The long-standing line separating the U.S. military from the partisan political fray is being erased during the Trump era, Pentagon insiders and retired officers say, with a brigade of retired generals criticizing the commander in chief in TV appearances and on social media reaching a dangerous level.
Retired officers on both sides of the political spectrum have enlisted in an ugly discourse in Washington. Although military men and women have been taking stands on specific issues and running for office for centuries, Defense Department officials and a host of retired generals say the attacks have become personal, bitter and harmful to the armed forces’ reputation as an apolitical organization that, above all else, respects the chain of command and puts country over politics.
Observers say the process began with retired Navy Adm. William J. Crowe’s endorsement of Bill Clinton in 1992 and has spiraled out of control. They warn that partisanship could do lasting damage to Americans’ faith in the military.
“It’s not normal. I don’t think it does the U.S. military any good,” said retired Army Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. “If you have senior military officers expressing partisan views, I think it has the potential to jeopardize the amazing trust the American people convey to their military.”
Mr. Spoehr and other retired generals interviewed by The Washington Times say there is plenty of blame to go around, including for President Trump, who has criticized military officers by name in a way never seen before.
Over the past several months, the president has taken aim at retired Navy Adm. William H. McRaven — the architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — by saying he should have caught the al Qaeda mastermind sooner.
Mr. Trump also blasted former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, the former Marine Corps general who resigned last month amid a policy disagreement over U.S. involvement in Syria and Afghanistan.
“What’s he done for me? How had he done in Afghanistan? Not too good,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Mattis during a Cabinet meeting last week.
The president also has engaged in a bitter feud with retired Army Gen. Stanley M. McChrystal, who said last week that he believes Mr. Trump is immoral and doesn’t tell the truth.
Mr. Trump responded by saying Gen. McChrystal is known for his “big, dumb mouth.”
‘Trump is the accelerant’
Analysts and retired officers say the president’s role in the erosion of the line between the military and politics cannot be ignored.
They point to retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn as a pivotal figure in that erosion. The outspoken Trump supporter attacked Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Republican National Convention and led chants of “lock her up” in front of a raucous crowd. Now, he is awaiting sentencing as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.
Although Mr. Flynn made the remarks, there is a belief that Mr. Trump’s sharp tone has helped pull some retired officers into the political muck.
“I think it’s certainly highlighted by the operating style of this president,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “I think the manner in which the current president acts does elicit some of the responses you’re seeing.”
Other analysts say Mr. Trump’s apparent willingness to disregard the advice of his military advisers — for example, deciding to withdraw troops from Syria and deploying forces to the U.S.-Mexico border over the objections of Pentagon leaders — has spurred the backlash.
“Today, the politicization process is on steroids,” Gordon Adams, a professor at American University’s School of International Service, wrote in a recent blog post. “It is not that officers have suddenly gone rogue. It is because this president arrived in office untethered. Trump is the accelerant.”
Mr. Trump, however, also has been the target of unprecedented attacks. Retired generals and other military and intelligence officials regularly parade across cable TV to assail the commander in chief on personal and policy levels.
Just days before midterm elections in November, retired Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, railed against the president’s decision to send troops to the southern border. Critics interpreted his remarks as encouragement for voters to support Democrats.
“Our men and women in uniform are better trained, better equipped, and better led so they meet any threat with confidence,” Mr. Dempsey tweeted Nov. 1. “A wasteful deployment of over-stretched Soldiers and Marines would be made much worse if they use force disproportional to the threat they face. They won’t.”
Mr. Dempsey’s comments, along with the words and actions of Mr. McChrystal, Mr. Flynn and other retired officers, are part of a troubling trend of well-respected military men and women using their authoritative voices to influence the political process, observers say.
“I was disappointed and, frankly, surprised that Gen. Marty Dempsey, our former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, included a photo of himself in uniform and touted his former position when he tweeted an anti-Trump message immediately prior to the election last November,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University School of Law. “In my book, to use the uniform in conjunction with a such a partisan message so close to an election is a mistake, especially for Dempsey since he was once considered an icon of the apolitical officer.”
A lack of trust
Broadly speaking, some analysts believe the new paradigm could undermine the very fabric of the American system by removing the lines between political and military leaders.
“It opens a door to banana republic status, a door nobody may walk through at the moment, but an open door nonetheless,” said American University’s Mr. Adams. “Only the American people can close that door, through elected civilian officials in the Congress who speak out.”
More specifically, retired officers fear that the necessary trust between the president and military leaders could be broken in a way that puts the nation in danger. Some retired officers, in theory, could be recalled into service in the event of a major global conflict or an attack on the U.S.
Although such a scenario is unlikely, officers who have publicly blasted Mr. Trump could find themselves carrying out the commander in chief’s orders.
“Legally speaking, retired flag officers remain subject to recall to active duty, so to use contemptuous language about the president is troubling and may prove to be particularly so in a crisis,” Mr. Dunlap said. “One would hope that especially these days retired officers would be models of how to dissent on issues in a forthright yet respectful way.”
Furthermore, some Americans may not fully appreciate the difference between a retired officer attacking the president versus a man or woman on active duty.
“They look the same. They’re just wearing a necktie,” Mr. Spoehr said.
Despite the dangers of the current dynamic, observers say, retired officers should be free to express their views and policy ideas in a way that is respectful of the commander in chief.
“Americans want and, really, need to be able to consider the views of those who served, along with others with expertise,” Mr. Dunlap said. “It should be the brightness of their ideas, not that of the stars they previously wore, that should carry the day.”