This past weekend, retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey criticized retired General John Allen for his involvement in this year’s presidential race in support of Hillary Clinton and in strong opposition to Donald Trump. Allen (who is currently on a leave of absence from Brookings) believes the latter could cause a historic crisis in civil-military relations, due to Trump’s promise to order the military to commit illegal or immoral actions such as waterboarding and carpet bombing.
I believe General Allen is correct to recognize the severity of the threat Donald Trump would pose to our military and indeed our broader foreign policy. But leave that aside. I would challenge General Dempsey’s contention that retired military personnel should, and generally do, stay out of partisan politics. Has he forgotten the following?:
- George Washington, our first commander in chief, also became our first president several years after his military retirement;
- General Ulysses S. Grant, the winning general for the Union in the civil war, became president four years later;
- General Dwight Eisenhower, the winning general for allied forces in World War II, became president of the United States eight years later;
- General Colin Powell, impressed by Barack Obama’s abilities, endorsed him for president eight years ago;
- Admiral Mike Mullen, our last chairman of the joint chiefs before Dempsey, was reportedly vetted and approved to be Michael Bloomberg’s vice presidential choice when Bloomberg was considering an independent run for president this year;
- General Wesley Clark ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004; other former flag officers have done the same;
- When then-Senator John Kerry was denigrated by a right-wing group for his supposed failings in uniform during the Vietnam War, a number of high-ranking former military officers came to Kerry’s defense in 2004.
In fact, Dempsey’s rule doesn’t work in practice, nor should it. There are some rules that should apply, however. Clearly, active-duty officers should not engage in political activity, nor attempt to inculcate their troops with their own political views. Clearly, even retired officers should be very careful about impugning the integrity of a presidential candidate based on national security secrets that they do not and cannot be expected to know. Former military officers should be careful about teaming up in a concerted way to back one candidate and attack another by invoking their military credentials in what amounts to intellectual bullying or political shaming. And ideally, retired officers should voice their views with a degree of restraint, and precision, avoiding sweeping arguments when it is possible to make their points in a professional and specific way.
These would be among the guidelines I would counsel. Some of them are admittedly somewhat vague and murky—but that’s life. Better to have debate in some of the grey areas of public policy than to deprive our national political debate of the seasoned and reasoned views of some of its finest and most knowledgeable citizens, just because at one time they happened to wear the uniform of the American armed forces.