McRaven’s Message, Leadership, and the Profession of Arms


Earlier this month, in response to the revocation of former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance, retired Adm. William McRaven wrote a response to President Donald Trump in the Washington Post that declared the actions of the president had, among other things, “embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.” The letter quickly went viral, and the vast majority of analysts and former officials alike declared that McRaven had crossed an important civil-military line in his defense of John Brennan — out of the safety of policy and into politics.

But the truth is much less black and white, in large part because observers of civil-military relations tend to conflate what is political in a broader sense — those things related to the conduct of government — with the parochial or partisan. While his letter is an example of the former, McRaven in fact refrained from the kind of partisan endorsement that civil-military scholars worry about. Instead, he kept his comments to subject matters on which he is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts: national security policy and leadership and ethics.

The conventional wisdom that has emerged, popularized by Kori Schake’s thoughtful article at this very outlet and by others including Susan Hennessey and Mikhaila Fogel, asserts that because McRaven’s letter strayed away from protesting the revocation of Brennan’s security clearance, he “crossed an important line from making a national security case, on which his expertise is deeper and more significant than most, to a political one…”

The norms to which Schake and others refer, however, are norms of partisan activity rather than political behavior more generally. Aspiring strategic leaders at U.S. war colleges are taught from Clausewitz and beyond that civil-military affairs are, in fact, fundamentally political in nature. Indeed, any disagreement about policy is by definition political, as it is a debate about the actions and responsibilities of those in power. When we refer to norms of an apolitical military, therefore, we are not talking about debates on policy, but rather partisan activity that jeopardizes public perceptions of an impartial force able and willing to defend the republic regardless of the party in power. There is ample evidence that partisan endorsements compromise public perceptions of an apolitical military, but there is also an important difference between partisan politics and the political more broadly defined.

When seen through this lens, McRaven’s missive becomes much less controversial. While it is undoubtedly political in nature, McRaven does not enter the realm of parochial politics or partisan favoritism in the same way that previous generals such as retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and retired Gen. John Allen have — interventions which alarmed many. McRaven took no sides in terms of parties, factions, and elections, though there was ample opportunity. McRaven could have written that he was going to work to defeat the president because of his poor example, or that he was going to support those of the other party. Democrats in the lead-up to the midterms certainly would have welcomed it. Indeed, there are many close electoral contests this fall in his home state of Texas that he could have taken a side in. But McRaven instead chose to state, “The criticism will continue until you become the leader we prayed you would be.” This was not an accident.

Where McRaven does depart from conventional understanding of civil-military friction is that rather than focusing on policy disagreements, he discusses ethics and leadership. Followers of civil-military relations have regularly studied how retired general and flag officers use their position and prestige to publicly disagree with administration policy, particularly in matters of war. But McRaven chose to focus on the president’s leadership, which leads Schake to conclude that, “for civil-military purposes, he ought to be treated as any other voter.”

The implication here, however, is that McRaven’s expertise from the military is limited to issues on national security — a deeply problematic assertion. U.S. general and flag officers have a vast amount of leadership experience, advanced education in ethics, and decades of professional practice at identifying, cultivating, nurturing, and promoting leaders. For example, at the Air War College, where I teach, students are required to take a three-month course on “Strategic Leadership in the Profession of Arms” and are offered a wide array of elective options on leading change in organizations, institutional ethics, and civil-military relations. We as Americans want our military’s senior officers to develop into the world’s best leaders, not just strategic specialists.

Further, the market recognizes retired general and flag officers as having leadership expertise: Just in the last three years both retired Gens. Stanley McChrystal and Martin Dempsey have published successful books on leadership that deliberately seek to apply their experiences to the civilian realm. The public recognizes the difference as well: While a retired senior officer speaking out about environmental policy carries less weight, a career military officer protesting the president’s ethics and leadership intuitively has great power.

In addition to the experience and judgment that the position alone confers, McRaven’s own history indicates that he should particularly be steeped in good leadership and ethical service. As Jeffrey Donnithorne points out in his new book, Navy service culture is centered around immense trust in the leadership of the commanding officer, coupled with swift and total accountability for errors in judgment. While a student at the Naval Postgraduate School McRaven helped to design curriculum for the department now known as Defense Analysis — a program that includes courses on ethical decision-making, military advice, and trust and influence. And McRaven’s illustrious career in special operations — a community known for its emphasis on teamwork and leadership — further adds credibility to his words.

While McRaven challenged conventional norms about retired officers, he did not do so in the way that the current conversation suggests. He remained out of the partisan fray and indeed kept his unsparing criticism to matters on which he can reasonably claim significant expertise: national security policy and leadership. Where he departs from civil-military norms, then, is in his choice to criticize the ethics and leadership of a sitting president — an actor who is both political and partisan. However, by very deliberately refraining from endorsing any political party or candidate, McRaven stays well within the practices set during previous episodes of civil-military tension. To confuse the two only empowers those who would use civil-military norms as a cudgel to silence legitimate criticism on matters where retired flag officers have decades of experience and expertise.


Carrie A. Lee is the course director of National Security Decision-Making at the U.S. Air War College, where she teaches on civil-military relations, decision-making, and global security. Her book manuscript, The Politics of Military Operations, examines how leaders influence military operations in response to domestic political pressure. Any views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or Air University.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Gustavo Castillo