Generals Shouldn’t be Welcome at These Parties: Stopping Retired Flag Officer Endorsements
Both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions that are just weeks away promise to be unlike any convention in recent memory due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Democratic convention, which was already pushed from July to August, will still occur in Milwaukee, but with most convention delegates participating remotely. Meanwhile, after the Republican party hastily shifted its convention from Charlotte, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida due to COVID-19 restrictions, President Donald Trump abruptly cancelled convention activities, citing ongoing concerns about the spike in COVID-19 cases in Florida. While there is considerable uncertainty on how both conventions will unfold, the pandemic is unlikely to interfere with one tradition: Both candidates will still produce long lists of retired generals and admirals who endorse their candidacies, just as Hillary Clinton and Trump did in 2016.
Endorsements by retired general and flag officers have been a common feature of presidential campaigns since 1988, but many onlookers felt a particular line had been crossed in 2016, with both Lt. Gen. (Ret) Michael Flynn and Gen. (Ret) John Allen drawing the rebuke of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. (Ret) Martin Dempsey for their over-the-top convention performances. Flynn’s frenzied chants of “lock her up” directed against Clinton are what most probably remember from the convention, but Peter Feaver, who nonetheless condemned Flynn’s theatrics, lamented Allen’s explicit call for active duty military to join the partisan political fray as the real nadir.
There has been no shortage of commentary raising concern about the effect such endorsements have on the profession or advocating for greater restraint among retired generals and admirals, including calls for greater peer pressure among other retired flag officers to dissuade their colleagues from endorsements. The normative case for why retired flag officer endorsements in particular are bad business for the profession is clear: When retired generals and admirals lend their stars to a partisan cause, they allow themselves to be “exploited for their titles.” These overt acts of partisanship threaten to erode the trust and confidence with which the American public regards the military and could further incentivize presidents to select senior military leaders based on their politics, not their professional excellence. And suggestions that the American public can distinguish between active duty and retired generals are simply unfounded, as evidenced by a poll Jim Golby and Feaver ran in June 2019 that will be featured in their forthcoming book, in which only 31 percent of Americans could correctly identify Secretary Jim Mattis’s military status as retired.
While calls for an end to flag officer endorsements have largely fallen on deaf ears, there has never been a more important time in the All-Volunteer Force era for the military to fully recommit itself to the norm of nonpartisanship, as the past few years have exposed shortcomings in the military’s adherence to the nonpartisan ethic and raised questions about to what extent the military has already been politicized. Past survey research I conducted from December 2015 to January 2016 found a willingness, even among active duty members, to publicly criticize elected leaders and the president on social media. More recently, Ronald R. Krebs and Robert Ralston have written persuasively on the lack of understanding of critical civil-military relations norms among the American public today, and Risa Brooks has raised valid concerns about increased instances of civilians politicizing the military. The use of active duty troops to quell domestic protests, punctuated by the regrettable incident in Lafayette Square in June, only reignited a debate on the perils of politicizing the military.
It is precisely because concerns over politicizing the military have been in the news so much that our current uniformed leaders should lead a renewed commitment to upholding and maintaining the norm of nonpartisanship — to include unambiguously extending it into retirement for retired flag officers. In routine presidential election years, it may have sufficed for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to pen an op-ed in Joint Force Quarterly about the importance of members of the active duty military keeping their politics private, but there is nothing about 2020 that is routine. Norms do not take hold in an institution overnight, but require constant teaching, reinforcement, and observable adherence if they are to be preserved. All of our serving general and flag officers, not just the Chairman, should communicate to their active duty troops the harm that can be done to the military’s credibility as a nonpartisan institution when retired generals make partisan endorsements and give the appearance they still speak for the military. And when endorsements do emerge in the coming weeks, our most senior uniformed leaders should not hesitate from publicly condemning them as hurtful to the institution to the service of which these flag officers all ostensibly committed their professional lives.
My own survey research has found that most officers serving in the military today are fairly sanguine about the political outspokenness of retired flag officers — raising concerns about whether the tide of retired flag officer endorsements can truly ever be turned. From 2017 to 2020, I was part of a team that surveyed over 1,200 officers attending the National Defense University and Army War College and cadets enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy. The survey focused on a host of contemporary civil-military relations issues, including the role that retired officers, especially flag officers, play in politics. Only 24 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that it is appropriate for retired general and flag officers to publicly express their political views, compared to 53 percent who agreed. Additionally, only 30 percent of those we surveyed agreed that retired officers — not just generals and admirals — should not publicly criticize senior civilian political leaders, compared to 47 percent who disagreed. Notably, these figures did not vary based on the rank, ideology, or partisanship of the respondents, but rather there was remarkable consistency across demographic variables.
