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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Military officers who denounce policies they helped implement are "cowardly," the top U.S. officer charged on Friday in an apparent reference to retired generals' attacks on Iraq war policy.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of staff, told U.S. Naval Academy graduates that military officers face two options when political leaders do not follow their advice -- obey orders or quit.
Mullen said officers should not follow orders only to later leave the military and publicly criticize the plans they implemented.
"We give our best advice beforehand," he said. "If it's followed, great. If it's not, we only have two choices -- obey the orders we have been given, carrying them out with the professionalism and loyalty they deserve, or vote with our feet.
"That's it. We don't get to debate those orders after the fact. We don't get to say, 'Well, it's not how I would have done it,' or, 'If they had only listened to me,'" he said in Annapolis, Maryland. "Too late at that point and too cowardly."
In the past four years, some retired military officers who were on active duty during the initial stages of the Iraq war have publicly criticized the Bush administration's policy and management of that conflict.
Mullen, a 1968 academy graduate, stressed the importance of keeping the military politically neutral.
The United States does that by prohibiting active-duty personnel from participating in partisan politics. They cannot take part in campaigns, make political speeches or write political articles. They do not publicly express political opinions and must provide unvarnished advice to civilian leaders free of political motive.
But once military service members retire, there are no rules barring such conduct.
For example, retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, has since called the Bush administration's war plan "catastrophically flawed."
That type of criticism has sparked a debate at the Pentagon about the proper political conduct of retired officers.
Mullen indicated he thought retired officers should not criticize war policies implemented under their command.
"Few things are more damaging to our democracy than a military officer who doesn't have the moral courage to stand up for what's right or the moral fiber to step aside when circumstances dictate," Mullen said.
Reporting and writing by Kristin Roberts; Editing by Bill Trott