Presidential Politicking

General Dempsey’s letter on the proper place of military leaders offered to #CCLKOW an opportunity to put the matter to our readers for discussion of how these issues reverberate in the work and lives of the company and field grade personnel. While the context of politics, the armed forces, and society is broad, deep, historical, and complex from a scholarly perspective, they are real challenges to military personnel on a day to day basis. Thus, we decided to craft this piece and the discussion in that format. Looking to set the terms under which Civil Military Affairs are organized and why to understand better why generals and politics are an issue, I open with a brief discussion of the origins and issues of the American model. Micah and Jon then offer their view from the practitioner’s corner, highlighting how the issue interacts on a professional level. Taken together, they establish a basis to consider this issue in the manner important to the mass of the armed forces, how to manage this election in the American military work environment. Read the piece, consider the essential question just laid out, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW. — jsr

Jill: When an American military officer speaks to the public, there is trust. The beautiful paradox of civil military relations in the US is that the foundational antipathy to a regular army led to a tradition where trust in and respect for the armed forces personnel was given in return for submission to the civilian authority. It is for this essential bargain that the matter of officers and political campaigns in this election matters. Looking at the origins of the American civil military affairs (CMA) structure in the Revolutionary era, some issues which arose in the early Cold War when a significant standing force came into being as well as more recent examples, will frame the terms of the practitioners’ challenges in today’s politics.

The roots of American CMA are older than the Republic, and even the Colonies, hearkening to the country’s British military roots and the Whiggish antipathies to tyranny by army and preference for a virtuous citizen militia. Nearly unyielding by the time of the War for Independence, the terms of this civic religion were appeased in the Respectable Army, which established civilian control and an officially apolitical mien to maintain liberty against a defense establishment. Manned by citizens from the Private to the General, the armed forces of the new nation would be naturally trustworthy. This was led from the first by George Washington, who upheld the standard to a punctilio throughout the conflict, even as it was at times to the material detriment of his forces and the war effort. The crescendo of his commitment to the proper domestic political restraint of the military came at Newburgh, NY, after the war. There, officers angry with the post-war settlement and threatening political response, were only barely restrained by his efforts to persuade.

Codified in the Constitution, this model of service within a strict CMA framework has stood firmly. In return for disciplined adherence to civilian control, the terms of the Constitution, and at a remove from politics, the armed forces are respectable and trustworthy. Through the 19th century and into the 20th, very little challenged the primacy of these terms. With the changes to the American armed forces ushered in by the country’s rise to global superpower and the higher pace of peacetime military activities, occasional frictions emerged as all sides came to terms with the new status quo, and particularly where Generals overstepped their strategic bounds. In 1951 General MacArthur crossed his Commander in Chief on matters of strategy in the Korean War, leading to his necessary dismissal. Two years later Eisenhower, now the ‘supreme’ civilian leader, struggled with General Ridgeway, his Army Chief of Staff, who disagreed with the force balance created under the New Look policies. In both cases, the Generals attempted to argue their position beyond their remit to advise the civilian leadership, and correctly in both instances the Commander in Chief, the civilian executive, exercised the appropriate authority to remind them of their correct position in the hierarchy.

Since 9/11, as the US adapts again to a new military-security system, there have been several notable issues where general officers have challenged the standards of proper political and strategic behavior. Whether it was retired officers in the discreet employ of the Pentagon who stumped on news channels for the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, or McChrystal’s ill-placed critique of President Obama, the push back against these over-steps has been appropriate. Sustained over American history, the requirements of CMA mean that officers must offer their expertise in the appropriate terms, times, and forums, and even when retired they must do so with transparency as to their advocacy.

Nevertheless, even with the odd wobble, the respectability of and trustworthiness of the American personnel under the CMA model has never faltered. With this background, the contours of the officer’s particular obligations and restraints in political speech should be apparent — the potential influence is of a staggering consequence. Given the participation of Generals Lynn and Allen, as well as that of MOH recipients contrasted with General Dempsey’s opinion piece arguing against these activities, the stakes in this election are being driven upward, particularly in national security and defense.

