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We Need Retired Military Leaders to Participate in the Political Debate

By  |  September 29, 2016, 12:00am  |  @briansikma

A common theme has been developing this election season as numerous retired flag officers – generals and admirals – have weighed in on partisan political debates and even backed political candidates. There is a rising sense among a number of respected individuals in the defense community that such partisan civic involvement by retired senior military leaders somehow tarnishes the military’s impartial, non-partisan standing in American life and Constitutional structure.

Writing Tuesday at War On The Rocks, a widely read national security blog, retired Lt. Gen. David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel, two national security experts, argue that so-called flag officers (one star officers and above) should avoid any display of partisan tendencies even in retirement. They assert:

“Retired generals and admirals publicly endorsing candidates for president is not just more politics as usual. It deeply affects the profession of arms by putting at risk the apolitical reputation of the U.S. military and by eroding civilian leaders’ trust in the non-political nature of our senior uniformed military leadership.”

As Barno and Bensahel note, both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump have received high profile endorsements from retired senior military officers. The topic even came up at Monday night’s presidential debate where Trump declared, “I’ll take the admirals, and I’ll take the generals any day over the political hacks that I see that have led our country so brilliantly over the last 10 years”.

Trump has secured the endorsement of 88 retired generals and admirals, and during the debate he suggested that he may yet hit 200 retired senior officer endorsements. We’ll see.

For her part, Clinton, a former Secretary of State, has the backing of 95 retired flag officers.

While Barno and Bensahel note that political candidates are eager to burnish their foreign policy credentials by securing high profile military (retired) endorsements, they worry that the gesture tarnishes the military as a whole and the public image of each service. “If U.S. elected leaders are to maintain trust in an apolitical military whose uniformed leaders aren’t seen as simply waiting in the wings for their opening to a future political role, the current norms that tolerate endorsing political candidates must change,” they claim.

Those are valid concerns, but they also miss a few key points.

Already there is a prohibition on military members lending their official endorsement to political candidates. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, USMC, has repeatedly reminded senior leaders and other service members this year of their obligation to not endorse partisan candidates. “They [the next administration] have to look at us as an apolitical organization that swears an oath to the Constitution of the United States — not an individual, not a party, not a branch of government — the Constitution of the United States,” the top general said in August.

But Dunford has been careful to point out that his remarks apply only to those currently serving, not to retired officers that others feel should still remain silent as the sphinx on political matters.

Certainly, currently serving senior leaders who spend all of their time in uniform lose the autonomy that other citizens’ posses when it comes to free speech and political activity. It is a unique paradox that all service members face: while wearing the uniform of the United States, the world’s greatest defender and protector of freedom and self-government, they cannot engage in some of the freedoms enjoyed by their fellow citizens. It doesn’t mean service members are second class citizens, only that in raising their right hand to swear an oath to defend the Constitution they must, by nature of military service and the proud tradition of military subordination to elected civilian leadership, abstain from partisan politics.

That doesn’t mean service members don’t go on to run for public office either after they retire or as reserve component members (not full-time on active duty). Routinely veterans run for office as Democrats and Republicans, and that’s a good thing that could be jeopardized if the national security community adopts an unwritten and unofficial rule that senior leaders should not weigh in on partisan politics.

Distinguishing senior leaders from other service members, and urging them to voluntarily muzzle themselves on partisan political matters has a range of unwanted and unacceptable consequences.

If the political activity of retired or non-active duty senior military leaders is challenged, it contributes to both a diminished perspective of citizenship and further widens the already wide gap between today’s military and the civilian public. Last October the Economist ran a lengthy piece that examined the yawning cultural divide that separates the military from civilians. “In 1990, 40% of young Americans had at least one parent who had served in the forces; by 2014, only 16% had, and the measure continues to fall,” the publication reported while also noting that only 1% of Americans currently serve in uniform.

Gen. James Mattis, a now-retired respected four-star Marine officer, recently worked on a report that examines the civilian-military divide. “Most people know nobody in the military,” Mattis said in an early-September interview. He went on to worry about “policy makers who have never served in the military” making decisions that shape the military and its use in national security. The current gap will only widen if military leaders recuse themselves from civic and political engagement.

Being a citizen means, among other things, taking your voting and electoral duties seriously. Once their time in active duty passes, members of the military should be free to return to or enter an arena of citizenship that was off limits to them while in uniform.

If the profession of arms voluntarily deprives itself of political involvement once its members are out of uniform, it sends a worrisome signal about the military’s perception of democracy. Self-government is messy, it involves partisan politics, it means building electoral coalitions, it means making your case to voters and, above all, it erases the difference between the governor and the governed. That last bit is unfamiliar to a military culture that rightly requires a strict demarcation of rank and responsibility between leaders and subordinates. But that culture, unique to a military that defends self-government, isn’t a part of good self-government in a democratic republic.

The military spends billions each year training men and women in both enlisted and officer roles, and while not all training has a direct civilian correlation, the training and wartime experiences learned in the military provide valuable lessons that can apply to public service.

If retired military leaders always sequestered themselves in ivory castles and removed themselves from vigorous and important debates, the nation would have been deprived of the post-WWII leadership of President Dwight Eisenhower, or the Gen. George C. Marshall who served as chief of staff of the U.S. Army during WWII and went on to serve as secretary of defense and secretary of state in the Democratic administration of President Harry Truman. In a more vulnerable time, Gen. George Washington left his post-war retirement to assume the presidency of the young United States.

Today leaders such as Sen. John McCain and Sen. Tom Cotton represent different eras of service to the country yet serve as equals in the U.S. Senate. The antidote for a political discourse that has of late appeared to descend to near-frivolity and absurdity is not for serious men and women to retreat from the debate, but to humbly weigh in on matters and at times seek public office with their fellow citizens.

The way to overcome the gap between civilian and military leaders and between citizens who serve in the military and those who find their service in other avenues is not to erect a high barrier between the two groups, but to encourage post-active duty interaction and participation in this great experiment called democracy.