President Donald Trump has tapped a number of active-duty and retired generals to serve in his administration and seeks to bolster his own reputation by surrounding himself with them, knowing how popular an institution the military is with the American public. He selected retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as his first national security adviser and picked retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg to serve as the National Security Council chief of staff. Retired Gen. Jim Mattis and retired Gen. John Kelly were made cabinet secretaries. Then, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who’s on active duty, replaced Flynn. And now, Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, has been nominated to serve as ambassador to Australia. While Trump’s number of flag officers in high-level civilian positions goes beyond the norm, his administration is not the only one who’s sought to take advantage of the unique influence military officers have on American political life. When I worked on the Obama and Clinton presidential campaigns, I always coveted the endorsement of senior military officials, because their support was viewed as a source of instant legitimacy for a candidate on issues of national security. While this practice has been accepted in the political arena, it works to undermine the legitimacy and independence of the military and translates military rank into political authority in a dangerous way.
During the 2016 campaign, retired Gen. Martin Dempsey warned against these actions. More recently, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, who like Dempsey served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed his concerns, saying, “The question that I ask is how did we get here, to a point where we are depending on retired generals for the stability of our citizenry?”
Despite these warning calls, we have not listened, and instead have collectively pushed forward. Political campaigns focus on making their lists of military endorsements longer, and developing diverse ways to leverage the support of these men and women with institutionally and culturally granted authority. Today, we see the future we have wrought.
In principle, the idea behind this flag officer arms race is that the more endorsements a candidate secures, the more certain Americans can be of that candidate’s national security acumen. As the messaging goes, if all of these senior military leaders support him or her, then that candidate’s policies will keep the country safer and more secure. So, political staffers make phone calls, send emails, hold meetings, and do whatever we can to bring more brass on board. We do everything to show off our lists and say we have more former senior military officials with higher ranks than our competitors.
Your campaign can have the best policies, a crystal clear vision of the geopolitical future, understand the nuance of smart power, and believe in the importance of strong alliances and foreign diplomacy. But it all somehow matters less if you don’t have enough former generals and admirals in your corner. Or so we have all been led to believe.
But contrary to politico culture, generals and flag officers do not hold the secret key of authority for any set of policies or for any candidate. While we respect and honor their service, we simultaneously must resist the impulse to grant them ubiquity of influence and collect them like playing cards. This is not to say the voices of retired military leaders (private citizens to be sure) are invalid or should be ignored. We should listen to their wisdom on issues with a keen ear, but we should find more fitting ways of utilizing their skill sets than in the political arena. While more junior rank military veterans have become much more politically engaged since 2016, general officers hold more influence given their former positions. We should hope that they see within their hard-earned rank the responsibility bestowed on them within our society. However, given our country’s tendencies to hold the military with such reverence and esteem, a trend of politically active flag officers sets a dangerous precedent. I have maintained the utmost respect for the service and sacrifice of these brave men and women all my young adult and professional life. I continue to look upon many of them as friends, colleagues, mentors, and personal role models. Many continue to provide wise, sage advice as they have their entire careers. In 2016, many stood up to speak even though they’d never been political at any point in their lives because they viewed the threat of a Trump administration as something unfathomable. I commend them for that brave action that endangered their personal relationships and business interests. Others, however, became politically active directly because of Trump, with Flynn taking his support and “Lock Her Up” chants to previously unforeseen and unthinkable levels.
We’ve now officially seen this happen first-hand on more than one occasion within this administration. The divide in civil-military relations is present and doesn’t appear to be getting any better. As the White House continues to use the military as a shield for bigoted policies and racist overtures, we must do several things collectively. We must recognize the role many of us (myself included) have played in the purposeful evolution of rank as political capital. We must reaffirm our commitment to not perpetuate this in the future on both sides of the aisle. And we must remember that though they may have four stars, these men and women are human, already having shown great commitment to the strength of the nation but not protected from censure.
There is a danger in allowing for the degradation of civil-military relations, especially in today’s political climate. Military leaders are not our saviors. They, like members of the intelligence community, foreign service, and Congress, took oaths to protect and defend the Constitution. I am sure they will continue to do so. Their rank, however, should not and cannot make them impervious to criticism and critique, just as it does not grant them all-knowing or transferable legitimacy.
To say that we cannot question our public leaders and that we cannot demand answers from civilian officials that represent the interests of all and not a select few is foolishness. The values general officers espouse should be celebrated, their wisdom and policy guidance heeded, but we should not rely on their status to push agendas. When we see individuals with less than reputable decisions or actions, he or she may leverage the great respect afforded to these military leaders to succeed in nefarious activities.
We need these capable retired leaders to aid us in building bridges to new opportunities, not partisan walls that continue to negate and limit our growth. The only way we will be able to fix this issue is to have retired flag officers remove themselves from the political sphere, and for the political community to embrace that decision. This isn’t a request or a suggestion that these men and women not be able to voice their opinion or views, but a realization that how they might engage the system can have a serious impact on shaping partisan outcomes. As civilian, military, and veteran populations continue to become more divided, how we deliver party messages – and through whom – becomes all the more pertinent. We need the best ideas supporting our efforts regardless of whether we see ourselves as red or blue.