Let the Generals Speak? Retired Officer Dissent and the June 2020 George Floyd Protests

 In Defense, FVEY, P5

June 2020 was a remark­able month in U.S. civil-mil­i­tary rela­tions. President Donald Trump sought to use active-duty forces to con­front Americans protest­ing racial injus­tice in the United States. As he put it in a June 1 call with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the nation’s gov­er­nors, Trump wanted the latter to “dominate the streets,” poten­tial­ly with mil­i­tary forces. His sup­port­ers echoed the call, with Sen. Tom Cotton urging the pres­i­dent in a con­tro­ver­sial op-ed to “send in the troops.”

In response, an array of former mil­i­tary lead­ers spoke out against deploy­ing reg­u­lar mil­i­tary forces to the streets, spark­ing the most intense divi­sion between a pres­i­dent and retired offi­cers in a gen­er­a­tion. Among them was retired Marine gen­er­al and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, as well as former chair­men of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen and Martin Dempsey. Some of the retirees were explic­it in their crit­i­cism of the pres­i­dent, includ­ing Mattis’ pointed comments about Trump divid­ing the nation. Others were more circumspect, affirm­ing the need for the mil­i­tary to remain “apo­lit­i­cal” or implic­it­ly val­i­dat­ing the pro­test­ers’ cause and meth­ods by ref­er­enc­ing the need to remove Confederate memo­ri­als and re-name Army bases.

These state­ments were wel­comed by many observers who were reas­sured that these offi­cers were alarmed enough to pub­licly decry a poten­tial­ly egre­gious use of force against American cit­i­zens. For them, it seemed a worthy cause for retiree activism. Yet such views are con­trary to con­ven­tion­al ideas about the risks of public com­men­tary that warn against retired offi­cers engag­ing in polit­i­cal activism.

Who’s right? Should the gen­er­als have spoken out?

To help answer that ques­tion we explore the argu­ments about retired offi­cer polit­i­cal speech — for and against — in con­text of the George Floyd protests. We find com­pelling argu­ments on both sides. The strongest argu­ments in sup­port hinge on the excep­tion­al nature of the events and the view that retired offi­cer crit­i­cism helped fore­stall a deeply unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic out­come. On the oppos­ing side are con­cerns that the speech had only min­i­mal prac­ti­cal effect. It did little to affect the deci­sion not to send forces to the street and instead helped nor­mal­ize retired offi­cer dis­sent. These ques­tions about effi­ca­cy weigh heav­i­ly given the costs to civil-mil­i­tary rela­tions and mil­i­tary politi­ciza­tion that retired offi­cer activism gen­er­ates.

While some might be per­suad­ed by one side, we argue for a more nuanced inter­pre­ta­tion of the events of June 2020: There is no obvi­ous “right” answer to the ques­tion of whether or not retired offi­cers should have spoken out. Rather, the case illus­trates the con­flict­ing loy­al­ties and clash­es between prin­ci­ples and con­se­quences that can arise with acts of dis­sent by retired mil­i­tary per­son­nel. Understanding these ten­sions is vital for retirees con­sid­er­ing future acts of dis­sent against polit­i­cal lead­ers — and for the public that is the ulti­mate audi­ence for such activism.

Why the June 2020 Case Matters

There are three rea­sons why the George Floyd protests rep­re­sent an impor­tant case for exam­in­ing retired offi­cer activism. The first is the unique nature of events and the stakes involved. To be sure, there have been many prior inci­dents of retired offi­cer speech. Often these have dealt with mat­ters of mil­i­tary oper­a­tions or armed con­flict. Arguably the most note­wor­thy inci­dent in recent memory — the “revolt of the generals” — against then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2006 stemmed from con­cerns over his man­age­ment of the Iraq War. Some senior retired officers have also pro­vid­ed endorse­ments in polit­i­cal cam­paigns, while a few had pre­vi­ous­ly commented on Trump’s lead­er­ship. Yet, what was on the table in June 2020 — a poten­tial­ly unwar­rant­ed deploy­ment of force to face off against U.S. cit­i­zens — was unprece­dent­ed in con­tem­po­rary civil-mil­i­tary rela­tions. It was also sig­nif­i­cant because of the way it politi­cized the mil­i­tary — that is, how it put the mil­i­tary into the center of domes­tic polit­i­cal dis­putes. When ana­lysts dis­cuss civil­ian politi­ciza­tion they often focus on politi­cians appro­pri­at­ing the military’s social esteem (using the mil­i­tary as political props) to appeal to voters or con­stituents. According to some observers, what was at stake in June involved poten­tial­ly using the military’s coer­cive power against American cit­i­zens for par­ti­san advan­tage.

