Once officers retire from the U.S. military they are no longer bound by tradition and law to remain apolitical, and Americans increasingly see retired generals and admirals grabbing the public megaphone to sound off on politics.
It’s a trend that has built over the past quarter century, and it makes some active officers, military analysts and constitutional scholars uneasy.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the past week have issued lists of endorsements from retired top officers, each candidate jostling to roll out more generals as props and look more suited to serve as the next commander in chief.
Trump, in various venues, said President Barack Obama had left military brass “reduced to rubble,” suggested that a housecleaning of top generals would be in the offing and pledged an ambitious drive to rebuild the U.S. military.
Trump’s stance resonates with retired Vice Adm. Jerry L. Unruh, who left the Navy in 1994 and lives in Pensacola, Florida. Unruh said in a telephone interview that he was chagrined with what he saw as the decline of the military, leading him to join 87 other retired generals and admirals to publicly endorse Trump.
“I see a deterioration in the military force structure,” Unruh said. “We have armies, navies and air forces that are smaller. In some cases, it goes back to World War II levels. . . . In Navy ships, we probably have one-half of what we did then. We were just nibbling on a 600-ship Navy. Counting everything, we’re down in the 275 range now.”
Unruh brushed aside concern that Trump might induce partisanship in the officer corps by replacing generals who the candidate says have proved “embarrassing to our country” with Trump supporters.
“If there is a danger, it’s far less than what is happening under the current administration,” Unruh said.
In August, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the body that comprises the highest-ranking members of each branch of the military, criticized retired generals for speaking at the Democratic and Republic conventions, describing it as unseemly.
The current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, sent a message to all troops earlier this year demanding that they stay out of politics.
“The great regard that the military is held in at the moment by the public is in part because of the perception that the military is an institution that is above politics, that is untainted by politics,” said Andrew J. Bacevich, a diplomatic and military historian who is retired from a teaching post at Boston University.
The great regard that the military is held in at the moment by the public is in part because of the perception that the military is an institution that is above politics.
Andrew J. Bacevich, diplomatic and military historian
If elected, Trump would not be circumscribed by law from undertaking a broad shakeup of members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even though several have terms into 2017.
“It’s not so alarming that some of them might go. A lot of them might go voluntarily,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Harley A. Hughes, another Trump supporter. “There’s enough slack in the law that they (presidents) can do anything they want.”
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who also has endorsed Trump, said he foresaw immediate action if Trump were to win.
“You know what he’s going to do? He’s going to put warriors back in the game,” said McInerney, who said Trump’s occasional hyperbole about U.S. readiness did not bother him.
You know what he’s going to do? He’s going to put warriors back in the game.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a Trump supporter
“He makes some audacious statements and whatever, and that’s what reality TV stars do. But because he’s a reality TV star, I shrug them off,” McInerney said.
For its part, Clinton’s campaign touts that it has endorsements from 110 former military leaders, including retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Cooke, who said in a recent statement that “Donald Trump has a lack of knowledge on everything from force structure to NATO to our alliances and partnerships.”
U.S. voters have occasionally turned to top generals to lead the country, starting with George Washington and including Andrew Jackson (War of 1812), Ulysses S. Grant (Civil War military hero) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (World War II).
“They were war heroes. That’s not what we have here,” said Bruce Ackerman, a constitutional law scholar at Yale Law School, referring to the lower-ranking admirals and generals now lining up on both sides of the political fence.
Prior to World War II, said Ackerman, who has written extensively on civil-military relations, U.S. officers routinely refrained from even voting, accepting a “professional ethic of impartiality.” Following the Vietnam War, Ackerman said, sentiment among officers shifted toward the Republican Party, and 1992 marked a watershed year for political intervention.
In that year, Gen. Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote an open letter in The New York Times opposing in resounding terms President Bill Clinton’s policy of intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina, formulating a doctrine that the U.S. military should be employed only with overwhelming force and when a clear objective can be achieved.
Whether they intend to or not, they are really undermining the military professional ethic.
Andrew J. Bacevich, diplomatic and military historian
For his part, Clinton added to perceptions of playing politics, putting in as Powell’s successor Gen. John Shalikashvili, who was a dark horse not at the top of the line of succession.
In the intervening years, retired top officers have become more visible, taking on roles as military consultants on television and often voicing strong opinions.
Having scores of retired military leaders speaking out in public is “deeply problematic,” Bacevich said. “Whether they intend to or not, they are really undermining the military professional ethic, which is based on the reality and the perception that the officer corps is apolitical. . . . I think it’s unseemly and ill-advised.”
Ackerman said retired and active-duty officers were not separated by a firewall.
“There is ongoing contact between present members of the high command and retired members,” he said. “They stay silent while the retired members speak out. This is a fundamental challenge to the founding principles of the republic.”
Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4