Should We Care About That Letter?
Retired generals and admirals are, first and foremost, retirees.
Why do we care what 124 generals and admirals, in many cases long-retired, think? The retired flag officers who signed a May 10 open letter have been called a threat to democracy. Why do we give them that kind of power? Retired flag officers are, after all, first and foremost retirees.
As citizens, we have the power to diminish their voices. They might continue to use their rank as an honorific, but what have they done since retirement to be worthy of our attention? Not to be pejorative, but their military experience should carry minimal relevance to us. If we want relevant experience, we should go first to those on active duty. They can speak of today’s, not yesterday’s military.
When it comes to flag officer retirees, we should be asking: what type of life did they lead after leaving the military? We should care about how they developed as individuals and citizens after retirement, not about just what they did in uniform. Subsequent behavior speaks volumes about who they are now, not who they were. It makes a difference whether they went on the media circuit, started a non-profit, became a board member, joined a think tank or large business, etc. How they chose to write the subsequent chapters of their lives represents their individual choices. Everyone should be evaluated based on these choices and help accountable for them.
This leads to the letter recently posted by “Flag Officers 4 America.” To what extent should we care about it, and why? A look at the list of signatories reveals a few things of note. First, it is not inclusive, seemingly excluding both women and people of color. Second, only one four-star signed it (Jerome Johnson), so, among those that care about retirees’ ranks, it immediately carries less weight. Third, some of the signatories have high political profiles (e.g., Thomas McInerney, John Poindexter) but most we know nothing about post-retirement. Fourth, many of these men retired before 9/11 (e.g., William Bloomer, 1984; Johnson, 1992; Ronald Iverson, 1997) or soon thereafter, so their military experience is, in a word, dated. In other words, the demographics for the signees skew older, white, male, less senior flag officers, and based on those with public profiles, and by the group’s own admission, supporters of Donald Trump. Why should we care what a self-selected, narrowly focused group of retired men think?
Now to the body of the letter. Hopefully, these retirees expected much better staff work when they were on active duty. Effective staff work respects other viewpoints, persuades through objective analysis and tight argumentation, and leads to logical conclusions and recommendations. None of these qualities come through in this letter. Instead, it offers stark dichotomies (“supporters of Socialism and Marxism vs. supporters of Constitutional freedom and liberty”) and emotional phrases such as “tyrannical intimidation tactic.” What senior officer allows wording meant to inflame, rather than inform?
The letter also repeats lies about the election, against all data and analysis, and further, fails to assemble a coherent argument. What remotely connects the political philosophy discussion at the start of the letter to “additional national security issues?” What is the overall logic for that national security section? This section jumps from one poorly articulated idea to another without providing the reader any underpinning logic that might connect them. The critique could go on, but obviously the criteria for solid staff work these retirees once enforced do not apply here. To serving and former staff officers, this letter clearly falls into the “revise and resubmit” category, or the university equivalent of an F.
The reason they failed as staff officers in this task carries a larger lesson. Just as they no longer know what good staff works looks like, because they left that part of their life behind, the military they served in also no longer exists; it now belongs to history. They might be retired flag officers, but the emphasis is on retired. “General” or “flag officer” groups do not exist. The generals and admirals are all retirees who served their country, and then pursued other profession and interests in retirement. They are individuals, not a collective. When they come together, it is driven by individual motives. We can appreciate what retired flag officers did on active duty, but until we know what they’ve done since their retirement, we should not privilege their perspectives.
It’s a small step, but one place to start is give an “F” to a poorly written missive, supported by a self-selected group of retired white men, posted on a website that implies, somehow, these retirees are uniquely “for America.” This letter demonstrates just how unworthy they are of the public voice they tried to claim as flag officer retirees.
Paula G. Thornhill, D.Phil., is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general; acting director of Strategic Studies, Johns Hopkins University (SAIS); and author of Demystifying the American Military.