How to Get Generals out of Politics

September 27, 2016

In this election season, retired general and flag officers have eroded the non-political nature of the U.S. military. Here is one way to keep that from happening again.

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The final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign are once again highlighting the controversial role retired generals and admirals now play in national politics. Earlier this month, candidate Trump released a letter signed by 88 retired senior officers who support his presidential run. Candidate Clinton followed suit the next day, releasing her own list of 95 retired generals and admirals who have officially endorsed her for the highest office in the land. Retired generals and admirals have continued to publicly trade partisan blows.

Many Americans no doubt see these military endorsements as just another effort to line up various interest groups to support the presidential candidates — not that different from getting an endorsement from the American Legion or labor unions. But that view is profoundly and dangerously wrong. Retired generals and admirals publicly endorsing candidates for president is not just more politics as usual. It deeply affects the profession of arms by putting at risk the apolitical reputation of the U.S. military and by eroding civilian leaders’ trust in the non-political nature of our senior uniformed military leadership.

Retired senior military officers — those who will always bear the title “General” or “Admiral” before their names — have a special responsibility as highly visible symbols of the most respected institution in America, the U.S. military. These most senior of officers have a lifelong duty to protect the apolitical character of the institution they long served, even when they no longer are on active duty. And their schooling in that special responsibility must start from the day they pin on their first star — something that does not occur today.

All Americans expect that their uniformed senior military leaders adhere to the proper norms of civil-military relations — particularly the immutable expectation of civilian control of the military. Serving senior officers also fully understand the importance of avoiding any perceptions of political bias or affiliation by any members of the force while in uniform. In August, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford explicitly reminded serving military members to remain apolitical, since the new president needs to have trust and confidence that the military “is completely loyal and completely prepared to do what must be done.”

Yet the political role of retired generals and admirals seems to increase with every presidential campaign, and it has reached new heights in this year’s highly contentious race. Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn spoke at the Republican National Convention under a photo montage that included his picture in Army dress uniform, and he repeated the phrase “lock her up” after it was enthusiastically chanted by the audience. At the Democratic National Convention, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen marched onstage to martial music, introduced himself as a “retired four-star general of the United States Marine Corps,” and then castigated the Republican candidate to his cheering audience.

These primetime endorsements are much sought after by candidates, with the goal of establishing the national security credentials of the nominees by implicitly connecting them to highly visible representatives of the U.S. military. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey recently noted, Flynn and Allen weren’t onstage as Mike or John — for all intents and purposes, their first name was “General.”

Flynn, Allen, and every other retired senior military leader all possess the same rights to free speech as any other citizen. But just because they can endorse political candidates does not mean that they should. Doing so instantly turns retired generals and admirals into partisan political figures and poses grave civil-military dangers. Future presidents may question whether their uniformed senior military leaders can be trusted to be apolitical advisors sharing best military advice untainted by political leanings. And the appearance of generals just weeks or months out of uniform among the ranks of the political opponents of an administration still in office makes that concern sharper still.

If U.S. elected leaders are to maintain trust in an apolitical military whose uniformed leaders aren’t seen as simply waiting in the wings for their opening to a future political role, the current norms that tolerate endorsing political candidates must change. After the conventions, Dempsey took the unusual step of urging his fellow retired generals and admirals to keep their political opinions to themselves, and encouraged politicians to keep retired military leaders off the stage because “the military is not a political prize.”

Yet it is too late to try to instill proper norms of civil-military conduct once these senior officers have already retired. Expectations must be set early, while generals and admirals are still serving on active duty, to create a lasting change in behavior. Norms proscribing political endorsements should be established from the moment an officer pins on his or her first star and must be continually reinforced throughout the rest of his or her career and into retirement. Current service chiefs and four-star leaders must bring about this change, since they are the moral compass of the profession of arms — and they must also serve as exemplars of these norms after leaving active service.

How could this be done? One important way to start would be for every newly selected general or admiral to receive a letter from the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, co-signed by his or her service chief, that went something like this:

Dear General (or Admiral):

As you prepare to pin on your first star, you are about to join the ranks of a truly select few in the U.S. military — America’s flag and general officers. You will now be responsible for leading this great force of young Americans at our most senior uniformed ranks — a sobering responsibility. You will also be forever viewed as a representative of our profession once you pin on these stars. I want to share with you some of the expectations of the profession of arms that come with your new rank.

