Defense Secretary Mark Esper listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet Meeting in the East Room of the White House, Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in Washington.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet Meeting in the East Room of the White House, Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in Washington. AP / Evan Vucci

This is Not a Civil-Military Crisis

Recent statements by uniformed leaders are anodyne expressions about U.S. law. Those by retired four-stars are more problematic.

Mara Karlin, a former senior defense official and national security scholar, rightly laments that retired general officers are having an outsized role in our national political debate. But she’s off the mark when she exclaims, “If this isn’t a civil-military relations crisis, I don’t know what is.” Rather, the crisis is that they’re having to speak out at all.

Katie Bo Williams rounded up the recent events that inspired Karlin’s comments in a Thursday report, “The Generals Are Speaking Up. Is That a Good Thing?” But the generals (and at least two admirals) and other senior defense leaders who are speaking up are in different categories and doing so about slightly different things. The distinctions at play are important.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, having been excoriated by many of the aforementioned generals and others for allowing himself to be used as a prop in an outrageous photo opportunity made possible by tear-gassing peaceful protestors at a house of worship, tried to regain some dignity by issuing a memo extolling the Department’s “commitment to protecting the American people’s right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly” and reminding the uniformed military of their commitment to “stay apolitical.” Separately, Esper issued statements that “Racism is real in America, and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it, and to eradicate it” and arguing that, despite President Trump’s threat to invoke the Insurrection Act to put down violence associated with nationwide protests against police brutality, the conditions do not call for such drastic measures.

To the extent this contradicts the implicit messaging of President Trump, it could get Esper fired. But they’re anodyne expressions of the requirements of the Constitution and the law of the land. And, since Esper is a civilian official whose job is to help set defense policy, the only implication for civil-military relations is his reminder to uphold the tradition.

Related: Trump, GOP Allies Reach For Military Response To Domestic Protests

Related: The Generals Are Speaking Up. Is That a Good Thing?

Related: Esper Opposes Insurrection Act Use

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and also part of the march to the photo op, in his combat fatigues no less, issued a memo reminding the men and women in uniform that the take an oath to the Constitution and declaring it “founded on the essential principle that all men and women are born free and equal, and should be treated with respect and dignity.” While a revisionist reading of American history, it could hardly have been more banal a statement of current values.

Each of the service chiefs, led by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, issued letters of their own, condemning racism and police violence. Goldfein and his senior enlisted advisor, Chief MSgt. Kaleth Wright, were particularly powerful in their statements, tweets, and town halls. Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger, who had ordered all Confederate symbols removed from public display on the service’s bases around the world well ahead of the latest round of protests, issued a statement: “Current events are a stark reminder that it is not enough for us to remove symbols that cause division – rather, we also must strive to eliminate division itself.”

To the extent any of these statements are seen as political, let alone partisan, it says a lot about our state of affairs and should cause us great shame as a nation. But they’re not only consistent with the values of the Constitution, federal law, and the Uniformed Code of Military Justice but it would be unconscionable for men who lead so many African-American service members to not get out in front of this issue.

More problematic, perhaps, are statements from several retired officers. While they are no longer in uniform and have the same right as any other citizen to free speech, many have argued that partisan activity by recently retired generals and admirals raises questions about the loyalty of those still serving and should be scrupulously avoided by those who remain nonpracticing professionals.

Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011, was the first to weigh in on the aforementioned photo op, and he did not hold back. “It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church,” Mullen wrote. “Whatever Trump’s goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risk.”

Retired Adm. Jim Stavridis, who served as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO from 2009 to 2013, also condemned the use of military personnel in the stunt as “beyond the pale of American norms.”

Like Karlin, I’m uncomfortable with retired generals speaking out on political matters. To paraphrase another former Chairman, retired Gen. Martin Dempsey: Mullen, and Stavridis aren’t writing as “Mike” and “Jim” but as “Admiral.”

Still, they’re not endorsing a candidate for partisan office but weighing in on an area squarely in their military lane. For them to stand up against using military personnel in ways that might endanger their standing with the public should be no more out of bounds than calling for Congress to fund more aircraft carriers or NATO allies to pony up more defense spending.

The case that has gotten the most attention is the most complicated. Jim Mattis, who served as Trump’s first defense secretary, issued the boldest and wide-ranging condemnation of his former boss. Aside from being more colorful, his statements on the use of troops for a political stunt were in line with Mullen’s and Stavridis’.

But Mattis also exclaimed, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us” and that “We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.” Moreover, he urged, “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”

Now, I happen to agree with every word of that. But my instant reaction was to invoke the words of another former defense secretary, Bob Gates: “The problem with this is that, to the extent people care what Mattis thinks because he was a general, he should STFU.”

The reason this is complicated is that, in addition to being a retired four-star Marine general, Mattis was more recently a defense secretary. Former defense official and CSIS scholar Alice Hunt Friend, quite reasonably, argues, “When Mattis became SecDef he became a partisan political figure and so transitioned into a professional identity that not only allows providing his political opinions, but expects it.”

The problem, however, is that Mattis never made that transition.

Mattis was chosen as defense secretary less than four years after his military retirement, requiring a Congressional waiver to a law that requires a minimum of seven years of separation from uniformed service. As many of us warned at the time, this had dangerous implications for civil-military relations. Not only did Trump and others continue to refer to him as “General Mattis” throughout his short stint in the post, but he continued to cultivate his warrior-monk persona, including bravado like answering the standard What-keeps-you-up-at-night question, “Nothing. I keep other people awake at night.”

Predictably, members of Congress, the press, the general public, and current and former members of the armed forces are reacting to a condemnation of the President by General Mattis, not Secretary Mattis or Mr. Mattis.

Still, while I would strongly prefer Mattis refrain from mocking the commander-in-chief—an inherently partisan act—a single, murky case is hardly an indication of a crisis of civil-military relations.

That defenses of the First Amendment and our founding principle that all men are created equal are seen as an indictment of the sitting President and his party is a sad state of affairs. But there has been no suggestion from any officer, active or retired, that the military should solve that for us. If that changes, we will indeed be in a crisis. 

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated Alice Hunt Friend's institutional affiliation.