hospital before him. Harvey, who had served as Army secretary since late 2004, was succeeded in an acting capacity by Pete Geren, currently the under secretary of the Army.

"I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed," Gates said in his Friday afternoon statement. "Some have shown too much defensiveness and have not shown enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems." While zinging the Army leadership, Gates praised the medical staff at Walter Reed for "their professionalism and dedication to providing caring treatment."

The string of firings is raising questions about just who is being held accountable as the nation prepares to enter its fifth year of the war in Iraq. Harvey is gone, and the career of the Walter Reed commander he fired Thursday, Major General George Weightman, is all but over. The temporary Walter Reed boss, Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley is likely to meet the same fate. Yet, as the war the Bush administration predicted would be a "cakewalk" before it began has bogged down, not a single civilian boss or top military commander has taken a similar fall.

The contrast seems stark. Tommy Franks, the Army general who as chief of Central Command scuttled Anthony Zinni's more robust war plan and agreed with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that invasion-lite was the way to go, got the Presidential Medal of Freedom. So did former CIA chief George ("Slam Dunk") Tenet and L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer, who as Iraqi viceroy fired the entire Iraqi army, a move now widely seen as laying the groundwork for a sustained insurgency.

Franks' successor, John Abizaid, is by all accounts a fine Army officer, but one who spent years stressing the need for a "light footprint" inside Iraq that dragged out the death and dying on both sides. He'll retire soon to praise and pension. And General George Casey, Abizaid's underling and overall commander inside Iraq for the past 30 months, has just won promotion to Army chief of staff.

That's why the firing of Weightman — who ran Walter Reed Army Medical Center for the past six months — seemed so out of line. Harvey canned him 10 days after the Washington Post exposed the poor living conditions — and lassez-faire attitude from hospital staff — that many outpatients experienced. Harvey replaced Weightman with Kiley, the commander of U.S. Medical Command, who had run Walter Reed from 2002 to 2004. Late Friday, the Army announced that Major General Eric Schoomaker, an Army doctor and younger brother of the current Army chief of staff, would become Walter Reed's new commander.

Some Pentagon officials praise Gates' emphasis on accountability; he seems less inclined than Rumsfeld to tolerate snafus. But more than a handful of people inside the Pentagon are wondering whether the new boss will ever apply the same standard to those actually waging the war.