You will continue abide by your oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But as a general, your responsibilities to the republic will from this day forward will be much greater than those you have held to date. And they will extend beyond your years on active duty, since you will hold the title of general for the rest of your life. That title brings with it a lasting commitment to protect your nation and uphold the reputation of the U.S. military. You should understand the lifelong nature of this duty as an inherent part of accepting this promotion.

You will be expected to always uphold the honor and standards of our profession, no matter what path you choose after your military career. One of the most important of those standards is protecting the nation’s proper civil-military relationship once you leave active duty.

The U.S. military must remain — and remain to be seen as — an institution above politics, apolitical in every way. There are no Republican generals or Democratic generals, only American generals. Our system rightfully places elected and appointed political leaders in charge of the U.S. military, a principle of civilian control of the military that you have fully embraced since your first oath of office. Your commitment to that principle extends beyond your time in uniform and into retirement, as well.

Our profession expects you to refrain from direct participation in national politics employing the credentials of your rank and service. You are free to offer advice, counsel, and testimony drawing on your years in uniform or to run for elected office yourself. You should continue to be a resource of knowledge and experience for our nation. But you should not permit your name and the prestige of your senior rank in the military to be used for political purposes. You should not allow your title and service to be associated with endorsements for any particular national candidate — most especially for the presidency. To do so taints the apolitical reputation of the serving senior ranks of generals and admirals, and it risks undermining the confidence of our elected leadership in the apolitical nature of our armed forces. Put simply, our elected and appointed civilian leaders must have every confidence that the military advice from uniformed leaders they are receiving is free of political bias. To ensure this, retired senior officers cannot become partisan political advocates upon leaving uniform.

Selection for promotion to general or admiral is a great honor and entails a lifelong commitment for those who accept its obligations. This letter serves to remind you of their enduring nature as you first take on those responsibilities. My successors and I will continue to share these expectations with you on each of your subsequent promotions and appointments, and once more as you prepare to leave active duty.

Our fellow citizens join with me in offering you warmest congratulations on your selection, and we commend your willingness to take on the lifetime commitment to our profession and the nation that those stars represent.

Warm regards,

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Your Service Chief


Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Michael Thorn

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13 thoughts on “How to Get Generals out of Politics

  1. Awesome article. I just want to point out that a few months ago retired Gen. Michael Hayden remarked on MSNBC that he worried about the state of Civil-Military relations if Donald Trump were elected. Hayden stated that this was because Mr. Trump has suggested he would force the military to commit war crimes. Of course, under the UCMJ military members are obligated to refuse an unlawful order. However, for Gen. Hayden to speak hypothetically, and signal that officers would refuse civilian order is extraordinarily dangerous to our democracy. It would be one thing if Mr. Trump were actually president, and ordered the killing of family members of ISIL. However, his presidency remains hypothetical, and thus Gen. Hayden’s remarks set a dangerous precedent.

  2. It seems that a good caveat would be that they can do whatever they want now in the political space but cannot advertise their former service or rank.

    If they themselves are running for office then I would say they DO have free reign in all respects.

    1. Not at all…they highlight a real dilemma. Few of us are familiar enough with law to draw a sharp line between what is a war crime and what isn’t. Sure, lining families up against the wall is a war crime. What about destroying a vehicle a uniformed enemy leader is riding in with his family (who can clearly identify him — in theory). What if that same leader is not in uniform?

  3. It’s very encouraging to know that Generals Dempsey and Dunford are committed to preserving the apolitical character of the American military. Given their own stature, it absolutely makes sense that they seem to be focusing their efforts on general officers.

    I’m curious, though, if the Dept. of Defense has issued any updated guidance on political expression among more junior personnel, particularly that communicated via social media. Most official correspondence I’ve seen on the topic has seemed vague and difficult to enforce, particularly as applied to a punitive/UCMJ scenario.

    I also wonder if the Joint Chiefs will address political activity among Guardsmen and Reservists. Will the DoD distinguish between active and non-active duty service-members, who live most of their lives in civilian society? I don’t know what such a “distinction” would look like in practice, but it seems reasonable to grant slightly more latitude to personnel who spend only a few days per month in uniform. Some have civilian jobs – educators, journalists, various types of consultants and researchers – that necessarily require articulating opinions on politically sensitive topics. I don’t think this small group has produced any particularly notable controversy lately, but they’re worth considering in a broader discussion of American civil/military relations.

