June 1, 2013  

Rank partisanship

Why retired officers shouldn’t lend their titles to political causes

On April 8, a letter titled “The Benghazi attacks on 9/11/2012” and signed by “a representative group of some 700 retired Military Special Operations professionals” was sent to members of the House of Representatives. The letter urged lawmakers to dig deeper into the militant attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

“America failed to provide security to personnel deployed into harm’s way and then failed to respond when they were viciously attacked,” it said.

Whatever the facts are behind the Benghazi case, the signatures on this letter represent still another example of retired officers throwing their military ranks and influence into partisan politics. Sincerity is not an issue; doubtless, many of the signatories were genuinely troubled by the Benghazi tragedy. But the more important question is whether the military’s self-policed “wall” between the military profession and partisan politics is being eroded, perhaps irreparably, by actions like the Benghazi letter and other recent episodes.

This article argues that the use of retired commissioned rank to influence partisan political issues is never proper, is injurious to the military services and is demeaning to the officers concerned.

“Use of military rank” is the key. This is not an issue of freedom of speech, but of propriety: Is it ever proper for retired officers to use their rank to influence a partisan political issue? Certainly, all American citizens have the right to speak their minds, and though retired officers retain their rank and are still subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, they have been traditionally afforded a different status from that of active members. There is no question that retired officers have a right to speak out. But in so doing, they threaten a long and vital American tradition that holds the military aloof from partisanship.

Building the Wall

The “wall of separation” from politics that the American military services have long maintained is a result of the wave of professionalization that swept the Army, in particular, in the latter years of the 19th century. Before that, soldiering and politics mixed freely in America. The military records of George Washington and Andrew Jackson vaulted them into the White House, and many other political officeholders had military experience, particularly on the frontier. The military profession, as understood today, did not exist, and politicians and generals moved freely from one sphere to another. As a result, military officers remained deeply enmeshed in partisan politics through the Civil War. Any amateur historian knows of the baleful effects of partisanship on the Union officer corps throughout the war.

In the 1880s, though, and partly as a result of the Civil War experience, a new military professional ethos began to distance the officer corps from politics, just as the Army was moving from frontier obscurity into a more important role in American political life. The Philippine insurgency, World War I and World War II were fought by an officer corps that mostly divorced itself from politics to focus on the professional challenges of the day. There were outliers who were “political” generals (Douglas MacArthur was one), but in the main, the officer corps took — and mostly still takes — its inspiration from George C. Marshall, the World War II chief of staff, who maintained a scrupulous neutrality and distance from partisanship. His model has held up, mostly, until the present day.

Three Dangers

Military officers, active and retired, should bear Marshall’s example in mind. Retired officers, with greater freedom to express their opinions than those still on active service, should be especially wary about taking partisan positions as retired officers for at least three reasons.

First, the involvement of retired officers in partisanship invariably seeps into the trust and respect that elected officials give senior military officers overall. Civilian officeholders usually come to their jobs knowing little of the military’s professional neutrality. At least at first, many civilian policymakers take office regarding the military as just another special-interest group, albeit one that wears uniforms and consumes large parts of the U.S. budget. The special and vital relationship between the country’s elected leaders and its top military advisers will be endangered should a U.S. president look across the table and see a potential political rival. The military’s neutrality will be especially important in the future as the United States continues to be engaged in the struggle against terrorism, where political boundaries are hazy, presidents make tough calls and hyperpartisanship, to include sophisticated political action committees, crowds the blogosphere. For the military services, professional neutrality has never been more important or difficult to maintain.

Second, partisanship by retired officers erodes public support for the military services at large. Most American citizens respect high military rank and defer to the opinions of retired officers on national security issues, whether the speaker is active or retired — distinctions often overlooked in public discourse. One reason for the public’s favorable opinion of the military at present is partly because it is “the good servant” and stands apart from the political gridlock in Washington. But if the public comes to regard the military as just part of the Washington scene —politicians in uniform arguing for their inflated defense budget or taking sides in a partisan debate — then the military’s standing with the public will drop, and drop fast. Veterans of a certain age can remember when the military services were not popular, when politicians didn’t go to military posts for photo ops. At the same time, there was a concomitant decline in military capability — recruiting got tough, budgets got tougher, and the military’s leaders had a hard time getting support for programs essential for national defense.