Second, the case stark­ly illus­trates the some­times under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed dilem­mas of retired offi­cer dis­sent, high­light­ing two inter­sect­ing sets of ten­sions. The first — explained in detail in this War on the Rocks article and in a forthcoming book — relates to the con­flict­ing loy­al­ties facing mil­i­tary offi­cers and retirees. Military offi­cers have oblig­a­tions to the Constitution, to civil­ian author­i­ty, to the pro­fes­sion (and to help­ing it main­tain its non­par­ti­san ethic), and to their own con­science. An act of dis­sent may uphold one loy­al­ty at the expense of others. In addi­tion, in con­sid­er­ing whether to speak out, retirees should bal­ance con­sid­er­a­tions of prin­ci­ple against instru­men­tal con­cerns — is an act moti­vat­ed by prin­ci­ple worth­while if it does not actu­al­ly advance a pos­i­tive out­come? The case of retiree dis­sent during the June 2020 protests illus­trates how both sets of oblig­a­tions can come into con­flict: those between respect­ing civil­ian author­i­ty, safe­guard­ing the pro­fes­sion, and uphold­ing the Constitution, and that between prin­ci­ple and effi­ca­cy.

Finally, exam­in­ing the events of June are impor­tant because they may be a har­bin­ger of things to come. There may (soon) be other moments in which retired mil­i­tary offi­cers face sim­i­lar deci­sion points about whether to speak out about domes­tic polit­i­cal mat­ters, includ­ing the use of reg­u­lar mil­i­tary forces against pro­test­ers or armed groups. One could cer­tain­ly fore­see such a moment in the event of a polit­i­cal­ly con­tentious pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Appreciating the dilem­mas of retired offi­cer speech is espe­cial­ly impor­tant now.

The Events of June 2020

In May 2020, protests emerged in the after­math of the killing of George Floyd by a white police offi­cer, as well as other inci­dents of police bru­tal­i­ty against African Americans. In these protests there was in some cases sig­nif­i­cant prop­er­ty destruc­tion and loot­ing. In response, more than 20 states and the District of Columbia acti­vat­ed the National Guard to assist in sta­bi­liz­ing the sit­u­a­tion.

By June 1 Trump was reportedly ready to send 10,000 reg­u­lar mil­i­tary troops to the streets — forces usu­al­ly used in exter­nal con­flict. He threat­ened to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would have allowed him to deploy the troops with­out the gov­er­nors’ per­mis­sion. Active-duty troops were brought to the Washington, D.C., area, includ­ing some from the imme­di­ate response force brigade of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. For a few days it looked like Trump might send in the troops, pre­cip­i­tat­ing the retired offi­cer com­men­tary detailed below. Ultimately the pres­i­dent did not invoke the Insurrection Act and the troops were sent home.

Three things are cru­cial to under­stand­ing this con­text and why the retirees spoke out. The first is that it was unclear whether the use of active-duty mil­i­tary forces was being con­sid­ered by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion in the con­text of their neces­si­ty and appro­pri­ate­ness to address the protests, even if many scholars agree that invok­ing the Insurrection Act would have been legal. To the con­trary, no governor (even partisan allies) requested federal forces to address prop­er­ty destruc­tion, while Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated that he did not believe the use of active-duty forces was war­rant­ed at that time. Police today have substantial equipment that in the past was reserved for mil­i­tary forces. National Guard forces, even unarmed, are more familiar with civil­ian riot con­trol roles. While alarm­ing, early inci­dents of vio­lence in the Floyd protests also had not reached the level of intense civil dis­tur­bance observed in other instances, such as during the dis­tur­bances in 1992 that fol­lowed the acquittal of police officers in their trial for beat­ing Rodney King. Those events left dozens dead and thou­sands injured and California’s gov­er­nor then sup­port­ed the use of fed­er­al mil­i­tary troops to calm the streets.

