A Primer on Generals and Admirals and Politics
The question of what roles the retired military leaders of the nation should be expected or allowed to fill, or prohibited from filling, is again a matter of concern to many people. I have been asked my opinion on the subject, so with the trepidation that should be associated with venturing into a minefield, here goes.
The question is not new. In fact, it can be traced back to the end of the American Revolution when a gathering of officers contemplating challenging the Continental Congress to alleviate their grievances was deterred by Gen. George Washington, who believed political actions and decisions were not to be the role of the military.
His stance became a principle of nonpartisanship of military leaders for the next two centuries. It did not deny one-time Army officers Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, George B. McClellan, Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and many others from burnishing their military experiences as qualifications for seeking elected office. But it did, perhaps, prevent any effort to enlist the military forces in the elections of our senior officials.
The unofficial and unpublished policy of remaining apolitical was the norm, a custom of the services, well into the 20th century. I clearly remember working for a Regular Army colonel who proudly proclaimed that he had never voted and wasn’t about to change that record. Nevertheless, the official policy of the armed services included encouragement of the right to vote, and absentee ballots for military personnel became common in most states.
Many problems, mixed results, and questionable effectiveness of those ballots are still with us. One’s citizenship and inalienable rights are not affected by the policy, and one’s right to assemble and speak out personally and publicly has never been denied or even abridged. But the armed forces have never been aligned with the political parties, and the country has never had to be concerned about a military attempt to take over the government.
Things changed somewhat in the last quarter of the 20th century. In September 1992, a retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff endorsed Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton for president. In 1996, another retired chairman spoke out supporting Sen. Bob Dole’s presidential campaign and then, in 2000 and joined by a list of more than 80 generals and admirals, advocated the election of Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Another one-time chairman, along with 12 retirees, spoke at the Democratic National Convention for the election of Sen. John Kerry, after which a retired former combat commander of the Persian Gulf War supported the re-election of the second President Bush.
In 2008, three slates of retired generals and admirals supported, in turn, Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. It was then that the sitting chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, called upon the retired community to restrain its activities so as not to appear to be representing the military establishment. The next chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, four years later questioned the advisability of recently retired officers criticizing policies that they had recently been charged with enforcing.
The counsel of both Mullen and Dempsey did not stop another retired admiral and more than 30 like-minded veterans and retired officers from appearing at the 2012 Democratic National Convention supporting the re-election of President Obama, or a counter-demonstration at the Republican National Convention favoring former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Another former chairman publicly backed Obama in two elections and was applauded by the news media for doing so.
The 2016 election is now seeing a further erosion of the apolitical custom. Recently retired leaders have become surrogates of the candidates, citing their active-duty experiences to attack the programs and personal qualifications of the candidates and offering criticisms of programs they were once responsible for managing. More than one has called for active and reserve force personnel to publicly support and vote for his candidate.
One more complication this year is the charge that active-duty leaders have been “reduced to rubble,” implying they have acquiesced to detrimental decisions that have weakened our military capabilities. This is a different problem, but it bears on the question of when, how and what purpose is to be served by demanding that somehow, active-duty leaders should be arbiters of government policy. A case can be made that a military leader should resign in protest. But such a step becomes an immediate political action, the kind deplored by the critics of the military who express their views after retirement.
One clear example of the quandary created in such situations is provided by the recent decision ordering the services to open all positions—including infantry and Special Operations Forces—to women. After a thorough and long-term testing, the commandant of the Marine Corps recommended that women not be introduced into those branches. His recommendation was not approved, and the secretary of defense announced a change in policy that opened those duties to all service personnel.
The commandant had two choices: Resign in protest, or proceed with his constitutional responsibility of carrying out the policy of his superiors. He had his say and then had to decide how best to proceed for the Marine Corps (and, incidentally, the other services) to fulfill its mission of supporting the government, but he had not been reduced to rubble. If the decision turns out to be wrong or unsupportable in the long term, it will be the fault of the decisionmaker, not the Marine Corps.
Obviously, there is no “right” answer to the question of how, when and if a retired officer may or should speak out. My own conclusions are:
- The constitutional rights of retired military personnel to freedom of speech and freedom to assemble to press their views should never be denied.
- They should use rank and title as an indication of the professional qualification and an explanation for the views they express. The practice is common when a doctor criticizes a medical program, or when a judge addresses a constitutional question. One always appreciates knowing the person working on a water system is a qualified plumber.
- They should be free to sell or donate their services to the news media, to organized political groups and professional organizations.
- The speaker or the assembled faction should never assert or imply that they speak for their profession or their service or branch of service. They are advisers, educators or counselors explaining the costs and effects of government programs, not organizers of political revolt seeking military influence of government policy.