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Military Officers Should Stay Out of Politics

If retired officers have a point to make, they should rely on facts and logic to be persuasive—not their ranks.
by Jim Golby
May 13, 2021
Military Officers Should Stay Out of Politics
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 18, 2016: Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn delivers a speech on the first day of the Republican National Convention. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On Monday, 124 retired generals calling themselves “Flag Officers 4 America” issued an open letter containing a broadside attack against President Joe Biden, the Democratic party, and the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.

The most impressive part of the list is how unimpressive the names on it are. They included only one 4-star officer, Adm. Jerome L. Johnson, who retired from the Navy in 1992. Most of the signatories have similarly been retired for decades, and even national security journalists and other recently retired 4-stars admit they can only recognize a few of the names. The average age of this group—consisting entirely of white men—is 80.

But it would be a mistake to write this statement off simply because it comes from a legion of geriatrics shouting the political equivalent of “get off my lawn.” Their letter is part of a larger, 30-year trend of increased partisan activity by retired generals and admirals, and it crosses new and dangerous lines.

Sure, there are examples in American history of retired military leaders critiquing a sitting president’s policy agenda, as Gen. Maxwell Taylor did when he published The Uncertain Trumpet as a critique of Eisenhower’s New Look strategy. There also have been shots fired against budget priorities, like those against Harry Truman during the “Revolt of the Admirals.” Cases of retired senior officers calling the fitness of the commander-in-chief into question are more numerous, but never became the norm.

Such cases were exceptional at the time, and they stand out in U.S. history as isolated incidents. As research from Zachary Griffiths and Olivia Simon has demonstrated, however, retired generals and admirals have now become a regular feature of American politics. This unfortunate tradition started in 1992 when Gen. P.X. Kelley, the retired commandant of the Marine Corps, endorsed George H.W. Bush and retired chairman of the joint chiefs Adm. William Crowe supported Bill Clinton.

Since 9/11, the trend that began as the Cold War ended has accelerated. Retired officers have joined candidates on the stages of national conventions; criticized presidents over their war policies, personnel choices, and domestic rhetoric; weighed in on policy debates outside their areas of expertise; released endorsement lists coordinated with campaigns; and became partisan attack dogs and cheerleaders.

The “Flag Officers 4 America” statement brings the worst of these vitriolic trends together—and then goes even further. The letter not only critiques the policies and leadership of the sitting commander-in-chief, but it also takes aim at the entire Democratic party, our constitutional system, and the legitimacy of the 2020 election. While most of the themes expressed are familiar, largely because they are standard partisan talking points—at least among Donald Trump’s core constituency—they come not during an election season, but roughly four months into a new presidential term.

The good news is that these retired officers represent only a small fraction—less than two percent—of all retired generals and admirals. The bad news is that more than one hundred men who hold values opposed to those of their profession managed to be promoted at least six times by the U.S. military.

Even though the group is small, a few current and retired generals and admirals have publicly distanced themselves from these views and clearly communicated to the public and to current and future retirees that this type of behavior is an embarrassment to the military and undermines its non-partisan tradition. More should join the chorus—including the chairman of the joint chiefs, the service secretaries, and the sitting secretary of defense.

We should not forget, of course, that the men who signed the letter are retired. As a result, they have constitutional protections guaranteeing their free speech. The value of free speech is essential and worth defending vigorously. But no one should confuse rights with responsibilities. Every retired general and admiral who signed this letter (or others), and every retired general or admiral who criticizes a sitting president in an op-ed or interview, swore an oath not to a party or to a candidate, but to the Constitution. They chose to serve as senior leaders of a non-partisan profession.

The real problem here is not a legal one related to constitutional rights, nor it is a question of the letter’s substance, as inaccurate or illogical as some of the claims might be.

The problem is that these men went beyond rhetoric, logic, and argumentation in persuading other Americans to join their cause. They instead abused the trust that the public places in its military. No one would care to read an “Open Letter from Old White Men.” It was retired “generals and admirals” that littered headlines, not any of the names on the list.

The incentives to abuse the public trust implicit in high rank are strong. Candidates and partisan media have strong incentives to use the military for their electoral and ideological purposes, and my own research with Peter Feaver shows that the public often conflates the views of retired generals and admirals with those on active duty.

It is irresponsible for “Flag Officers 4 America” to leverage their rank and the public’s esteem for those still on active duty to gain the relevance most of them lost long ago. And it is irresponsible for elected officials, serving military leaders, and citizens to not criticize and discourage them when they abuse their service for personal or partisan gain—even, and perhaps especially, when their personal and partisan gain aligns with our own.

Jim Golby

Jim Golby is a senior fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the U.S. Studies Centre, and a co-host of the podcast Thank You for Your Service.