Also impor­tant is the president’s his­to­ry of vio­lat­ing norms against the military’s involvement in domestic politics. Trump has sug­gest­ed to his sup­port­ers that the mil­i­tary is his partisan ally on numer­ous occa­sions. In fact, in tweets to his fol­low­ers in early June, he por­trayed the mil­i­tary as sup­port­ive of his response to the protests, and sug­gest­ed that the mil­i­tary was happy to be com­plic­it in acting as an agent of his political agenda.

Trump also did not appear to be making idle threats. He had already sig­naled that he was will­ing to sanc­tion using force against peace­ful pro­test­ers through the events in Lafayette Square on June 1, when fed­er­al agents used pepper spray and other non-lethal meth­ods to dis­perse peace­ful pro­test­ers prior to the onset of curfew. Trump, accom­pa­nied by Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, then walked across the park to take a pho­to­graph with a bible in front of a his­tor­i­cal church. Milley’s sub­se­quent apology for his role in the events under­scored their polit­i­cal nature.

All of this sparked enor­mous con­tro­ver­sy, lead­ing sev­er­al promi­nent retired offi­cers to speak out, although with slightly varied messages. Retired Adm. William McRaven and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell spoke about the military’s oath to the Constitution — “not the pres­i­dent.” Mattis, break­ing a notable silence since his depar­ture as defense sec­re­tary in 2018, referred to Trump’s actions as making a “mockery of the Constitution.” Others con­tend­ed that the deploy­ment of the mil­i­tary was con­trary to the rights of Americans to engage in peace­ful assem­bly, or that it vio­lat­ed the con­tem­po­rary tra­di­tion against using the mil­i­tary for law enforcement purposes. Others expressed con­cern that the use of troops domes­ti­cal­ly would degrade public trust in the armed forces. Mullen, for exam­ple, feared that “there’s a very sig­nif­i­cant chance we could lose that trust that it’s taken us 50-plus years to restore.” Dempsey, who often avoids direct­ly com­ment­ing on par­ti­san issues, sim­i­lar­ly observed that Trump’s threat to use the mil­i­tary domes­ti­cal­ly threatened public trust. Other retired offi­cers char­ac­ter­ized mil­i­tary sup­pres­sion of the protests as fur­ther evi­dence of a gen­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic decline in American gov­er­nance, or “the beginning of the end of American democracy.”

Finally, many retired offi­cers expressed con­cern that the military’s involve­ment in the government’s response to the protests would politi­cize the mil­i­tary. Trump’s actions rep­re­sent­ed a poten­tial threat to the “apo­lit­i­cal” char­ac­ter of the mil­i­tary, as retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel remarked. Similarly, Milley’s presence during Trump’s appear­ance at a nearby church during the protests “appalled” retired generals like Michael Hayden.

The Generals Were Right

Those who applaud­ed these com­ments made sev­er­al argu­ments. The first is that the mil­i­tary dis­sent helped to bol­ster democ­ra­cy. Deborah Avant and Kara Kingma Neu argue that the retired offi­cers’ com­ments made sense because they helped pre­vent a pro­found­ly un-demo­c­ra­t­ic out­come — the unwar­rant­ed use of force against the country’s cit­i­zens. Building from global exam­ples of non-vio­lent social protest, they observe that dissent by military leaders and refusals to follow through on repres­sive orders are often a vital step to effec­tive­ly pro­tect­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic tra­di­tions. They con­tend­ed that the retirees’ speech rep­re­sent­ed a short-term oppor­tu­ni­ty to har­ness mil­i­tary author­i­ty for Constitutional pur­pos­es, while acknowl­edg­ing that mil­i­tary lead­ers step­ping into the public sphere may pose long-term costs and risks. The chief take­away here is that retired offi­cer speech is jus­ti­fied if it serves the spe­cif­ic pur­pose of bol­ster­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic tra­di­tions. Their argu­ment also illus­trates some of the ten­sions inher­ent in the com­pet­ing oblig­a­tions facing retirees. The need to signal respect for civil­ian author­i­ty and abide what Peter Feaver calls civil­ians’ “right to be wrong” was in con­flict with the need to pre­vent degra­da­tion of the country’s democ­ra­cy.

