Retired Generals are People Too!

9 August 2016, 1054 EDT

This is a guest post by  Christopher Gelpi, Chair of Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution and Professor of Political Science
Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State University


The appearances of retired Generals Michael Flynn and John Allen at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, respectively, have created quite a stir among those concerned with civil-military relations in America.  In one sense, the attention paid to these military endorsements is surprising, since the best available evidence suggests that the support of military officers has a substantial impact on the public’s willingness to support military operations, but little impact on their voting choices.

Nonetheless, a number of observers, including the former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and scholars like Stephen Saideman, and Peter Feaver have suggested that retired military officers have an obligation to abstain from politics because of the possibility that they will damage the special role that the military plays in American politics.  For example, Gen. Dempsey stated that “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.”

Gen. Dempsey and others are right that active duty members of the military play a special role in our democracy because of their pledge to follow orders from our Commander-in-Chief, so long as those orders are legal.  As a result there is a widespread consensus that active duty military should refrain from publicly engaging in partisan politics because they may undermine public confidence in their willingness to obey orders from a partisan opponent.

Retired military personnel (i.e. military veterans), on the other hand, are a different matter, and the General and his supporters are wrong to paint them with the same brush.  Retired military officers are just that: retired.  They are private citizens who have both the right and the duty as citizens to engage in politics.  To be clear, neither Gen. Dempsey nor any of his supporters question the right of retired officers to speak, but they instead suggest that veterans have a duty to the military to remain silent.  I believe that they have a duty to their country to speak.

My research (with Peter Feaver) suggests that by recusing themselves from political discourse, American veterans would be withholding from our nation a distinct set of political values, beliefs, and attitudes that should remain a part of our national debate.  For example, our research indicates that military veterans are more likely to be reticent regarding the use of force in American foreign policy, but more likely to encourage the use of large-scale military force once it has been applied.  Our research also suggests that the gradual disappearance of veterans from the American political process has resulted in substantial changes in American foreign policy over the past five decades. Indeed, it seems likely that the absence of veterans’ voices from the policy making process may have contributed to American involvement in some of the military conflicts, such as Iraq and Libya, that are so controversial in our current electoral cycle.

Regardless of whether one agrees with veterans’ preferences on foreign policy, however, it is clear that these are honestly held political beliefs by a distinct (if shrinking) segment of American society.  Asking those who have served to remain silent threatens to bias representation in our government, at least with regard to foreign policy views.

General Allen and his supporters seek to avoid this unfortunate result by creating an exception for veterans running for office.  Specifically, he states that, “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.” But accountability to the voters is irrelevant to the concern about linking military service and partisanship in the public mind.  Veterans running for office are inevitably linking their past military experiences with a partisan label.  They have done so for decades – and even centuries – without damaging the norm of civilian control.  Dwight Eisenhower and Colin Powell’s active participation in Republican politics did nothing to damage American confidence in the military or in the norm of civilian control.  Indeed, if Powell damaged the norm of civilian control it was his behavior while on active duty 1993 with regard to President Clinton’s desire to have gay and lesbian soldiers serve openly that was problematic, not his political service and advocacy after his retirement.

Supporters of the code of silence often worry that if retired military officers raise their voices, the American public will lose faith in its military and will view it as a partisan and corrupt institution.  It is true that public confidence in the military remains high even when the reputations of other major American institutions have suffered. Some even point to the erosion of confidence in the Supreme Court – which has fallen steadily since around 2000 – as a cautionary tale on the consequences of becoming partisan.  But the Supreme Court did not become viewed as partisan because of the behavior of retired justices.  It is the partisan behavior of those actively serving on the court that became controversial.

Finally, we put too little faith in the American people when we assume that they cannot distinguish between the political opinion of a retired military officer and her professionalism in following orders while on active duty.  Indeed, as I noted above, the available evidence suggests that the public responds quite strongly to military expertise when asked about military operations but pays little attention to the views of military officers when deciding their vote.  Thus the public seems to have some sense of when the military speaks from professional expertise and when they voice a political opinion.

Of course, the right to speak on partisan issues does not absolve veterans of responsibility for anything that they say about candidates for office.  Calling on active duty personnel to disobey legal civilian authorities or suggesting that candidates are not qualified for office because of a lack of military service, for example, would undermine the core principle of civilian control that is enshrined in the Constitution. Short of such statements, however, the participation of military veterans in our politics should be welcomed.

In the end the voices of retired Generals Flynn and Allen may have little impact on voting decisions come November, but it would be a shame if observers, however well-meaning, discouraged them and other veterans from sharing their values and beliefs as a part of our political – and even partisan – debate.  The beliefs and experiences of military veterans have shaped American foreign policy for the past 240 years, and we should allow them to continue to do so.