Before the events of 6 January in the nation’s capital, WAR ROOM received several submissions dealing with the topic of the military’s relationship with “politics.” It’s an extraordinarily complex discussion–from understanding, interpreting, and abiding by relevant law and regulation, to the importance of norms, and the very definition of what counts as “political” or “partisan”–none of these questions are simple. Investigations since the 6th have revealed at least one active and a number of former military members who appear to have been involved in varying degrees with the activities seen around the world on news feeds. In an attempt to further a useful discussion of the civil-military relationship WAR ROOM will publish these pieces over the next several weeks each Friday.
This third offering is by Jeff Baker. In it he examines the role of the retired senior military leader, generals and admirals, in the political sphere. Their participation in politics, even out of uniform, has long been considered taboo. Perhaps it’s time to re-look the benefits of decades of training, education and experience possessed by these skilled and seasoned leaders.
In the aftermath of the 2020 election season, some active and retired senior military officers found themselves embroiled in the election process—some by choice, and some by circumstance.
If the latest U.S. presidential election was any indication, American politics and elections are likely to remain highly polarized, contentious, and perhaps even contested affairs, and both major political parties will look for a competitive advantage. One such advantage that both sides have attempted to leverage in the past is the support of retired senior military officers. In the aftermath of the 2020 election season, some active and retired senior military officers found themselves embroiled in the election process—some by choice, and some by circumstance. As the topic of civilian and military relations is one that is not likely to fade anytime soon, the role of retired senior officers during election years deserves some in-depth discussion.
For senior military officers (namely flag officers), even the appearance of engaging in partisan activities may be newsworthy, as an ethic of nonpartisanship and remaining apolitical is a powerful professional norm, especially while officers are on active duty. Guided by both norms and regulation, the vast majority of the senior military officers on active-duty shy away from what is, or could appear to be, partisan political activity. When these norms appear to be violated or challenged, people take note. Take the example of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, and his role in the now-famous President Trump photo opportunity at St. John’s church near the White House during protests and General Milley’s subsequent apology. He acknowledged and apologized for the impropriety of serving military officers appearing to participate in partisan politics.
However, the decision for retired senior officers is often more complicated. In a recent article in The National Interest by Colonel Thomas E. Burke and Colonel Eric Reid, the authors suggest that retired senior military leaders should not provide endorsements for political parties or candidates in order to preserve the active-duty military’s non-partisan image. This is a widely-held view, and in addition to arguments by practitioners, the academic debate on the relationship between retired officer political endorsements and the politicization of the military is robust. But ultimately, these arguments, though well-intentioned, are wrong.
Political parties on both sides will attempt to capitalize on the reservoir of public trust the military currently enjoys. In the 2020 Presidential election, retired Lieutenant General Sean McFarland asked then former Vice President and Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden to remove a political ad that showed him walking with Biden. McFarland stated he “object[s] to the use of ANY military personnel in uniform in political ads—full stop.” Many retired senior officers echo his concern and feel any senior military leaders—even if they are retired—engaging in partisan activities risks eroding the public’s trust and violates the “ethos and professionalism of apolitical military service.” Two former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, retired Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, and retired General Martin Dempsey, have stated that military leaders have an obligation to remain apolitical. However, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn and retired Admiral William McRaven have taken the opposite view. Flynn appeared at President Trump’s campaign events in 2016 in support of the President. Admiral McRaven penned an opinion piece in which he articulated his support of for Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Which position is the correct one? What is at stake?
One of the main reasons for the argument for retired officers to remain apolitical centers on the idea that elected officials will confuse retired senior military leaders’ opinions with active-duty senior military leaders’ advice. Senior active-duty officers understand they need to avoid partisan activity while they are on active duty. DoD Directive 1344.10 states that active-duty members of the Armed Forces should not engage in partisan political activities. The directive outlines the activities that are allowed (such as voting) and prohibited activities (such as speaking before a partisan political gathering).
Retired military officers making the leap to politics is not a new concept for America. Recent history is rife with examples of retired military making the transition to politics.
However, some scholars have suggested that there are additional consequences as well. Two respected National Security Specialist authors, David Barno and Nora Bensahel, state if military “advice comes to be seen as compromised by partisanship, the nation’s elected leaders will not be able to objectively assess their military options, and their life-and-death decisions about when and how to use force will suffer immeasurably as a result.” The flaw in the belief mentioned above suggests that elected officials are not savvy enough to distinguish between a senior retired military officer and a currently serving officer. Suggesting otherwise paints a bleak picture of the intellectual capabilities of U.S. elected officials.
Retired military officers making the leap to politics is not a new concept for America. Recent history is rife with examples of retired military making the transition to politics. In President Trump’s administration, John F. Kelly, a retired U.S. Marine general, served as the White House chief of staff as well as the Secretary of Homeland Security. Retired General Jim Mattis served as President Trump’s Secretary of Defense. Colin Powell, a retired U.S. Army General, served as U.S. Secretary of State under President George W. Bush. Retired General Alexander Meigs Haig Jr. was the U.S. Secretary of State under President Reagan as well as the White House chief of staff under presidents Nixon and Ford. Presidents Eisenhower and Grant were both retired general officers before being elected to the United States’ highest office.
Retired senior military officers have most likely been serving for over 25 years, are most likely graduates of one of the nation’s War Colleges. Senior retired officers have spent decades building knowledge and experience, which serve as invaluable assets to the American public if they so choose. If they attended the U.S. Army War College, the War College trained them in Strategic Communications, Data Analysis, Critical Thinking skills, recognizing and understanding biases, as well as a host of other abilities to make them National Security Specialists. These officers are uniquely trained to provide valuable insights to elected officials, political parties, as well as the American public.
Retired senior military officers sitting on the sidelines in perpetuity and giving up their right to voice their political opinion in order to preserve the military’s non-partisan image does a disservice to the nation. Do we really want dedicated professionals who have spent almost their entire adult life serving the United States at the highest level limiting their participation in the democratic process to only casting their votes? Or would the U.S. benefit from their experience, wisdom, and insights in politically contentious times? If those who are willing to give up their lives for democracy and their nation are no longer allowed to participate in said democracy, what does that say about the U.S. political system? It is not unreasonable to assume that those who have demonstrated fidelity to this nation might be the voice that Americans need to hear. If the call for retired senior military officers to stay silent is heeded, we run the risk of creating a warrior class where members of the warrior class are allowed to give their lives, but not their opinion.
COL Jeffrey E. Baker is an Army Officer and instructor in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, is introduced as part of the official party during the Navy-Marine Corps Ball, benefitting the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, at the Washington Hilton, Feb. 4, 2017. Funds provided by the Navy-Marine Corps Ball help millions of Sailors, Marines and their families with financial assistance for emergency aid, education, Combat Casualty Assistance Visiting Nurses and other vital assistance at home and abroad.
Photo Credit: DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Released
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