Third, although most career officers master the “snakes and ladders” of military politics, they are generally unsuited, after a lifetime in the military cloister, to understand the messy, cold-blooded blocking and tackling of American partisan politics. It is a different world. Many retired officers remain motivated by the patriotism and selflessness they practiced in their military careers. After a lifetime in the service, most do have specialized knowledge — as the SOF veterans alluded to in the unfortunate Benghazi letter — and they sincerely want to continue to put that knowledge to use for the country they have served. There are ways to do this. But the professional political world marches to different drummers from those in the military services.

Too often, retired military officers respond to a patriotic appeal that actually originated in an attempt to score partisan points and a “Hey, Jack, get some generals to sign this” sort of tasking that puts their experience and their high rank, gained over a lifetime, at the service of political operatives. (To the politically aware, the Benghazi letter with “700” signatures denotes a PAC-generated and sophisticated operation, much less spontaneous than the text would indicate.) To professional operatives, the point is not sincerity or the personal experience of signatories on a letter like the Benghazi example, but simply the impact of the signatories’ rank on legislators and the public. The rank is being used. This is easily tested. At the next opportunity, a retired officer should say, “Since you want me and my experience and expertise, I will sign it without my rank.” The phone will not ring again. Military leaders who stood at the head of thousands of troops should not permit themselves to be manipulated by professional political operatives.

Do It Right

Does this mean retired officers should not have any voice in public issues? Not at all. Retired officers have expertise that was gained at public expense and should be available to the public at large. Retired officers should participate in nonpartisan public debate on military affairs and national defense by writing and speaking whenever possible. Various publications and think tanks give platforms to retired military professionals with something to say. (Full disclosure: I am a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan, defense-oriented think tank.) On the retired officer, though, rests the obligation to steer clear of open partisanship and of becoming a pawn in somebody else’s political chess game. The temptation and the opportunity are always there.

Retired officers have a perfect right to enter partisan politics openly, as candidates for office. An officer who becomes an open candidate for political office crosses a line between the retired military professional and a politician seeking votes. While a military background will ever be with the officer — Dwight Eisenhower was obviously a retired general — it is the individual being put forward, not the general, on a wide range of nonmilitary subjects, and the final choice is with voters, who aren’t always impressed by professional soldiers-turned-politicians. The record shows that retired officers, like lawyers or any other profession, have a mixed record of being elected.

Retired officers can choose to work for campaigns, but there are serious partisan pitfalls. In most cases, the 30-somethings who run campaigns simply want a military title to gloss over a campaign strategy — hence the boards of retired generals or admirals who endorse a candidate’s defense platform but who actually get little to say about it (other than a conference or two and a document to sign). Again, given the military’s present popularity, the campaigns want the appearance of military support, which ultimately chips away at the neutrality of the military services.

There is another course. A retired lieutenant general of my acquaintance participates at the local level for political campaigns by manning phone banks, going door-to-door with fliers and otherwise doing the scutwork of politics. Few in the campaign know his background; no one in the public does. By being “just Joe” he participates in the great drama of American politics, and he does it without compromising the military’s professional neutrality or his own. He also, he says, has a great time.

The two key words in this article are rank and partisanship. A third might be dignity. Retired military officers have not ceased to be military officers, and the use of their professional titles of rank for partisan purposes tilts the perception that the military remains neutral and steadfast among the swirling political issues of the day. Political leaders and political operatives cannot be expected to respect the neutrality of the military profession, and indeed will use it whenever they can to further their political agenda. Defense of the military’s neutrality depends on the military services alone, and retired officers who lend their rank to partisan causes damage that neutrality. Additionally, partisanship ultimately diminishes the stature of the retired officers themselves.

Finally, this is not suggesting an abridgement of the basic freedom of speech. It does suggest, though, that retired officers should exercise restraint when they are tempted to take partisan stands, that they should be reluctant to lend the dignity of their rank to partisanship, and that if they feel the pull of further public service, they exercise it in one of the more discreet manners suggested above.

Retired officers are still drawing pay as soldiers; they just get to sleep later than everybody else. AFJ

Robert Killebrew served more than 30 years in the Army and is a former Army War College instructor.