In a relat­ed vein, Carrie Lee argued that the com­ments helped to defend the military’s apo­lit­i­cal tra­di­tions. She con­tend­ed that under “normal times” it is right to be wary of retiree polit­i­cal speech because it drags the mil­i­tary into domes­tic pol­i­tics, but that some­times “retired offi­cers who speak out may actu­al­ly pre­serve rather than degrade the norms of non-par­ti­san­ship.” In her view the retirees were saying no to having the mil­i­tary be used in a par­ti­san manner to fur­ther Trump’s polit­i­cal agenda. Inaction in the face of such efforts to use mil­i­tary forces for par­ti­san gain amounts to com­plic­i­ty. It is there­fore essen­tial for retired offi­cers to push back and cor­rect the nar­ra­tive under these cir­cum­stances.

Like Avant and Kingma Neu, Lee under­scored a dif­fi­cult (and a poten­tial­ly no-win) prospect facing retired offi­cers. On the one hand, crit­i­cism about the politi­ciza­tion of the mil­i­tary serves their oblig­a­tion to the pro­fes­sion, but on the other, it comes at the expense of sig­nal­ing regard for civil­ian author­i­ty. Even more com­pli­cat­ed, the speech upholds the prin­ci­ple of main­tain­ing a non-par­ti­san mil­i­tary, as Lee con­vinc­ing­ly argues, yet it may in prac­tice also under­mine the military’s non­par­ti­san ethic. This is due to how those com­ments may inter­act with the intense par­ti­san polar­iza­tion of the cit­i­zen­ry and media observed today (dynam­ics we detail below). Stating that the mil­i­tary is apo­lit­i­cal in the absence of any affront to that status is not espe­cial­ly con­tro­ver­sial, for either retired or active-duty offi­cers. Both Mullen and Dempsey reg­u­lar­ly made this point pub­licly during and after their tenures as chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But making that com­ment point­ed­ly when Trump is per­ceived as acting to politi­cize the mil­i­tary could be seen by the president’s co-par­ti­sans as an attack on him.

A third poten­tial argu­ment is that the retired offi­cers had the right to speak out given the nature of events. While this was not a promi­nent theme in the com­men­tary sur­round­ing the retiree speech in June, it fol­lows a long line of argu­ment that asserts that retired offi­cers are pri­vate cit­i­zens who have a great deal to con­tribute to the public debate. As Christopher Gelpi puts it, “Retired Generals Are People Too!” Or as former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili once observed of those retired offi­cers who pub­licly endorse polit­i­cal can­di­dates, they are “true modern day patri­ots.” In addi­tion, retired offi­cers are no longer bound by legal restric­tions on polit­i­cal activ­i­ty and inso­far as they establish a post-service career out­side of the mil­i­tary realm, these indi­vid­u­als can offer their opin­ions as pri­vate cit­i­zens. In some cases, they may even need to use their polit­i­cal influ­ence to pre­vent irrepara­ble harm to the coun­try — such as that which arguably might have occurred in June 2020. Here once again we see the conflict between oblig­a­tions to the cit­i­zen­ry versus those to the profession, given the con­cern that exer­cis­ing the right to speak risks politi­ciz­ing the mil­i­tary and cor­rod­ing civil-mil­i­tary rela­tions. In addi­tion, in this argu­ment we see a priv­i­leg­ing of indi­vid­ual rights and moral oblig­a­tions over con­sid­er­a­tions of con­se­quence — that is, the right to speak versus the wisdom of doing so.

This ten­sion becomes even clear­er as we con­sid­er the final argu­ment made about the retirees’ com­ments in June 2020. Some argued that the exi­gency of the moment required retired offi­cers to act, and gave rise to a need to com­pro­mise on a par­tic­u­lar norm for the sake of a higher prin­ci­ple. The founders were apprehensive of maintaining standing forces because they could abet tyran­ny: For some observers, the episode in early June was exact­ly the sit­u­a­tion the founders wor­ried about. Retired mil­i­tary offi­cers, in this line of argu­ment, should not be forced to polite­ly oblige the norm of silence amidst such a threat. Justice Robert Jackson famous­ly argued against a “doc­tri­naire logic” of uncom­pro­mis­ing adher­ence to the defense of rights even when such risked the very exis­tence of the state. Applied to the long-held pro­scrip­tion against retired mil­i­tary advo­ca­cy, this argu­ment has the same logic: The nor­ma­tive code of civil-mil­i­tary rela­tions — like the Constitution — is not a “sui­cide pact.”

