NEW YORK - Since publicly questioning whether the Pentagon committed enough force to Iraq on NBC News, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey said he's received waves of supportive e-mails from active and retired military people.
He also knows he's infuriated some top brass, and ignited a debate over the roles of the dozens of former officers now earning paychecks from media organizations to explain war to the uninitiated.
They've become fixtures on television during the past week, standing over maps of Iraq with pointers, explaining military terminology and speculating about battle strategy.
McCaffrey and former Desert Storm commander Norman Schwarzkopf have given NBC and MSNBC star power, with a deep bench including former nuclear weapons inspector David Kay. ABC News has recently retired experts like Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold and Gen. Charles Horner. CBS has former NATO commander Gen. William "Buck" Kernan and Gen. Joseph Ralston.
CNN's prime-time star is former Gen. Wesley Clark, who directed NATO forces in Kosovo. Gravel-voiced counterterrorist expert Lt. Col. Bill Cowan appears on Fox News Channel.
"Every general who ever worked for me is now on some network commenting on the daily battle," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday.
McCaffrey, President Clinton's top anti-drug adviser and now a teacher at West Point, said he believes that the administration risked "a political and military disaster" if assumptions that Iraqis wouldn't fight hard proved untrue. He ultimately believes the coalition will prevail.
The combative McCaffrey, on the "Today" show on Tuesday, bristled when host Katie Couric referred to "armchair generals."
"Remember, Katie, I'm not an armchair general," he said. "I've had three combat tours and been wounded three times."
Clark, on CNN, has similarly questioned whether the U.S. should have sent in more personnel.
"Our primary loyalty is to the armed forces, there's no question - not to the channels we're with or the administration," McCaffrey said.
Yet some of the criticism has gotten under the skin of war supporters. Retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, who works at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank, said the commentators shouldn't question the war plans.
Ralston said he believes his role as a CBS analyst is to explain the issues but not give his opinions.
The active-duty officials formulating the war plan are privy to more information than retired officers, he said.
"I think it's being a little bit presumptuous to think we can sit here in an air-conditioned office with the limited amount of information we've got and make some pronouncements that General (Tommy) Franks is all screwed up on this and not doing it right," Ralston said. "I just think it's wrong."
Col. Jay DeFrank, director of press operations at the Department of Defense, said he expects retired officials to have different points of view. "An informed debate is a foundation of democracy," he said.
In general, the retired officials perform a great service, he said. The Pentagon plainly doesn't object to having its friends explain things on TV. CBS' Kernan, who retired only last year, said he didn't consider becoming a television analyst until his friend, Iraq war commander Franks, suggested it.
Clark said he doesn't measure his performance on whether he supports or opposes a particular Pentagon line.
"It's possible to be objective and still be loyal to the people and organizations that you love," he said.
McCaffrey said his distance from the military - he's been retired for seven years - may give him an independence that more recent retirees lack. He didn't work on the current war plans and wasn't appointed to jobs by people who put them in place.
Former U.S. Army Gen. John N. Abrams, an analyst for The Associated Press, said he considered McCaffrey a credible source. Abrams also believes that more personnel should have been committed to the war effort.
"We've all been very supportive," Abrams said. "But I think there's a concern that's growing about how optimistic (the military's) assumptions were."