General Election: Who speaks for the military, and who should?

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Retired Gen. John Allen speaks during the last day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Thursday, July 28, 2016. (Olivier Douliery, Abaca Press/TNS)
Retired Gen. John Allen speaks during the last day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Thursday, July 28, 2016. (Olivier Douliery, Abaca Press/TNS)

General Election: Who speaks for the military, and who should?

by: Paul McLeary and Molly O'Toole | .
Foreign Policy | .
published: August 06, 2016

In a heated presidential election dominated by questions over the ability of either candidate to serve as commander in chief, a retired four-star general stepped up and delivered a full-throated endorsement. He billed the candidate as someone who could bring the country, and the military, back to the good old days when America was stronger, and more respected.

"I can't help asking myself: wouldn't it be great for our armed forces and for America if we could have another commander-in-chief named George Bush with Dick Cheney on his team?" asked the retired hero of Desert Storm, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, via videolink from the deck of the USS New Jersey during the 2000 Republican National Convention.

While Schwarzkopf's speech was dramatic, and controversial, retired generals and admirals have been endorsing political candidates since there have been retired generals and admirals around to jump into the political fray. Gen. George McClellan and Gen. Douglas MacArthur just took their political views further than most. But this year's election has thrown the issue of military endorsement — and of respect for the military more broadly — into high dudgeon.

The latest controversy was sparked by a pair of fiery speeches delivered by retired generals Michael Flynn and John Allen at the Republican and Democratic conventions, raising concerns among other retired officers that the military's reputation for nonpartisanship may be damaged.

Lt. Gen. Flynn, once the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, joined chants at the Republican National Convention to put Hillary Clinton in prison, repeating "lock her up, that's right," several times during his speech last month. And Gen. Allen, who commanded in Afghanistan before becoming Barack Obama's envoy for the global coalition fighting the Islamic State, implicitly criticized Donald Trump's isolationist streak when he said, "I also know that with [Clinton] as our commander in chief, our international relations will not be reduced to a business transaction."

The speeches drew the ire of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who dashed off messages of concern to The Washington Post and Defense One decrying the trend of former officers jumping into the partisan fray. In an interview with NPR this week, Dempsey said he is "upset" over his former comrades decision to speak out, as "the image of the American professional officer is one who is on guard for the nation, who is representative of all the people, who is subordinate to elected officials, not the image of someone giving an angry speech at a political convention."

But the conventions might have only been the beginning.

A senior aide to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, confirmed to Foreign Policy that the campaign is in active discussions with other senior military officers about making endorsements or publicly backing the former secretary of state, to be unveiled in the coming weeks. The campaign has also released a list of 22 generals and admirals who have endorsed Clinton.

The long-term impact of more officers coming out to champion a political candidate is difficult to assess, said retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro. But over time, the high-profile endorsements "may encourage the view of the military as just another interest group."

Politicians have always courted retired military brass to bolster their own claims of sober judgment and as a seal of approval of their candidacy. But those endorsements carry the risk that military leaders could be seen as mere "pawns in the process," said Punaro, who after leaving the Corps served as staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee and is now CEO of The Punaro Group. "It endangers the trust of the population and the civilian leadership, who need to trust their counsel."

The generals' recent convention speeches, in particular, were "bitterly partisan ones, and they didn't try and cloak their comments in the non-partisanship of the military," said Richard Kohn, professor emeritus of history and peace, war, and defense at the University of North Carolina.

"Citizens have a right to make a decision to enter the political fray," said Marine Gen. John Kelly, who retired earlier this year. "But what we should always try and avoid is a sense that the generals and admirals on active duty, that their recommendations are guided by political thinking rather than the best military advice."

Even after a senior military official retires, if he or she decides to weigh in, Kelly said, elected officials tend to think, "see, he must have given us politically tainted advice, listen to him now!"

Yet another retired three-star Marine general, Walter E. Gaskin, published his endorsement of Hillary Clinton in the Military Times on Thursday, in the process taking a swipe at Republican nominee Donald Trump. "Do we want a president who values diplomacy, or one who leverages hate? One who embraces our allies because she understands that our global relationships make us stronger, or one who would abandon our partners with little forethought," he wrote.

Getting too deeply involved in partisan politics, as opposed to offering quiet counsel to candidates or politicians, "can chew us up and make us look foolish," Kelly said. The "vast majority" of senior officers don't think such public endorsements or center stage appearances are a good idea, and the best rule of thumb for those who want to enter politics is to run for office themselves, or agree to serve an administration after the election, he suggested.

The past week hasn't just raised questions about the place of retired brass, but also what candidates vying for the country's top job owe the families of fallen servicemen and women. Trump spent several days this week verbally attacking the family of Humayun Khan, a U.S. Army captain who was killed in Iraq in 2004; Khan's father, with his wife by his side, had given an emotional speech rebuking Trump at the Democratic convention.

On Thursday, a group of veterans organized by left-leaning MoveOn.org and the Common Defense PAC converged on Capitol Hill to deliver a petition with almost 100,000 signatures demanding Sen. John McCain and other Republican leaders retract their endorsements of Trump over his comments about the Khan family.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, normally a strictly non-partisan organization, called the Republican nominee "out of bounds," and VFW leader Brian Duffy said in a statement, "the VFW will not tolerate anyone berating a Gold Star family member for exercising his or her right of speech or expression."

Capt. Khan's former commanding officer wrote in The Washington Post Wednesday that Trump's words were an "attack on all patriotic and loyal Americans who have sacrificed."

The Republican nominee made an attempt to limit the damage on Wednesday, meeting for about 30 minutes with family members of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan before a rally in Florida. The sitdown was organized by Flynn and Karen Vaughn, the mother of a fallen Navy SEAL who also spoke at last month's Republican convention.

Earlier this week, seven veterans organizations issued a public letter asking "all candidates, at all levels, demonstrate the character demanded of the offices they seek, and respect not only those who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom but also their families who have borne such a loss to protect our liberties."

Gen. Kelly, whose Marine son 1st Lt. Robert Kelly was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, said that while the Khans put themselves in the spotlight, he feels deeply for their situation. Making it clear he was not addressing Trump or his comments about the Khans, Kelly said, to his way of thinking, "there is no death more honorable than to serve one's country in uniform and to lose one's life."

"There is no burden a family bears that is heavier than to have lost a child, and with that child serving," Kelly added. "There's no sacrifice that you could imagine that is this bad."

Paul McLeary is the Pentagon reporter for Foreign Policy. Molly O'Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering the 2016 election and national security.

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