In other words, the excep­tion­al cir­cum­stances of June 2020 per­mit­ted, war­rant­ed, or demand­ed such an outcry. Abiding the prin­ci­ple of civil­ian con­trol enshrined in the Constitution (and the norms that sup­port it) should not come at the expense of pro­tect­ing American cit­i­zens’ most fun­da­men­tal civil lib­er­ties. So seri­ous was the fear that Trump might require the unwar­rant­ed deploy­ment of active forces to the street that Esper and Milley sought to ramp up the use of National Guard forces. Guard heli­copters sub­se­quent­ly flew low over Washington, D.C., neigh­bor­hoods in order to dis­perse pro­test­ers — a ter­ri­fy­ing and poten­tial­ly inju­ri­ous use of force. With that prospect “we actually cross the brink into constitutional crisis,” and the grav­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion was not negat­ed for these observers just because the worst was avoid­ed.

The Generals Were Wrong

Critics of the retired offi­cer dis­sent in June 2020 make three main coun­ter­ar­gu­ments. The first ques­tions the effi­ca­cy of the speech. In this account, retirees speak­ing out had no clear, dis­cern­able effect on public opin­ion and prob­a­bly didn’t do much to influ­ence Trump’s deci­sions.

This argu­ment stems from two prob­lems with retiree polit­i­cal speech today. The first is that it is unclear whether the mes­sages will reach the intend­ed audi­ence. If retired mil­i­tary speech is sup­posed to alert people to some griev­ous offense, the (often unin­tend­ed) par­ti­san impli­ca­tions or con­se­quences of such state­ments limit whether they are cov­ered by all media equal­ly. Media out­lets whose view­ers dis­agree with the mes­sage are unlike­ly to report about it, or if they do they may mis­rep­re­sent it in order to “inoculate” the audi­ence against inter­pre­ta­tions of events they might hear from other news out­lets. Conversely, out­lets that are recep­tive to the mes­sage will broad­cast it, reach­ing audi­ences that are already likely con­vinced on the issue.

Equally impor­tant, even if the sto­ries are report­ed that does not mean that view­ers dis­in­clined to like the mes­sage are per­suad­ed by it. Even in a domes­tic polit­i­cal con­text where the mil­i­tary is rated by the public as the most “trust­ed” insti­tu­tion, retirees may not be able to influ­ence public opin­ion even if they break through polar­ized media. Military endorsements for presidential candidates, for exam­ple, seem to have weak sub­stan­tive effects on shap­ing voter intent among par­ti­sans. More impor­tant­ly, the hyper-polar­ized American polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment means that on highly divisive matters the audi­ence has already formed strong opin­ions, making it dif­fi­cult for even non-par­ti­san actors like the mil­i­tary to affect public opin­ion. In other words, there is little chance that con­trary mes­sag­ing by mil­i­tary retirees will breach the “echo cham­ber” of those not already in agree­ment.

This dynam­ic was clear in the way that retired offi­cer dis­sent was received by the media in June 2020. Mattis, viewed favor­ably by many in Congress upon his nom­i­na­tion, later fell into dis­re­pute with some of the par­ti­san estab­lish­ment after he resigned abruptly in opposition to the president’s for­eign policy deci­sions in December 2018. Trump labeled the retired Marine gen­er­al as “sort of a Democrat” before his retire­ment and “the most overrated general” after. The intent here was likely to dis­cred­it Mattis among Trump’s co-par­ti­sans and ensure that any sub­se­quent crit­i­cism from him would be dis­count­ed by a Republican estab­lish­ment with oth­er­wise high regard for mil­i­tary fig­ures. The effect of that effort appears to have been suc­cess­ful: Following Mattis’ com­ments, his June approval among Republicans was only 21 percent (compared to the 51 percent he had enjoyed with the same group after his res­ig­na­tion). Even com­ments from avowed non-par­ti­sans like Dempsey were not seen as cred­i­ble state­ments from a trust­ed figure. At best they were seen as a curios­i­ty — at worst they were denigrated as an offen­sive slur against the pres­i­dent.

