Recently, Dan Helmer, a West Point graduate running for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, released a list of eight retired generals and admirals he calls his “National Security Advisory Committee.” At the top is retired Lt. Gen. Dan Christman, who formerly served as superintendent at West Point (akin to a college president) while I was a cadet. I looked up to him then.
But I’m not so sure about that now.
Christman’s and other public endorsements from retired military officers are legal, but are nonetheless inappropriate and harm both the military and country. Most Americans are naturally prone to see these retired officers — especially retired admirals and generals — as representing the entire military. As such, one person’s individual endorsement necessarily trades on the military’s reputation in service of a party, ideology, or candidate. This pulls the military into partisan politics.
America’s military profession holds one bedrock principle: We serve no party and all Americans. We don’t let the tribal nature of politics or hot-button partisan issues alienate us from society or divide our troops from within. That’s why America trusts its military.
And consider the context: Society is bitterly divided. Last month, a poll found “seven in 10 Americans say the nation’s political divisions are at least as big as during the Vietnam War.” That sentiment likely triggered Secretary of Defense (and retired Marine Corps general) James Mattis to recently reinforce our commitment to nonpartisanship with soldiers serving abroad, telling them to “hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other.”
Mattis knows that no matter how split America is, our fighting forces can’t let politics separate one soldier from another. Moreover, if the military were to ever become linked to one political party over another, what would happen when the other party inevitably came back to power? Can our national defense ever afford to lose an election?
That’s why our greatest officers steered clear of partisan politics, like Gen. George Marshall and Gen. George Patton. Today, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. (ret.) Michael Mullen and Gen. (ret.) Martin Dempsey have also emphasized the importance of holding onto the military’s “apolitical” tradition, or we might we become, as Dempsey put it, just “another special interest group.”
Unfortunately, too many have forgotten this tradition. Starting with Adm. (ret.) William Crowe’s endorsement of then-candidate Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, over time this terrible trend has grown to hundreds of endorsements in each presidential campaign. What’s worse, the increasing frequency and volume of general and admiral endorsements has started to turn down rank to those with fewer stars and down ballot to races like Helmer’s bid for the U.S. House of Representatives. If this continues, at what point will Dempsey’s fear come true? When will the military become just another special interest? Is it already?
Some frequent endorsers, like Air Force Gen. (ret.) Merrill McPeak, argue retired officers shouldn’t forfeit their free speech rights due to their military service. This argument has an emotional component (as another officer has said: “we fought for them”) and they’d point to the benefits of an informed voter with national security experience. And as citizens, they do have the right.
But rights should be exercised responsibly. And as much as we are nation of rights and laws, norms are just as important. Even in retirement, a military officer still holding an official commission should be expected to subordinate certain personal interests for the good of the country. Unique service demands unique responsibility, and every endorsement by a retired officer makes securing the country a little harder for those of us still charged with doing so as our political leadership starts to question whether their military advice is tainted by partisanship.
This is why any personal benefit gained in an endorsement is overwhelmed by the cost to the military and society, all the more so because Newton’s third law applies: One endorsement creates an equal and opposite endorsement. The other side will match, and in this arms race America and its military always lose.
If Christman and the rest of Helmer’s “National Security Advisory Committee” are truly passionate about this candidate or cause, there are less harmful options. If they are intent on endorsing candidates, they might avoid using their former ranks, or even renounce their military commissions. Or they could take the quieter route and instead give money anonymously. They might stick to specific policy issues and give private advice. Or, if so inclined, they could even run for office themselves, shedding some of the professional obligations that come with career military service, and gain an additional public identity as a candidate with responsibilities to a particular electorate, directly accountable to voters.
If those sound tough, well, they are. But for retired members of the military and West Pointers who’ve been conditioned by the non-denominational Cadet Prayer that advises us to “choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong,” they’re the only honorable ones available. And for the sake of America and its military profession, I hope some retired officers still care about doing the right thing.
Major ML Cavanaugh is a U.S. Army Strategist, a Non Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and looks forward to connecting via Twitter @MLCavanaugh.
This essay 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.