Military Officers and Politics: Just say No

By James Durso

Proving that old soldiers never simply fade away, many of America’s retired generals and admirals recently voiced their support for presidential candidates Donald Trump or Joe Biden.

And in an interesting turn, Stanley McChrystal who commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan,  and who resignedafter a media report that he mocked then-vice president Joe Biden, announced he will endorse Joe Biden for president.

Does this mean he hates President Trump or loves Joe Biden? He may not be sure himself, but he said he agonizedover it, though his rationale – that the Obama administration had a better staff process – ignores the results of that process: a campaign in Afghanistan where NATO forces “underperformed” to put it politely.

The political level is sure about one thing, though: it’s nice to have ranks of retired military leaders ready to testify to a candidate’s readiness for that 3 AM phone call.

American military officers have always had political influence and thirteen general officers have become president, but many of Trump’s military critics are coming off losing seasons in Iraq and Afghanistan, unlike Eisenhower who defeated Nazi Germany and Grant who commanded the forces that preserved the Union.

Previous generation of commanders who defeated America’s enemies, men like George Marshall, Omar Bradley, Chester Nimitz, and Mark Clark, respected American institutions and, with the exception of Douglas MacArthur, avoided public attacks on the commander-in-chief. But they weren’t all silent. Matthew Ridgway, James Gavin, and David Shoup, successful combat leaders, opposed the Vietnam conflict and said so to President Lyndon Johnson – but they also avoided the campaign trail.

Some commanders’ words illustrate where we are today.

Nimitz, speaking of those who died in the battle for the Pacific said, “To them we have a solemn obligation, the obligation to ensure that their sacrifice will help to make this a better and safer world in which to live.” McChrystal, speaking about the U.S. effort in Afghanistan offered, “If we put more troops in there and we fight forever, that’s not a good outcome either. I’m not sure what [is] the right answer. My best suggestion is to keep a limited number of forces there and just kind of muddle along and see what we can do.”

How did we get here?

It goes back to 1988 when P.X. Kelly, a former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, endorsed George H.W. Bush for president. Kelly was followed in 1992 by William Crowe, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who endorsed Bill Clinton and then served (was rewarded?) as Clinton’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.

And so on, until the last election when we saw Michael Flynn leading the “Lock her up” cheer at the 2016 Republican National Convention, and John Allen making a speech in support of Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

And intemperate remarks like Bill McRaven’s “Our republic is under attack from the president” go a long way to color elected officials’ view of the value of advice from military leaders.

These officers may not understand that their new identity – a “Clinton admiral” or a “Trump general” – can’t be shed like old clothes.

Any future attempts to give disinterested military advice will be scrutinized for deviations from their patron’s policies. And their new friends, for whom nothing happens outside a political context, will be ready to exploit even a battlefield tragedy for political gain.

What officers eventually learn is: Politics is warfare, but without all the rules; and “norms” are what we did yesterday.

The military is hierarchical and institutional, values shared experience, and presents itself as apolitical. It makes decisions via deliberative, iterative processes, and for good reason: to ensure victory in warfare, the ultimate high-risk activity. On the other hand, it has the luxury of not having to present itself to the voters at regular intervals to renew its mandate.

Trump is impulsive, improvisational, personalized, and hyper-political. He allegedly called military leaders, who are prideful men, “losers” and “dopes and babies.” And Trump, being a businessman, understands “sunk cost,” that you walk away from a failing project – like Afghanistan – unlike military leaders who talk of “honoring the sacrifice” of the dead troops by staying in the fight.

And, uncomfortably for the military (and the civil service), what counts now isn’t an official’s political intent but the political effect of his actions.

The continued involvement of retired senior officers in politics may incentivize politicians to get more involved in the process of promoting generals and admirals.

Secretary of the Navy John Lehman (1981-1987) exercised hands-on involvement in the promotion process, but after the Reagan administration the military reasserted its primacy in the process.

But there’s nothing to stop a future service secretary, a political appointee, actively screening the selectees before he sends the list to the Secretary of Defense, another political appointee, for transmission to the President.

Once the list of selectees lands at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue the eager beavers in the presidential personnel office might think they can improve their boss’s fortunes by conducting their own scrub, maybe with some interviews thrown in for good measure, before sending the names to the Senate for confirmation.

If this was to happen in a second Trump term the Senate Democrats would freak out – but they’d remember how it was done.

But this doesn’t have to happen.

The generals and admirals must police their ranks so the country’s accountable political leaders will never have to wonder if the officer they are talking to will endorse the opposition at the next national political convention.

Americans consider warfare a Pass-Fail pursuit and the military is playing a weak hand after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan as few in command above the tactical level can honestly claim a passing grade. (Civilian officials also made many bad decisions that contributed to the disasters, but it takes more than 280 characters to explain that.)

Public naming and shaming may be required so wayward officers understand they can either run for office and submit to a detailed examination of their record, or honor the tradition of generals Ridgway, Gavin, and Shoup who continued their service to America by providing quiet and influential advice and counsel to elected leaders and the public.

If that fails, the responses of the political level might be:

1) More closely manage the senior officer promotion process. This will be critical for the officer corps if an administration decides the behavior of retired officers is a barometer of active duty sentiment and that it must get the potential problem children out the door soonest.

2) Add civilian officials to the staffs of senior military officers;

3) Isolate “the brass” by severing the connection in the minds of the voters between them and “a strong national defense” and “the welfare of the troops.”

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters.

Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Central Asia.