Still, even if these indi­vid­u­als were dis­cred­it­ed, they could have pre­saged a much larger — and harder to dis­cred­it — groundswell of oppo­si­tion from retirees if the deci­sion to deploy the mil­i­tary to the streets was made. However, the same media processes that can dis­cred­it one voice can work against many. We saw this dynam­ic clear­ly in how the media respond­ed to the Sept. 3 story in The Atlantic, sourced in part by a retired four-star gen­er­al, which said that Trump called slain vet­er­ans of World War I “suck­ers” and “losers.” Conservative media pounced on the story, deem­ing it a hoax: Trump him­self launched attacks on the Fox News cor­re­spon­dent who con­firmed the story. He later fol­lowed up by dis­parag­ing his senior lead­ers as agents of the mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex. It is rea­son­able to expect that the media would face few obstacles in dis­cred­it­ing any number of mil­i­tary voices given its per­for­mance in these exam­ples.

In addi­tion, had more retirees spoken out against the president’s actions, retired senior offi­cers who view them­selves as his co-par­ti­sans might also have been empow­ered to speak out. In this way, such speech could have pre­cip­i­tat­ed a ver­i­ta­ble arms race of com­men­tary for and against the president’s actions. In this con­text, not only would the speech have been inef­fec­tive in shap­ing White House deci­sions, it would also have been con­trary to retirees’ oblig­a­tion to pro­tect the profession’s non­par­ti­san ethic.

Even if it did not affect public opin­ion, might these retired offi­cer com­ments still have had an impact on White House deci­sion-making either direct­ly, or via the pres­sure exert­ed on the pres­i­dent by mem­bers of Congress? Perhaps the retiree com­ments told Trump where the mil­i­tary and vet­er­an com­mu­ni­ty — key Trump supporters — stood on the issues, or even shaped opin­ion within these com­mu­ni­ties. True, despite efforts to dis­par­age speak­ers like Mattis in the public at-large, speak­ers like him still have long-estab­lished cred­i­bil­i­ty with military audiences. There is anec­do­tal evi­dence that some were upset by Trump’s threats to send the mil­i­tary to the streets. But whether Mattis and others’ com­ments really shift­ed public opin­ion is unclear, as is whether any shift was sig­nif­i­cant enough for Trump to have been influ­enced, given that vet­er­ans are already disproportionately likely to be Trump sup­port­ers.

One final way that the retired offi­cer speech could have mat­tered is through its effects on the Pentagon lead­er­ship, which might have in turn shaped Trump’s deci­sion-making. Esper, on the same day that Trump threat­ened to invoke the Insurrection Act, stated on a call with gov­er­nors and Trump that mil­i­tary forces should seek to “dominate the battlespace” of American cities. Yet, two days later, when Mattis pub­licly spoke out against admin­is­tra­tion policy, Esper retreat­ed, assert­ing his desire to “try to stay apolitical” and opposed deploy­ing active-duty troops domes­ti­cal­ly. The sig­nal­ing from fig­ures like Mattis may have mobi­lized intra-elite oppo­si­tion within the cur­rent Defense Department lead­er­ship. Similarly, it might have been behind Milley’s deci­sion to apol­o­gize for his role in the events that occurred in Lafayette Square. But if so, this mech­a­nism worked because there was already an exist­ing pref­er­ence in the Pentagon against using fed­er­al forces. The retired offi­cer speech may have had some infor­ma­tion­al value, but the pol­i­tics of the sit­u­a­tion — in which the mil­i­tary opposed the deploy­ments — are what really mat­tered.

The Costs of Retired Officer Dissent

There are two other rea­sons why some might doubt the wisdom of the retirees’ speak­ing out in June 2020. The first relates to the impact on the military’s non­par­ti­san stance. When retired offi­cers speak out it increas­es the public’s demand for politi­ciza­tion, and the military’s will­ing­ness to supply it.

