Terror overcomes the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as he gazes upon the daily news. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Conventional Leadership

Despite the outrage, we could learn a thing or two from generals at conventions.

I found out that I had a bad attitude following a summer training exercise. My parents were right the whole time.

That summer, I had been acting Platoon Sergeant and was sitting down with my company First Sergeant to receive my close out counseling. Our final platoon level raid had been a small disaster by my measure and naturally the reason why became a point of discussion. I had my excuses ready. First, my Platoon Leader had never consulted me during planning, and second, it was a failed plan from the start — our assault element would have to advance fifty meters over open terrain with no support by fire. When the execution time came, things fell apart in the way that they always do when cadets lead their first mission. If anyone had asked me for my help in planning, I thought, the operation wouldn’t have failed as miserably. My First Sergeant nodded in agreement.

“And what did you do to make it work?” he asked.

Kept accountability, made sure we got resupplied, managed the patrol base, MEDEVAC plan — basic Platoon Sergeant things, of course.

“Yes, those things are your job, but what did you do to make the plan work?”

I paused. Truth be told, I had done very little beyond what was required of my position. In fact, I had even vented my frustrations to some of my subordinates, actively undermining my Platoon Leader’s authority (an act taboo in military culture). I didn’t have a good answer for my First Sergeant, but despite my frustrations with the mission and my leadership, I understood the point he was making: my disagreements with the Platoon Leader’s plan never excused me from fully applying myself to the success of the mission.

This instance came to mind when I saw Generals (Ret.) Michael Flynn and John Allen take the stage at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. As they took stabs at each other, their favored candidates, and the current administration, it was easier for me to side with the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, saying in a radio interview, “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 official, not the image of someone giving an angry speech at a political convention.” The gut instinct of many senior military leaders, dating back to George Washington, is an aversion to partisan political involvement.

At the same time, however, twelve American presidents have been retired generals and 59% have had military experience. As the the number of Americans with a history of military service dwindles, it becomes even more important for veterans to become involved in national politics. Many of America’s prominent politicians today such as Senator John McCain (R-AZ) or Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) have not only distinguished military records, but a decidedly partisan streak to their politics. Regardless of their political orientation, though, no one doubts that these veteran politicians have America’s best interests at heart.

True, Flynn and Allen have skirted the edge of what could be considered divisively partisan rhetoric — Flynn joining in a “lock her up” chant and Allen implying that Trump has no credibility because he never, “spent a minute in the deserts of Afghanistan or in the deserts of Iraq.” The generals should seek to minimize the negative effects of these comments by focusing further statements on particular policy recommendations to strengthen the United States as many other former generals such as Abizaid, Hagenbeck, and Shinseki have done and are currently doing. Diversity of thought in pursuit of a common goal is a strength, not a weakness.

The tragedy of Generals Flynn and Allen is not that they disagree about the direction that the country should take over the next four years, it is that these disagreements are cast as fundamentally irreconcilable rather than as different paths to the same end state. While serving on active duty, these officers undoubtedly faced tactical and strategic situations in which multiple courses of action were possible, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, much as America faces its own decision point in this election. As competent leaders these generals elicited feedback and criticism from their subordinates, some of whom surely opposed one option or another. Once the final plan was selected, however, Flynn and Allen would have expected the men under their command to execute it with audacity, regardless of any misgivings or disagreements they had during planning.

What America stands to learn from veteran involvement in politics is exactly what I learned from my time as a cadet Platoon Sergeant: that once debate has ceased, the success of the team becomes a matter of each individual’s willingness to give their fullest effort. Service is not about always getting one’s way, but about always finding a way to contribute (John F. Kennedy, paraphrased). Whether one disagrees with the emplacement of a support by fire unit or a Supreme Court ruling, there are always ways to give back to the community and the country. This is especially true for our general grade officers who have a wealth of both experience and information to share.

Despite the appeal of a united America, it is important to remember that the American public is not a military organization. Americans are not duty-bound to fall in line and cease discussion once the results of an election are tallied. Enthusiastic civil debate, the constant push-pull of progressive and conservative thought that divides the nation, is what allows America to take great leaps forward but also to remain grounded, and none of that is possible without all the passion and anger that is inherently present in our system of government and the obstructionism that comes with it. But these factors are already present without retired service members contributing to them. Our veteran politicians should seek to set a positive example in a vitriolic environment and demonstrate the professionalism and respect that characterizes the United States military.

Come November, either Flynn or Allen will have thrown their support behind a losing candidate and will be faced with three options: side with the obstructionists and try to undermine the elected president, try to contribute to the nation in some other way, or slip into a quiet retirement and disengage from the American political process. The example these generals set for America’s men and women in uniform and the message that they send to the American public will be a direct result of their choice. Hopefully, that message will be that participating in politics is encouraged, but not at the expense of the ethics and values that have earned the United States military the trust of its citizens. This is a message sorely needed today.

Oh, and that Platoon Leader I resented so much? I wound up writing her a letter of recommendation a few months later.

The points in this article are unofficial expressions of opinion; views are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US (or any other) government.

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