Retired four star General Martin Dempsey has penned an op-ed for Defense One in which he offers some advice to past and present military leaders regarding the upcoming election. The 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would like his colleagues to remember that the military has a duty to the Commander in Chief no matter who that winds up being and, with that in mind, advises them to butt out of the election.
From my personal experience across several administrations, the commander-in-chief will value our military advice only if they believe that it is given without political bias or personal agenda.
Generals and admirals are generals and admirals for life. What they say carries the weight of their professional judgment and the credibility of their professional reputation…
This is where the freedom of speech argument often invoked in this debate about the role of retired senior military officers in election campaigns fails. Unquestionably, retired admirals and generals are free to speak to those seeking elected office. But they should speak privately, where it will not be interpreted that they are speaking for us all.
Publicly, they can speak to their experiences with the issues. Not about those seeking office. Not about who is more suited to be elected. That will be decided by the voters, and they have an obligation to learn about the candidates before casting their vote.
But not from us.
There’s plenty more at the link but the General is being pretty clear here. Whether they happen to be in favor of Trump, Clinton or somebody else, our military leaders should stay out of the debate and leave that to the rank and file citizens, both to avoid poisoning the military’s relationship with the next president and to ensure that the voters aren’t mislead into believing that any one commander speaks for the entire military.
I’ll confess that, at least on the surface, it’s an attractive argument. Military leaders do carry a certain amount of prestige when they offer their opinions, particularly on matters of warfare and combating terrorism – two subjects much on the minds of voters today. Further, speaking as a veteran myself, the General is correct in saying that the relationship between the Commander in Chief and the military is a strictly one way street. The President, elected by the citizens, is the civilian authority with absolute control over the actions of the military. When you are in the service, your opinions on policy don’t amount to a hill of beans. (I realize that sounds harsh, but it’s true and it’s also a requirement for the military to continue to function at all.)
But particularly for retired military leaders, I just can’t get behind what the General is saying. You don’t sacrifice your right to free speech and your ability to participate in the electoral process for your entire life from the moment you take the oath. True, for the time that you are in active service you need to avoid getting into those sticky debates or you might find yourself on the receiving end of some UCMJ activity. But once you’ve done your service to your nation and returned to civilian life, you’re a citizen just like everyone else. Saying that the retired generals should hold their tongues because of the undue influence they might wield seems a rather overly broad argument to me. The same could be said for former members of Congress, Cabinet chiefs, heads of industry or medical experts. Should they all remain quiet because the voters might be too easily swayed by them?
No… I can’t get behind this. If General Dempsey wants to hold his own tongue for those rather noble reasons, I support his decision. But trying to force that choice on the rest of our retired warriors seems like a bridge too far.