On the demand side, such retired offi­cer com­men­tary comes at a time when there is solid evi­dence that people like it when the mil­i­tary acts as their co-par­ti­san. In a hyper-polar­ized envi­ron­ment, mem­bers of the public may in fact reward those who agree with them, and sanction those who do not. Analysis of social media data has shown that retired military officers on cable news net­works with strong par­ti­san audi­ences can actu­al­ly draw more par­ti­san fol­low­er bases than elect­ed mem­bers of Congress. Such com­men­tary sug­gests to Americans that the mil­i­tary is com­prised of par­ti­sans and nor­mal­izes the idea that mil­i­tary per­son­nel take posi­tions on domes­tic polit­i­cal issues. Members of the public can infer that within the mil­i­tary there are likely offi­cers who are aligned with dif­fer­ent par­ties or polit­i­cal cur­rents.

Retired offi­cer com­men­tary also shapes demand for mil­i­tary politi­ciza­tion because of its effects on politi­cians’ incen­tives to seek out allies within the mil­i­tary. As they observe retired gen­er­als endors­ing or cri­tiquing an oppo­nent or her poli­cies, politi­cians may solic­it their own retirees to pro­vide tes­ti­mo­ni­als of their lead­er­ship or the merits of their policy posi­tions. Politicians also face fewer inhi­bi­tions in vio­lat­ing the military’s non­par­ti­san status if they wit­ness norm vio­la­tions by their oppo­nents. This is appar­ent with the com­pet­ing lists of retired officer endorsees com­piled by pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns. This dynam­ic could gen­er­al­ize to non-elec­tion peri­ods, or to a search for retired offi­cers’ endorse­ments on sub­stan­tive issues. Observers saw as much in June, with laudatory sentiments expressed toward the retired offi­cers who spoke out against admin­is­tra­tion actions during the protests.

Retired offi­cer dis­sent also increas­es the supply of par­ti­san behav­ior among active-duty offi­cers. Consider that some in the active-duty mil­i­tary are already not espe­cial­ly sup­port­ive of the non­par­ti­san tra­di­tion. In a 2015 survey of more than 4,000 active-duty U.S. Army offi­cers, Heidi Urben found that 35 per­cent of survey par­tic­i­pants said that they had observed their active-duty friends using or shar­ing “insult­ing, rude, or dis­dain­ful com­ments direct­ed against spe­cif­ic elect­ed offi­cials on a social media,” while 50 per­cent said they had wit­nessed the same behav­ior direct­ed at politi­cians run­ning for office. A strik­ing 33 per­cent said that they had seen their friends in the mil­i­tary make rude com­ments about the pres­i­dent on social media sites.

Retired offi­cer dis­sent fur­ther legit­imizes par­ti­san speech, sug­gest­ing that per­haps such com­men­tary is not really inap­pro­pri­ate, even if it remains pro­hib­it­ed for active-duty forces by Defense Department regulation. A recent survey we did with Urben of nearly 1,500 West Point cadets found that 28 per­cent thought it accept­able for retired gen­er­al and flag offi­cers to express par­ti­san views during elec­tions. While it is heart­en­ing that the number is not higher, that more than a quar­ter endorsed the idea is note­wor­thy. Surely, seeing the gen­er­als speak out in June 2020 did little to con­vince cadets that it was bad for the mil­i­tary to engage in par­ti­san pol­i­tics.

Second, retired offi­cer dis­sent harms civil-mil­i­tary rela­tions between the pres­i­dent and senior mil­i­tary lead­er­ship. One con­cern about retired offi­cer speech is that it raises ques­tions about whether military leaders will act impartially in pro­vid­ing advice to polit­i­cal lead­ers. Even if a pres­i­dent antic­i­pates that a senior military’s pri­vate polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tion diverges from her own, she can still have con­fi­dence in mil­i­tary lead­ers’ advice if she believes they are com­mit­ted to the non­par­ti­san­ship norm. Retired offi­cers’ dis­sent, how­ev­er, raises ques­tions about the norm’s resilience and there­fore whether the active-duty offi­cers with whom a pres­i­dent inter­acts are indeed fully com­mit­ted to it. The pres­i­dent might fear that a mil­i­tary leader will not just bias his advice, but per­haps active­ly work to pro­mote a par­ti­san agenda, by for exam­ple leak­ing vital infor­ma­tion to the public, or court­ing allies to oppose the pres­i­dent in Congress. They may simply mar­gin­al­ize them as a result, degrad­ing the con­sul­ta­tion process essen­tial to healthy civil-mil­i­tary rela­tions. Even worse, one per­verse effect of retired gen­er­als crit­i­ciz­ing the pres­i­dent in June 2020 could be to encour­age Trump, or future com­man­ders-in-chief, to be more selective in who they choose for senior mil­i­tary lead­er­ship posi­tions. At the extreme, par­ti­san affin­i­ty becomes a litmus test for appoint­ment to senior posi­tions in the mil­i­tary.

