Keep Your Politics Private, My Fellow Generals and Admirals

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey testifies before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C., on June 4, 2013.

DoD / U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Sean K. Harp

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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey testifies before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C., on June 4, 2013.

We must not compromise our military’s special role in democracy, nor hinder those who come after us.

The relationship between elected leaders and the military is established in the Constitution and built on trust.

As a matter of law, we follow the orders of the duly elected commander-in-chief unless those orders are illegal or immoral. This is our non-negotiable commitment to our fellow citizens. They elect. We support.

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. 

More than an individual reputation, retired generals and admirals enjoy a collective reputation earned by having been part of a profession. It is therefore nearly impossible for them to speak exclusively for themselves when speaking publicly. If that were even possible, few would want to hear from them. Their opinion is valued chiefly because it is assumed they speak with authority for those who have served in uniform. And their opinion is also valued because our elected leaders know that the men and women of the U.S. military can be counted upon follow the orders of their elected leaders. 

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. 

Because we have a special role in our democracy, and because we will serve whoever is elected.

So retired generals and admirals can but should not become part of the public political landscape. That is, unless they choose to run for public office themselves. That’s different. If they choose to run themselves, they become accountable to voters. In simply advocating—or giving speeches—they are not.

Watch: “On the Purpose of the Military”: Gen. Dempsey speaks at the 2014 Defense One Summit

Related: Gen. Dempsey on How Americans Can Serve Together With Veterans

One of the two candidates is going to be elected this November. They each now have reason to question whether senior military leaders can be trusted to provide honest, non-partisan advise on the issues and to execute the orders given to them with the effort necessary to accomplish them.

Moreover, if senior military leaders—active and retired—begin to self-identify as members or supporters of one party or another, then the inherent tension built into our system of government between the executive branch and the legislative branch will bleed over into suspicion of military leaders by Congress and a further erosion of civil-military relations.

Worse yet, future administrations may seek to determine which senior leaders would be more likely to agree with them before putting them in senior leadership positions.

In the political world, trust is generally derived from party loyalty. In the interchange between civil and military, trust is derived from party neutrality.

Political candidates will continue to seek retired generals and admirals to endorse them. In the competition for public office, politicians will always seek to surround themselves with as many credible allies as possible. But we retired generals and admirals should not heed their request. This is not something that needs to be fixed with law, policy, or administrative rule. All we have to do is say no. 

The image of generals and admirals that is held in esteem by the American people is the image of loyal, determined, selfless professionalism keeping watch for threats to our country from abroad. It’s not the image of angry speeches in front of partisan audiences intended to influence politics at home.

As I said, what we saw at the conventions is a mistake. Both by those who participated and by those who invited them.

I could be wrong. I suppose we could adopt a reality-TV model for our civilian-military interactions instead of the model based on our standing with the American people as a profession. Perhaps we could imitate “The Bachelor.” We’ll troop out as many retired generals and admirals as we can for each side, decide who has the most persuasive group, and make our decision about suitability to be commander-in-chief on that basis.

I don’t think that’s what we want.

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