America’s Politicized Military Is a Recipe for Disaster

Message to both sides: Keep the military (and retired generals) out of politics and elections.

U.S. President Donald Trump walks with Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and others from the White House to visit St. John's Church after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd in Washington on June 1.
U.S. President Donald Trump walks with Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and others from the White House to visit St. John's Church after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd in Washington on June 1. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

There is simply no precedent in modern U.S. history for so many prominent retired generals and admirals—including former secretary of defense and retired general James Mattis, three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former service chiefs and combat commanders, and many others—to publicly criticize the judgment of a sitting president. The only incident that comes remotely close is the so-called revolt of the generals in 2006, when a handful of retired military leaders spoke out against then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s handling of the Iraq War.

This time, the dam broke on June 1, when U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to use active-duty military to exert “overwhelming force” to “dominate” U.S. cities, and when the nation’s top military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, walked with Trump in his combat uniform to a photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church through an area that had just been violently cleared of demonstrators. On June 11, Milley issued a remarkable apology, admitting his presence “created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”Milley issued a remarkable apology, admitting his presence “created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

As remarkable as it was, Milley’s apology does not solve the problem of a U.S. military that has been politicized like never before in modern U.S. history. In recent weeks, it has been drawn deeply into both sides of a domestic conflict surrounding racism, police brutality, and the use of force to quell domestic protests. As stark divisions over these issues remain and protests continue, the situation could easily escalate and draw the military even deeper into what are quintessentially domestic political issues.

As protests continue and the presidential campaign heats up, this crisis in civilian-military relations therefore has the potential to turn into a full-blown constitutional crisis, in which the U.S. military either transgresses the legal limits of its role or disobeys civilian leaders. The use of active-duty troops on U.S. soil remains a real possibility, as does violence against U.S. citizens by members of the National Guard or active troops.

This critical juncture has been a long time coming. It is easy (and well-deserved, according to many scholars studying civilian-military relations) to place all the blame for the current situation on Trump, for whom this was not the first violation of U.S. civilian-military norms. However, the problems in the civilian-military relationship have been developing for many decades. Collapsing faith in U.S. political institutions, growing polarization, and increased threats of extremist violence have combined with rising public respect for and confidence in the military to set the stage for the crisis we face today.

At the end of the Vietnam War, both Democrats and Republicans held the military in low esteem. But under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, bigger budgets and better recruiting rebuilt the military and its brand. After the decisive U.S. victory in the 1991 Gulf War, Americans’ trust in their military soared: In 1990, 33 percent of Americans expressed “a great deal” of confidence in the military, compared to 61 percent saying the same in 1991—about where the number remains today. Americans trust their military far more than the three branches of government or other institutions.

The military’s stellar reputation gave its leaders political power. Colin Powell became the most powerful and revered general since World War II. Norman Schwarzkopf, Wesley Clark, David Petraeus, Mattis, and others became national celebrities as cable news networks sought out retired generals as frequent commentators. Confrontations between retired and active military brass became front-page news, helping force compromises on policies such as humanitarian interventions and “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Step by step, these military celebrities took on an active role in U.S. politics.Step by step, these military celebrities took on an active role in U.S. politics. It became common for presidential candidates to try to bolster their national security credentials by seeking high-profile endorsements from retired generals and admirals—as Bill Clinton did when he convinced Reagan’s top military advisor, Bill Crowe, to endorse him. Candidates have done so in every campaign since then. During the 2012 campaign, the lists of retired generals endorsing presidential candidates of both parties reached into the hundreds of names. The 2016 race took this one step further: Several former military leaders engaged in partisan attacks, with retired Marine Gen. John Allen criticizing Trump at the Democratic National Convention and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn leading calls of “lock her up” against Hillary Clinton.

The increasingly political role of the military hasn’t been limited to elections. Politicians opposed to White House policies began to call on top generals to resign in protest. In 2014, Republicans called on Gen. Martin Dempsey to resign over the Obama administration’s reluctance to take on a bigger role in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In 2019, critics encouraged the chief of naval operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, to resign when Trump granted clemency to a convicted war criminal, Eddie Gallagher.

Military officers rarely disobey orders, but as their power over the national debate grew, presidents actively began trying to identify and appoint officers who shared their beliefs—and were often quite successful in doing so. Finding these officers became much easier because the military elite joined the political elite in becoming more polarized. In 1976, only 45 percent of senior military officers identified with a political party; in 2016, 54 percent considered themselves Republicans and 19 percent Democrats. This skew makes it even more remarkable that such a front of military critics spoke out against Trump.