Once again, we see the clash between oblig­a­tions. Was the oblig­a­tion to uphold the spirit of the Constitution and pre­vent the unwar­rant­ed use of force against civil­ians worth the ero­sion of fun­da­men­tal civil-mil­i­tary norms? Does that cal­cu­la­tion change if we con­sid­er too that the speech may not have fun­da­men­tal­ly altered the out­come in June 2020?

There Is No “Right” Answer

Ultimately, whether these costs to civil-mil­i­tary rela­tions were worth paying in June 2020 is hard to judge and that assess­ment likely depends on where one falls in the debate above. For some, the nature of the excep­tion­al moment and the democ­ra­cy-affirm­ing nature of the com­ments jus­ti­fied the gen­er­als speak­ing out. This oblig­a­tion was more impor­tant than the harm poten­tial­ly done to the pro­fes­sion and to the prin­ci­ple of civil­ian con­trol. For others, the ques­tion­able effi­ca­cy and wor­ri­some damage to the military’s non­par­ti­san stance are crit­i­cal. For the latter, the oblig­a­tion to the pro­fes­sion and to sus­tain­ing cru­cial norms of non­par­ti­san­ship is of par­tic­u­lar impor­tance. These costs weigh heav­i­ly given that it is unclear that the retiree speech is what actu­al­ly pre­vent­ed the deploy­ment of reg­u­lar forces to the street in June 2020.

If noth­ing else, the events of June 2020 reveal that there are few clear right or wrong answers on the ques­tion of retired offi­cer dis­sent, espe­cial­ly in tough cases. Rather, they call atten­tion to the need for greater reflection and edu­ca­tion on the dilem­mas of pro­fes­sion­al­ism and the mul­ti­fac­eted oblig­a­tions it entails. Classical theories of pro­fes­sion­al­ism sug­gest that the abid­ing civil­ian author­i­ty is always cor­rect — no matter the risks or costs. Yet, such a one-dimen­sion­al, reflex­ive view of the oblig­a­tions and char­ac­ter of pro­fes­sion­al­ism is at best unconstructive and at worst counterproductive. It is better for offi­cers to understand the trade-offs and dilemmas inher­ent in their respon­si­bil­i­ties to the cit­i­zen­ry, to the stan­dards of their pro­fes­sion, to the Constitution’s pro­tec­tions of civil lib­er­ties, as well as to civil­ian con­trol of the mil­i­tary. As the argu­ments above demon­strate, there is no set-piece answer to a com­plex sit­u­a­tion like that which occurred in early June. Only through care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion and under­stand­ing of mul­ti­ple, and at times con­flict­ing, respon­si­bil­i­ties and impuls­es can a mil­i­tary pro­fes­sion­al nav­i­gate such a fraught sit­u­a­tion. As concerns over the November election draw mil­i­tary fig­ures into new con­tro­ver­sies, think­ing care­ful­ly about these com­pet­ing oblig­a­tions and ten­sions between prin­ci­ple and effi­ca­cy of retiree polit­i­cal speech is going to be essen­tial.

Risa Brooks is Allis Chalmers Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University, non-res­i­dent senior asso­ciate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and adjunct schol­ar at West Point’s Modern War Institute.

Michael A. Robinson is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of inter­na­tion­al affairs at the United States Military Academy at West Point and an active duty Army strate­gist.

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect the posi­tion of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Army National Guard (Photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew Ramelb)

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