*Note: This essay was published in the Los Angeles Times print edition on September 23, 2020. Images from the actual print story (which was titled differently from the online version), as well as text can be found below; it can also be found online here.
Last week, 235 retired generals and admirals signed an “open letter” supporting President Trump’s reelection campaign. The letter is disgraceful and runs counter to military norms. Unfortunately, a second group is likely to respond in kind with a similar statement in support of former Vice President Joe Biden.
Every presidential election year, candidates seek to embezzle the high trust Americans place in the U.S. military, abetted by a growing group of retired generals and admirals with the wrong stuff. But let’s start with the right stuff.
At a Senate hearing in late 2016, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Gen. Mark Milley whether he would consider Congress and President Obama threats to the military if they were to cut defense spending. Expressionless, Gen. Milley responded: “I’m not judging the president or Congress. I will abstain.”
Milley’s response was forged by two centuries of military tradition. Troops live by codes, self-enforced standards that guide conduct even in the worst circumstances. One of these codes is nonpartisanship. Political neutrality keeps the armed forces connected to all of America. It also prevents internal divisions.
Retired military figures now offer political endorsements to presidential candidates every election cycle. This is a relatively new development. Before the end of the Cold War, retired generals and admirals never endorsed presidential candidates. Since then, one in seven has made such an endorsement, according to recent research published in Armed Forces & Society.
Retired military officers may vote, run for office and provide public policy advice. They should not offer presidential endorsements, which are explicitly partisan and uniquely divisive. At best, these endorsements sanction one person, one party and one platform and in doing so exclude roughly half the country. At worst, they lend military titles for favors and sell stars for high-profile positions.
The worst has happened far too much. Retired Adm. William Crowe endorsed Bill Clinton in the 1992 election and got an ambassadorship to Britain. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn endorsed Trump in 2016 and was named national security advisor.
Endorsements politicize the military in ways both explicit and subtle. For one thing, the American public tends not to distinguish between active and retired generals. One 2019 poll found that only about three in 10 Americans identified former Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis’ status as a Marine Corps general to be “retired.” (He retired in 2013.) Last week’s signatories exploited this ambiguity by titling their statement “Open Letter from Senior Military Leaders,” as if the retired officers were still serving and their views reflected those of the active military.
The more retired military figures endorse, the more Americans will see the military as partial. A downward spiral may follow. One president picks a brazenly partisan former general for some high office. The next president of the other party picks an openly partisan former admiral for another high office. And so on, with competence mattering less and less until it matters not at all. When America loses unity in this manner, our adversaries are more than happy to leverage the division. It’s why the Kremlin-funded media outlet RT recently ran the headline, “Whose side are generals on?”
Although their numbers are rising, these presidential endorsers are still a minority. There are a little more than 7,000 generals and admirals of all ranks on the retired rolls, and 6,000 of them have not yet endorsed a presidential candidate. Given the military’s hierarchical culture, it would take only a few well-regarded four-star generals and admirals to mobilize a no-endorsements campaign and reaffirm the political neutrality of America’s armed forces.
This “Project Neutral” campaign could be predicated on the principle that although presidential endorsements may be legal, they surely are shameful. Retired generals and admirals who endorse always lead with their military titles, as if those titles were given at birth. But “general” and “admiral” are not first names. Those titles are on conditional loan, inseparable from the larger institution that conferred them.
That institution has earned the goodwill of the American people through competence and sacrifice. When an American sees an admiral, they are likely to think of Pearl Harbor or Okinawa. When they see a general, their minds may flash to red waves crashing on Omaha Beach or white cemetery crosses. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower noted in 1945: “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.” That acclaim should not be leveraged for partisan purposes.
Codes of honor matter to warriors. That’s why American military greats — Sherman, Marshall, Mattis, all the way to Milley — have held firm to nonpartisanship. Hopefully our retired servicemen can too, even as everything else threatens to tear America apart.