Best Defense

We have a big problem with retired generals wading into partisanship

When retired generals and admirals engage in partisan advocacy they risk the military’s professionalism and prestige.



By Matthew Moten
Best Defense department of politico-military affairs

At last week’s national security town hall on NBC, Donald Trump stunned many veterans in his audience, saying, “I think under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble. They have been reduced to a point where it’s embarrassing for our country.” Later he casually suggested that, as president, he might purge top military brass: “Well, they’ll probably be different generals, to be honest with you,” he said.

These comments exhibit both the Republican presidential candidate’s disdain for and misunderstanding of the military. His seeming willingness to replace “Obama generals” with “Trump generals” flies in the face of American tradition, which places the armed forces outside partisan politics.

But if Trump is confused on that score, it may not be entirely his fault. And if members of the Pentagon brass wonder what might have sparked his confusion, they need only look to their retired military colleagues.

Earlier in the week Trump’s campaign released a list of 88 retired generals and admirals who endorsed him for president. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has a similar list of military elites who support her. Why should Trump expect active-duty leaders to be any less partisan?

The problem started in 1988, when retired Marine Corps Commandant P.X. Kelley endorsed Vice President George H.W. Bush. Since then, the floodgates have opened. In 1992 Admiral and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs William Crowe and 21 other flag officers endorsed Governor Clinton, which, given his lack of Vietnam service, gave the governor a significant boost against then-President George H.W. Bush, a bona fide World War II hero. Four years later, Senator Bob Dole enthusiastically sought and received several military endorsements, including that of the recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell. By 2000, the Al Gore and Bush W. Bush campaigns engaged in a race for retired flag officers, a contest that Bush won with more than 80 military endorsements, led again by Powell, who subsequently became Bush’s first secretary of state.

The problem got worse in 2004, when General John Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, appeared on stage at the Democratic National Convention with 12 retired flag officers and gave his support to John Kerry. Not to be outdone, the Republican convention paraded a similar formation, headed by recently retired United States Central Command head Tommy Franks, to endorse President George W. Bush. In 2008 more than one hundred retired generals and admirals publicly endorsed Senators Obama, Clinton, or McCain. Powell bucked the GOP and supported Senator Obama. After that election, Joint Chiefs chairman Mike Mullen became the first high-ranking active duty officer to call for an end to such endorsements.

Prior to the 2012 elections, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin E. Dempsey echoed his predecessor’s admonition: “In my judgment, we must continue to be thoughtful about how our actions and opinions reflect on the profession beyond active service,” he said. “Former and retired service members, especially Generals and Admirals, are connected to military service for life. When the title or uniform is used for partisan purposes, it can erode the trust relationship. We must all be conscious of this, or we risk adversely affecting the very profession to which we dedicated most of our adult lives.”

Unfortunately, too many retired flag officers ignored Dempsey’s advice. Admiral John B. Nathman, flanked by some thirty military retirees, spoke in support of Obama’s re-election bid at the Democratic National Convention, an endorsement that might have been more effective if convention organizers had not projected an image of four Russian warships on the wall behind him. In October the Romney campaign countered with an announcement that 300-odd retired flag officers, led once again by Franks, had agreed to endorse the former governor. A few days later Powell endorsed Obama, just as he had done in 2008. Thus, the phenomenon has continued to grow despite the admonitions of two sitting Joint Chiefs chairmen and numerous students of civil-military relations.

In October 2012, a Center for a New American Security report found that retired military officers’ endorsements “can diminish the perception of the military as a nonpartisan institution serving the nation and increase the perception of the military as just another interest group serving its own bureaucratic and political interests.” And the higher the rank of the retired officer, the more damage his or her endorsement does to the perception of a nonpartisan military. Yet the report also found that these endorsements have little impact on voters, and therefore, they are surely not worth the damage they can do.

Only a small but vocal percentage of retired flag officers has endorsed presidential candidates. But this year some of them have crossed another red line. Both campaigns now have retired officers regularly acting as surrogates for the candidates, giving speeches and appearing on television and radio. And the more they talk, the shriller they sound.

For the past few decades the military has enjoyed a popular standing as the nation’s most trusted institution, not least because of its reputation for nonpartisanship. The military ethos requires unbiased service to the nation regardless of which party is in power. When retired generals and admirals engage in partisan advocacy they risk the military’s professionalism and prestige, which they labored for decades to protect. They owe better to their bothers and sisters in arms. They owe still more to their country.

Matthew Moten is a former head of the history department at West Point and author of Presidents and Their Generals: An American History of Command in War (Harvard University Press, 2014).

Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps History Division/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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