Lastly, 43 percent of those surveyed agreed with the idea that more retired four stars should be encouraged to serve as political appointees, while only 17 percent disagreed and 39 percent were unsure. This likely is in response to the Trump administration’s proclivity to appoint so many retired generals to key policy positions or the sentiment held by some that those retired generals critically served as the only “adults in the room.” While openly serving in a presidential administration in a political role is different from using one’s rank as the impetus behind a partisan endorsement, the survey response still indicates comfort among those serving today with retired flag officers filling outsized political roles. It also reflects a growing trend where the public and politicians increasingly turn to the well-trusted, well-respected military for things outside the military’s traditional realm of expertise. While that is a separate civil-military relations issue to unpack, this still underscores why the retired flag officer endorsement issue is so important: Partisan endorsements cash in on the military’s position of trust.
These observations are not new. In 2009, I conducted a large-scale, random sample survey of more than 4,000 Army officers in the ranks of lieutenant through colonel, and found even less opposition to retired officers’ political outspokenness. Back then, only 11 percent of active duty army officers felt it was inappropriate for retired generals to publicly express their political views and just 20 percent thought retired officers, regardless of rank, should not publicly criticize civilian leaders. If there is a silver lining to all this, there has been a slight increase in the proportion of active duty officers who are uncomfortable with retired officers publicly airing their politics.
If candidates in both parties continue to actively recruit endorsements from retired flag officers — and there has been nothing to suggest they will suddenly stop, even if such endorsements end up having little effect on public opinion — the only way to curb these endorsements is for retired flag officers to just say no. And even if, as Maj. Gen. (Ret) Charlie Dunlap noted in a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies podcast, the fraction of retired flag officers who make such endorsements is small, plenty have still been willing to oblige. In a way, the calls from two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, both Dempsey and Adm. (Ret) Michael Mullen, to extend the norm of nonpartisanship into retirement, are outliers that have been roundly ignored by those retired flag officers eager to lend their stars to the next presidential hopeful’s campaign. Notably, the most recent Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. (Ret) Joseph Dunford, purposefully refrained from weighing in on the issue of retired officers speaking out on political issues, continuing to give credence to the idea this is an uncertain norm at best. Taken together, it is understandable why many interested civil-military relations observers might simply conclude that reversing the trend of partisan political endorsements by retired flag officers looks bleak.
An important side note: The call to eliminate partisan endorsements by retired flag officers does not mean senior military leaders should not speak out on critical issues relating to their expertise. Mullen and Dempsey by no means have been silent in retirement, and both quickly condemned Trump’s use of the military to quell peaceful protests, but their criticism sprang from their views on the proper use of military force and concerns that the military would be politicized in the eyes of the American public. Outspokenness in defense of preserving the military’s norms is a far cry from a partisan endorsement, and the military and civilians alike should be able to distinguish between the two.
There is some hope the military can reverse the troubling trend of endorsements, although not necessarily for this generation of retired flag officers. First, as I indicated earlier, I have found slight increases in the percentage of active duty officers who are uncomfortable with retired generals making public political pronouncements over the past decade. This could be in response to the 2016 campaign and both parties’ nominating conventions that year, although the exact reasons behind the modest shift are not entirely clear. Moreover, in that same survey research, I found nearly a quarter of respondents were ambivalent on the role that retired flag officers should play in politics, suggesting a portion of the officer corps is open to influence. It may be too late to convince our current cohort of retired flag officers of how damning their partisan endorsements are for the institution and maintaining the American public’s trust and confidence. A more comprehensive campaign oriented on those currently serving — from which the next generation of generals and admirals will be chosen — may prove to be a wiser, albeit long-term, investment. Nearly two decades ago, Richard Kohn famously wrote that four stars, like “princes of the church,” never truly retire, but forever represent the institution. This election season and beyond, let’s hope members of the uniformed military head back to church, recommitting fully to the nonpartisan ethic and holding their princes to the same standard.
Dr. Heidi Urben is an adjunct associate professor in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and will retire from the U.S. Army later this year after a 23-year career. Her previous assignments include command of a military intelligence brigade, two tours in the Pentagon, assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point, military aide to the Secretary of Defense, and deployments to Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The views here are those of the author and do not represent the Department of Defense or the U.S. Army.