- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Capt. Jesse Sloman, USMCR
Best Defense guest columnist
As a brand-new lieutenant at the Basic School, I attended a lecture one afternoon by Gen. Peter Pace, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Although I knew he had been criticized in some quarters for his handling of the invasion of Iraq, I was thrilled that such a famous officer would take the time to speak to a bunch of “butter bars” fresh from their commissioning ceremonies. Despite the gulf of experience between us, the general participated in a remarkably candid discussion about the nature of leadership and our responsibilities as Marines. In particular, he highlighted one of his pet peeves from his time in command: retired senior officers making public political statements. Gen. Pace explained that the president has to have absolute trust in the advice his military leaders provide him, something that he cannot do if he thinks they are going straight to the press the day they leave the service.
I thought about this wisdom last week while reading Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Robert H. Scales’s recent contribution to the debate over the Syria crisis: “A War the Pentagon Doesn’t Want.” Gen. Scales, a former commandant of the Army War College and decorated Vietnam veteran, fires a shot across the bow of the Obama administration by claiming to speak for “those inside the Pentagon and elsewhere who … develop strategies for fighting our wars.” These officers apparently “are embarrassed” by the “amateurism” on display in the White House and deeply skeptical of the administration’s approach to a potential combat operation. Indeed, according to Gen. Scales, “today’s soldiers know war and resent civilian policymakers who want the military to fight a war that neither they nor their loved ones will experience firsthand.”
As a retiree, Gen. Scales has the legal right to say whatever he likes about a potential war with Syria. As a matter of prudent discourse, however, he would do well to remember historian Richard Kohn’s injunction that general officers, “like princes of the church … represent the culture and the profession just as authoritatively as their counterparts on active duty.” Although he no longer wears a military uniform, Gen. Scales is indelibly associated in the public eye with the U.S. Army. Furthermore, by framing his argument as the unstated position of an entire institution, the general assumes an authority he cannot possess. In so doing, he undermines the legitimate authority of Congress and the president — and diminishes the principle of civilian control of the military.
Although there are numerous historical examples of retired general officers entering the political fray, from George McClellan’s presidential run to Gen. MacArthur’s strident criticisms of the Truman administration, this issue has become more acute today primarily because of a number of external factors. Firstly, the creation of the all-volunteer military in the aftermath of the Vietnam War has resulted in fewer and fewer Americans with any personal connections to the armed forces. As a result, the public looks increasingly to former officers for their advice on questions concerning the military. Many of these retired leaders do provide a valuable service by helping the nation understand how our large and complicated armed forces operate. When they stray towards political speech, however, retired officers begin to encroach on a sphere of influence left rightfully to our elected leaders.
This problem is exacerbated by the growing gap between the public’s opinion of the armed forces and its politicians. According to Gallup, Americans have more trust in the military than any other societal institution. By contrast, confidence in Congress fell this year to the lowest levels recorded since 1973. As Americans become more distrustful of their elected officials, it is natural to look to retired military leaders as representatives of a respected institution associated with traits like honor, trustworthiness, and courage. In our current political atmosphere, where criticism of the government abounds but the armed forces are practically untouchable, it is easy for the comments of retired generals to be perceived as nonpartisan wisdom which should take precedence over the statements of elected officials.
An additional consequence of the public’s growing distance from the armed forces is the belief that, when it comes to a decision to go to war, the opinions of servicemembers should carry extra weight because they will be the ones doing the fighting and the dying. This is a profoundly undemocratic position in a country where the civilian branches of government are explicitly empowered by the Constitution to be the sole determinants of national security policy. Gen. Scales’s dismissal of the White House staff as “wannabe soldiers” reinforces the dangerous idea that only military personnel, with their unique moral authority, are qualified to comment on when and how the nation goes to war.
Few commentators today would argue that American civil-military relations are in a state of crisis. Our armed forces are loyal, patriotic, and committed to the principle of civilian control of the military. The country’s civil-military relationship, however, is being subjected to a set of stressors unlike any in our history: a decade of warfare, the institutionalization of the all-volunteer force, and political gridlock which has undermined the public trust in our elected leaders. In this atmosphere, retired general officers must resist the temptation to wade too vigorously into national security debates. As lifetime representatives of their respective services, they command an authority that can dangerously encroach on the constitutional responsibilities of elected officials. For these retired officers, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.
Jesse Sloman is an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve.