When twelve stars tell you to knock it off, there’s a problem.
At several points throughout this past presidential campaign, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Michael Flynn’s partisan political behavior, while legal, was so out-of-line for a member of the profession of arms that a trio of the nation’s elite retired officers reached out informally and publicly to tell Flynn to cease and desist. Flynn’s old commander and comrade, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, quietly urged restraint, and two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote open letters to mark their disapproval: Gen. Martin Dempsey explained to the American people that Flynn’s inappropriate actions violated the profession’s “apolitical tradition,” and Adm. Michael Mullen amplified the same sentiment, that “for retired senior officers to take leading and vocal roles as clearly partisan figures is a violation of the ethos and professionalism of apolitical military service.”
Yet, despite three enormous red-and-white flags waving “stop,” Flynn, as a commission-holding retired military officer, continued to violate these apolitical values — etched in code, written in policy, deep in history, and reinforced every two years by service-supported voting education and assistance programs — yet, when pressed in an interview about this very criticism, Flynn responded combatively: “What’s Marty Dempsey going to do?” While troubling on its own, Flynn’s defiance raises a larger, more important question: What’s the profession of arms going to do?
This isn’t a Michael Flynn problem. This is a profession of arms problem (and as such, beyond partisan politics; my own apolitical stance is well-documented). Each member of the profession of arms is obligated to function as a steward, responsible and liable for individual behavior that impacts the larger profession. All are charged with keeping the profession’s flame burning brightly, particularly because the U.S. military has not always been professional and is not pre-destined to maintain this status in the future. One central characteristic of a profession is that they police themselves. They “self-regulate,” not just with active members but also amongst retired “nonpracticing professional[s].” In this case, the current informal system of self-governance, enforced by our nation’s most respected generals and admirals (e.g., McChrystal, Dempsey, and Mullen) simply did not work.
There’s an old saying in the military: If you choose to walk past someone who’s acting below standard, then you’ve just created a new standard. And Flynn’s was truly a sight to behold: defaming the commander in chief he recently served under by calling him a “liar,” demonizing an entire major world religion, delegitimizing a political opponent by literally yelling “You’re damn right!” while leading a partisan crowd in chants calling for her imprisonment (not to mention his public penchant for “dubious pronouncements,” nicknamed “Flynn facts,” which ultimately got him fired). It’s not hard to see Flynn has set a low new standard that opens the door to advance significantly more inappropriate partisan conduct.
Already today, hundreds of retired generals and admirals choose to participate in the quadrennial race to breach the profession’s apolitical values to endorse presidential and political candidates. And, this past year, in addition to Flynn, Gen. (ret.) John Allen faced criticism for his own partisan campaign conduct. There is an important discussion to be had about whether these actions similarly merit scrutiny. Yet when measured by degree, Allen’s actions, and these hundreds of others, are lesser transgressions when compared with Flynn’s.
But these adjacent issues drive questions about relatively smaller problems metastasizing into larger ones: How many of these hundreds watched Flynn profit from profaning the profession’s traditions, and thought, “Could that be me? Could I get a senior White House position?” Or, how many currently serving officers watched Flynn, saw no serious consequence imposed on him, and have adjusted their own partisan behavior and future plans accordingly?
What should be done? How does the profession of arms lean forward to learn from the failures of one fallen member — to live up to our own obligations as stewards and ensure the profession maintains a healthy relationship with the American people? How does the profession create conditions that decrease the likelihood of suffering the harm imposed by a proliferation of copycat Flynns?
Frank Hoffman has convincingly advocated for a broadly-taught and widely-understood “American Military Professional Ethic” — to set the foundational knowledge required to ensure professional behavior is held to an better-known, codified standard. Another thoughtful suggestion, meant to combat the increasingly dangerous “political role of retired generals and admirals” comes from Lt. Gen. (Retired) David Barno and Nora Bensahel. They share the assessment that “current norms [which] tolerate endorsing political candidates must change.” They’ve advanced an option to preemptively provide a letter to “every newly selected general or admiral” from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, with a refresher list containing the “expectations of the profession of arms,” explicitly including that “retired officers cannot become partisan political advocates upon leaving uniform.”
Both these suggestions are meaningful approaches that may bear fruit over time, but offer little to shape the behavior of individuals in the divided here and now. And Flynn’s case of willful disregard should throw cold water on the notion that a letter received a decade-and-a-half in the past, or some long ago professional education, would halt such misbehavior when our test subject was perfectly willing to blow past twelve stars’ worth of wisdom in real-time. Reminding elites and the entire profession about the tasty carrot that comes with adherence to the profession’s values provides a distinct benefit. But this effort might be better served with a sharp stick to deter members from particularly bad conduct.
One option could have been helpful in and generalized beyond Flynn’s case to the greater benefit of the profession of arms: formal professional censure.
Other professions have established methods for deeming beyond-the-pale behavior inappropriate. Medicine has boards, the law has bars. Why not consider a similar structure for the profession of arms? The legal profession provides one near-proximate recent example: Fifteen ethics lawyers filed a professional misconduct complaint against a fellow lawyer and influential individual in the current administration’s inner circle (not unlike Flynn) to a board composed of other members of the legal profession for “conduct involving dishonesty” and other related infractions. They wrote that the accused has brought “shame upon the legal profession” and this inappropriate conduct was far “outside the norm for a member of the legal profession.” Whether one agrees with the case in question or not, there is clearly merit in a system that enables the formal, documented, and public expression of disapproval in a fellow member’s professional behavior.
Translated to the profession of arms, such a board might follow in Hoffman’s footsteps by clearly describing “clear and enforceable measures” to the profession. It would consist of a rotating body of members representing the entire range of membership: active and retired, senior and junior. Ideally, it would be led by a retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs. While relatively less formal than the law’s bar or medicine’s board, this body would be more formal than what currently exists and provide much more punch than a retired four-star dressing down a retired three-star (informally or through the media). This body’s voice and judgments would carry exponentially more weight as a moral representative of the entire profession of arms.
Of course, structure isn’t enough on its own. Uniquely intolerable actions should carry uniquely intolerable consequences. In older days, seeking recourse, our forefathers turned to moral censure: the withdrawal of all honorifics as a sign of disfavor. They scratched the offender’s name from plaques and erased them from memorials. Visitors to West Point can still see evidence of this disfigurement. The museum’s curator provides plain explanation for one such case: that the punished “dishonored his own name, so they removed it.”
We don’t do statues like we once did, so today’s common monument to military service is the title retained in retirement. Without legal or financial options, this seems the most appropriate and just punitive target for a member who has so profaned the pillars of this profession. A simple rule with a simple consequence: If a member so tarnishes the profession’s tenets, then they risk losing their honorable status within the profession. This symbolic judgment would not impact pay or legally remove any benefit. Yet, the loss of title amongst professional peers, a figurative expulsion from the “Band of Brothers” — this heft transcends money.
This option is not mere nostalgia for some bygone era when everything was “better back then.” Failure to correct and discourage future Flynn-like behavior poses concrete challenges. Good luck with defense funding when the profession’s integrity is increasingly an open question. Good luck working with political leaders when they’ve got genuine reason to suspect partisan motives. Good luck maintaining society’s support when they start to wonder if our service is more selfish than selfless.
While dissent and condemnation from three revered military figures was significant and appropriate, it was unfortunately not enough to deter or halt a serious attack on the profession’s values. This experience should drive the profession of arms to search for more effective ways to defend and uphold its values amidst a divided political climate — formalizing censure might just be the tool-in-hand the next twelve stars need to combat this growing challenge.
Major ML Cavanaugh is a US Army Strategist, a Non Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and looks forward to connecting via Twitter @MLCavanaugh. This article is an unofficial expression of opinion. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.
Image: White House