- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 22, 2000

I was astonished and angered by the controversy stirred because 85 senior retired military officers publicly endorsed George W. Bush.
This generated articles, letters to the editor, op-eds, editorials, even a discussion on PBS. This hullabaloo was stimulated by Richard Kohn, a University of North Carolina history professor, who warned that the endorsement of Mr. Bush "marks a major step in politicizing the American military" and claimed that "for nearly all of its history, the officer corps shunned partisan politics." These arguments are illogical, unconstitutional, unsupported and misrepresent history.
To agree that retired military officers should not speak out, one must illogically assume that the self-imposed nonpolitical professional code of active duty "apples" applies to retired "oranges." Fellow officers and I were a political and responsive to civilian control. I flew B-52s in Vietnam and volunteered for a second tour (in Cambodia), but never publicly expressed my reservations about that war.
Active duty officers almost never go public; if they do, they are rightfully punished. Mr. Kohn never served and can't understand that serving officers often privately discuss partisan issues. After all, we are asked to leave our families, risk our lives, and obey sometimes flawed civilian leadership. A military person serving in Kosovo with a young pregnant wife at home would naturally discuss and question his deployment. However, neither these discussions nor Mr. Kohn's survey responses will affect the following of civilian orders.
Officers swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, but retired officers never swore to give up First Amendment rights of free speech. In retirement, we have as much "right" to speak out as professors do. From their experiences and continuing contacts, retired senior officers feel a duty to their country and to beleaguered active-duty military who may gag while supporting politicians' ludicrous or dangerous policies.
While muzzled, the now retired officers observed Clinton-Gore make serious mistakes after disregarding military advice. Indifference, misunderstanding, hostility, and decisions favoring special constituencies or "building a legacy" endanger the retirees' former troops. We remember that 50,000 died because of unpreparedness before the Korean War. Mr. Kohn worries that his limited survey (of 800 active duty officer students) indicates active duty officers are starting to vote. Terrible. This might cause Democrats or Republicans to mistrust the military. Tough. Are we also to give up the vote granted in Article 1 of the Constitution?
Finally, the central suggestion about recent politicization is unsupported in a misrepresentation of historic military participation in partisan politics. Former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak and endorsers of Mr. Bush seem accused of the "Original Sin," although recently Mr. Kohn acknowledged that retired senior officers supported the candidacy of Mr. Clinton. Perhaps history professors read different books and encyclopedias than those I used for my MIT Ph.D., for teaching, or in the more than 300 books I wrote or published. Or could there be a hidden agenda? More than a quarter of America's presidents achieved senior military rank before their election. Senior military officers also retired into the presidency: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant. Remember Ike? Should we call on retired officer John McCain to resign from the U.S. Senate?
There are other examples. Gen. Maxwell Taylor retired as Army Chief to publish his book, "The Uncertain Trumpet," given to candidate John F. Kennedy. Taylor criticized President Eisenhower's strategy, lobbied for the ground forces, and suggested a flexible response to communist threats. Kennedy followed Taylor's blueprint and called him back to active duty as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Retired Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay ran for vice president with George Wallace and Adm. James Stockdale with Ross Perot.
This controversy has little basis in logic or fact, but there are three virtues. This may begin the first serious discussion of U.S. civil-military relations since the Vietnam War. It also hints at a hidden burning question what options are available/legitimate for muzzled active duty military leaders when an unknowing or hostile administration is destroying or misusing the armed forces?
I am personally grateful. I located Veterans for Bush; we can now criticize 86 (not 85) retired officers. It is clear for whom I will vote. I hope Professor Kohn will tell us his choice. He was not bound by his profession from raising his unfounded anxieties. But neither must senior retired military officers give up their absolute right to speak out.


Franklin D. Margiotta is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and an author of military books.

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