With partisan divisions making political compromise more difficult, control of institutions became paramount. An institution with a tradition of nonpartisanship became the nation’s top political prize. These conditions made coalitions between politicians and military leaders both more likely and more dangerous. Already, Trump talks about “my generals” and “my military.”

Political polarization, very high confidence in the military, and the possibility that military force could be used domestically are a potentially explosive mix. Trump didn’t start these trends, but as the defense policy expert Kori Schake has argued, he harnessed them, and his repeated violations of civilian-military norms helped instigate the current crisis. When Trump asked Milley to follow him to that photo-op, he used the military as a symbol in a political dispute. Using federal troops to quell protests, as Trump has threatened to do, could be far more problematic. It was in response to these fears that Mattis and other retired military leaders spoke out.Political polarization, very high confidence in the military, and the possibility that military force could be used domestically are a potentially explosive mix.

None of this means that military leaders shouldn’t speak out at all. Their protests might not have much of an effect on the general public or Trump, but they could reinforce appropriate behavior in the ranks and provide senior officers cover to give candid advice to the administration in private. And, as the security studies experts Deborah Avant and Kara Kingma Neu argue, dissent by military officers can potentially prevent violations of civil-military and democratic norms.

But military dissent also carries tremendous risks. Trump does have the legal authority to use troops for law enforcement tasks on U.S. soil, at least under certain circumstances. If protests continue and Trump issues a lawful order to active-duty troops to quell protests, Milley—who has reportedly voiced strong opposition to the use of active-duty troops—will be put in an extremely difficult situation. If senior officers disobey a legal order, it could raise constitutional questions about civilian control of the military. On the other hand, if Trump were to issue an illegal order that violates the rights of U.S. citizens, officers would have an obligation to disobey. That legality can be difficult to determine. Junior officers and troops may face immensely difficult decisions that do not become any easier when orders from their chain of command conflict with the political statements of retired generals.

To get out of the current crisis of civilian-military relations and restore the military’s status as a nonpartisan institution, five steps are necessary.

First, all attempts to politicize the military must be called out—by politicians, by the media, by fellow officers, by citizens. Active-duty military officers should resist being used as political props, and Milley’s comments were a good first step to restoring that balance. If political leaders from either party do attempt to portray the military as a partisan ally, active and retired officers can and should call this out as a breach of trust.

Second, the military should never be deployed in a politically charged, domestic situation unless absolutely necessary. The National Guard might need to augment police forces with additional manpower in some cases, but it is best used in support, lightly armed, and away from the center of political protests. Managing peaceful protests is a law enforcement task, and most National Guard and active-duty military units are not trained or equipped to do it well. While use of active troops for law enforcement can be legal and there is clear historical precedent for it, it can be risky and sometimes violent.

Third, don’t encourage anyone in the military to take sides in this fall’s presidential election. Forming two opposing civilian-military alliances as each candidate seeks endorsements, in response to opponents’ attempts to establish their own coalition with the military instead of focusing on civilian levers of influence, only makes future crises more likely. Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s recent comment that the military would escort Trump from the White House if he loses but refuses to leave only keeps the military front and center in a partisan campaign.

The push to get more retired generals to enter the political fray must stop.Fourth, the push to get more retired generals to enter the fray must stop. Retired generals have already made their concerns clear, and they may yet be needed to call out specific abuses or violations of norms. The evidence tells us that military involvement in political campaigns works far less well in changing public opinion than most observers think it does.

Finally, if citizens think a leader or candidate is damaging—or will damage—the neutral and nonpolitical status of the military, they should use the ballot box. They can mobilize, protest, and vote, but they shouldn’t recruit the military to enter the campaign. The military needs to be the entire country’s military, not Trump’s, Biden’s, or any other president’s or party’s. The idea that a candidate requires the blessing of active or retired generals to win an election should cause all Americans serious concern.

The conditions that set the stage for today’s crisis in civilian-military relations have been developing for decades. The problems won’t disappear anytime soon, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office next January. But Americans must realize before it’s too late that no one should ask the military to take sides to save American democracy. That is a task for civilian leaders and institutions. The moment the military becomes the arbiter of political legitimacy in U.S. politics, democracy will have been lost.

Jim Golby is a senior fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Clements Center for National Security, a former special advisor to two U.S. vice presidents and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the co-host of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Thank You for Your Service podcast. Twitter: @jimgolby

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