  4. While I agree that any active duty Flag/General officer must not enter into the political fray, stating that they forever lose that right is disturbing. Who better to understand the situation of active duty service members and in their retired roles, put forth policy changes either supporting a political candidate or being one themselves? Civilians forget that as active duty members, we have both the right and responsibility to take part in the political process through our vote, and if we so desire, donations to a party or a specific candidate. Once retired, many veterans find ways to help protect the benefits veterans have earned through their years of sacrifice. With such a small percentage of Americans having served in our nation’s military it is becoming even more important to have these high profile voices heard. If a retired Flag/General officer believes that the policies put forth by one candidate or another would be harmful to active duty members, veterans, or our country, then they would be negligent in not voicing that concern based on their experience. The oath of office we take is not to a political party or a particular President (just his/her lawful orders), it is to the Constitution of the United States. This policy would be nothing short of the equivalent of taking these retired officers out and metaphorically shooting them. By extension, this policy could easily apply to those working in DC think tanks. Look at this article’s byline…

    1. You’re absolutely right that retired general officers have an important duty as informed, credible advocates in political issues that impact either individual service-members or the American military as an organization. That function is only going to become more critical as the civilian/military cultural gap continues to widen.

      Where elected officials and other policymakers get pissed off, I think, is when retired generals go too far in conflating defense policy (which they’re uniquely qualified to discuss) with foreign policy (which they’re not). Some of the more politically active retired GOs (LTG Flynn is probably the worst offender) seem to assume that their experience managing foreign military partnerships gives them de facto diplomatic experience. It doesn’t, and they should acknowledge as much.

  5. I find it ironic that the publisher used the military credentials of one of the authors to promote the credibility of this article. At what point does public speech leave the Op-Ed pages and become political? I would rather that each military member be obligated to include in every writing for which the author uses a military credential a disclaimer that hers/ his is a personal opinion and does not reflect upon any agency of the government. This avoids the gray area of defining political speech, some our founding fathers recognized as a quagmire.

  6. I might be a bit confused, but are General Officers not individually approved by the POTUS for promotion? Wouldn’t this promotion process facilitate the Executive Offices’ approval/disproval of a particular candidate’s political ideologies and ambitions? Could a President caveat the approval of candidate based upon their future support of their party, or is such collusion unheard-of?

  7. Where in the UCMJ and US legal law does this say they are Generals and Admirals for life? In their active service, they dont speak because they are legally told not to speak up on political policy. Once they are no longer wearing the uniform (unless they are in the reserves), they are not bound by any UCMJ article at all. Who makes them General and Admiral for life? Only some of them use that title or it is the media (MSM and social media) that calls them by their last military rank. They are still civilians.

    If you bar them from speaking, please call your self the United Dictatorial States of the Disunited North America ,

    1. Actually, they are. Technically, retired members aren’t discharged — they’re just transferred to the retired list. USC Title 10 defines the composition of each service to include retired officer and enlisted personnel. Use of their rank isn’t just an affectation by “the media” — they’re entitled to do so, with the appropriate notation of “retired”. Commissioned officers aren’t even automatically retired on request — that requires approval of the appropriate service secretary (O-5 and below) or the President (O-6 and up), and they’re subject to recall up to at least age 60.

      USC Title 10 Ch 47 (UCMJ) says retired members of a regular component of the armed forces who are entitled to pay are subject to the UCMJ.

      None of that bars them from political activity. In fact, they’re not even barred from political activity or speech while on active service, so long as they don’t use their status or position in conjunction with that activity. In practice, that becomes rather difficult, so the tradition is to tread the path of non-partisanship until retired.

      IIRC, there’s no specific article in the UCMJ that prohibits political activity — those are contained in service regulations, and enforceable under Article 92 (failure to go) or 133 (conduct unbecoming). That makes it pretty unlikely that any retired member will ever be taken to task under the UCMJ for mentioning their rank during a political speech. Whether such a connection is in good taste and inspires confidence in the military is a different question.

  8. I’ve heard a lot of hand-wringing from a lot of experts who benefit from the very system of patronage they’re decrying. I don’t think it’d be difficult to label a think tank, defense contractor, or even (this) website as partisan, with plenty of employees who were in fact ‘waiting in the wings’ for their private-sector employment during their military service. The fact that generals are now again visible in their endorsements speaks to a larger climate of extreme polarization this election cycle, of which generals’ politics are a symptom, not a cause. The causes are myriad (open-ended military involvement abroad; an electorate disconnected from its military population; a less critical populace looking for justification of its own beliefs), but surely a general’s political activity isn’t one of them.Reference