WASHINGTON — The call by retired generals for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's resignation is more than an effort to assign blame for the problems that the United States has encountered in Iraq. It also reflects concern that military voices are not being given sufficient weight in the Bush administration's deliberations and unease about the important decisions that lie ahead.

In defending Rumsfeld, President Bush has asserted that the defense secretary relies on his commanders in the field. And yet the retired generals include the former commanders of two Army divisions in Iraq and an officer who trained the Iraqi military — generals who argued that the military's assessments have been discounted or ignored.

The retired generals, in effect, have declared Rumsfeld unfit to lead the nation's military forces as the United States faces crucial decisions on how to extricate itself from Iraq and what to do about Iran's nuclear program. The retired officers have spoken in only general terms about the need to fashion an effective military and political strategy for the Middle East region. But there is an array of looming decisions.

On Iraq, the United States needs to determine how quickly it can reduce its forces, an issue that pits the political pressure in an election year for a speedy troop drawdown against concerns that Iraqi forces must be ready to replace the American ones.

For military officers, the decisions facing the United States are replete with risk. If U.S. forces are reduced or repositioned within Iraq before Iraqi forces are able to fill the vacuum, sectarian violence could escalate. At worst, a heightened level of violence could cut short withdrawals and force the Pentagon to send reinforcements into Iraq.

On Iran, which the dissenting generals have not addressed directly, the United States must decide how forceful a position to take to head off Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program. Bush has played down the possibility of military action, but with little progress in resolving the dispute through diplomacy the option of turning to airstrikes is unlikely to go away. In mapping a strategy for Iran, the United States must balance its apprehension about the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran against the risk that military strikes against Iranian nuclear installations could lead to a wider war and fan regional unrest.

U.S. military officers in general have a deep respect for civilian authority and a tradition of keeping their differences over policy within the family. They tend to believe that operating within the system is a more effective means of influencing the military decisions than resigning in protest. During extraordinary debates over military strategy, however, some line officers have faulted the generals for not taking a forceful stand. H.R. McMaster, an Army officer, wrote a detailed book titled "Dereliction of Duty," published in 1997 and well-regarded in military circles, that asserted that the Joint Chiefs of Staff failed to speak out about the missteps in Vietnam.

The retired generals who have come forward recently concerning Iraq say that their criticism has not been coordinated. Rather, the first critiques seem to have encouraged others, who have been wrestling privately over whether to air their grievances publicly.

The subtext in the recent criticism of Rumsfeld is that military leaders have also been at fault for not expressing their concerns earlier.

In his recent essay in Time magazine, retired Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold of the Marine Corps, the former operations officer for the Joint Chiefs, wrote that he regretted that he had not spoken out when the crucial decisions on Iraq were being made and complained that some of his fellow officers were too timid to make their concerns known.

Newbold did not mention his former superiors: Richard B. Myers, the retired Air Force general, who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the invasion of Iraq; and Peter Pace, the Marine general who succeeded Myers as head of the Joint Chiefs. Both men have developed a reputation as team players who were comfortable with Rumsfeld's argument that the speed of a U.S. military attack and the use of precision weapons could reduce the requirements for large numbers of U.S. troops.

In the current Pentagon, there is no figure like Gen. Colin L. Powell, a politically savvy officer who never hesitated to make the case for large numbers of troops. Having served as national security adviser before taking on his Pentagon post, Powell was a powerful figure in the Defense Department.

Myers and Pace have defended Rumsfeld, as has Tommy Franks, the retired four-star general who led the U.S. Central Command, which prosecuted the war in Iraq. No active-duty military commanders have openly associated themselves with the criticism by the retired generals. But the criticism clearly reflects a current of opinion among serving officers.

"Most people I know think these retired officers are right and wish they had done it while they were in uniform," said one Army colonel who served in Iraq and who was granted anonymity because he was concerned about hurting his military career.

Rumsfeld did not dictate how many forces the military could employ in post-war Iraq. But he expressed disdain for the Iraq war plan he inherited, which called for a minimum of 380,000 troops to secure the country, dismissing it as a product of old thinking. According to his aides, Rumsfeld's style was to pepper his generals with questions and to use other forms of "suasion" to influence the planning.

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who served as an adviser to Rumsfeld, has described the discussions between Rumsfeld and Franks as one of "constant negotiation."

In the critique of the Iraq war, two of Rumsfeld's decisions have come under special scrutiny: initial reinforcements to better secure Iraq and the decision to disband the Iraqi army.

According to Franks, it was Rumsfeld who broached the issue of canceling the deployment of the 1st Cavalry Division, which had been scheduled to reinforce the initial U.S. invasion force. Franks went along with the decision, but field commanders in Iraq were unhappy with the move, which left the United States short of troops after Saddam Hussein was ousted from power, disorder roiled Baghdad and an insurgency began to emerge.

According to L. Paul Bremer, who served as the first chief civilian administrator in Iraq, Rumsfeld approved the decision to formally dissolve the Iraqi military. Pace told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2004 that the Joint Chiefs were not consulted about that move, which still stands as one of the most controversial policy decisions of the Iraq operation.

Bush, who issued a January 2003 directive putting Rumsfeld in charge of the post-war situation in Iraq and strongly endorsed his program to overhaul the U.S. military, expressed his full support for the defense secretary on Friday. Bush's statement may be enough to staunch the calls for Rumsfeld's resignation, but it will not dismiss the unease that many in the military feel about the civilians in the Pentagon.