Micah: There has been much buzz this election cycle among the former general officer community ever since former Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn was introduced at the Republican national Convention and publicly endorsed Donald Trump. In addition, former Marine General John Allen was introduced at the Democrat’s convention and publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton. Army Regulation 600–20 is very specific in Appendix B which states that Soldiers on Active duty may not “participate in partisan political management or make public speeches in the course thereof” (AR 600–20). While these men are both retired, the issue comes into play when they are introduced by their title “General Allen” or “General Flynn” with no indication being made that either of these men are retired officers and no longer represent the views of the military. Many Americans hear these titles and may erroneously believe that they are making some sort of endorsement in a professional capacity. Former General Dempsey is eloquent in a Washington Post editorial, which is later recounted by the NPR, in which he says, “The American people should not have to wonder where their military leaders draw the line between military advice and political preference”. Another important distinction is highlighted by GEN (R) Dempsey when he notes that, “Our nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines should not wonder about the political leanings and motivations of their leaders”.

GEN(R) Dempsey highlights an important point here. While retired generals no longer are wearing the uniform, they have the ability to influence the opinions of Soldiers and subordinates. Thinking about my initial days on active duty, I remember my squad leaders discussing who was a driver for which General when they were in X or Y unit. It was a point of pride to brag about service to high ranking military officers. My grandfather’s proudest moment was when he was picked to be his platoon leader’s driver during World War 2. When senior ranking former military officers get involved publicly in political dealings, they have the potential to inspire current Soldiers to get trapped into making prohibited political endorsements as well.

Viewing the issue from a military professional lens, The Army’s Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) one of the basic tenets of a profession which is that professions are self-policing (ADRP-1). When General Dempsey penned his op-ed about the recent involvement in politics by his peers, he was essentially self-policing the profession. We must also use extreme caution when we involve ourselves in political discussions because the “external trust” that we have with the American people is at stake. When we provide opinions that are not meant to be professionally-based, we risk eroding this apolitical trust that we have with the American people. The approach of examining the issue from a professional ethic stance is one that struck a chord with me personally. Teaching a class at West Point about officership gives me the opportunity to discuss the military professional ethic, external trust, and the role that leaders play in setting the right example within their formations. To the cadets, the concept of serving as future members of a profession is a responsibility they don’t take lightly. The engagement we have during the lessons on the professional ethic is some of the best we’ll have all semester. While they recognize that Army regulations don’t take issue with political engagement among retired Army officers from a legal standpoint, the ethical issues are so great that these issues deserve attention as well.

Jon: As a newly transitioned Veteran this is my first election as a citizen. I entered the Army in 1987 when I was 18, and my first time to vote was in 1988. As I view the campaigns and see each party using senior military officers and their rank to endorse their candidates’ views on foreign policy and the ongoing war, I can’t help but wonder how the former general officers allowed themselves to become political chess pieces in election year politics.

Not as visible in the media, but of equal concern is how retired military Veterans use their rank every day in their local communities during local elections, in local business forums, and other community events. I recently met a fellow Veteran at a business event, and when she found out I was a Veteran myself we naturally shared our experiences and backgrounds. She had retired at higher rank than me and when I said it was pleasure meeting you and addressed her by her first name, she said “that is Colonel to you” and was not joking.

I retired as a field grade officer after an incredible career (enlisted & commissioned service) and I have spoken at numerous occasions since I transitioned. When asked how they should introduce me; I say as an Army Veteran. Our civilian counterparts want to show their respect and that is why they ask. However out of respect for them and our country I left my rank behind when I transitioned from the Army and became a citizen again. What I have found to be true both in the service and out of it, is that rank and title really means nothing; but experience means everything. I use my experience and leadership skills, not my former title and position, to help the community I live in.


Hastings, Michael. “The Runaway General.” Rolling Stone. 22 JUN 2010. Accessed on 23 AUG 2016.

Headquarters, Department of the Army, ADRP1 — The Army Profession, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, June 2015.

United States (2014). Army Command Policy, Army Regulation 600–20, Washington, DC: Headquarters, Dept. of the Army.

United States. Armed Forces Officer. Potomac Books, 2007.

Author Unknown. “Obama Relieves McChrystal of Command.” NBC News and The Associated Press. 23 JUN 2010. Accessed on 23 AUG 2016.

Author Unknown. “General Dempsey to Fellow Officers: Stay Off the Political Battlefield.” National Public Radio. 3 AUG 2016. Accessed on 23 AUG 2016.

CCLKOW is a weekly conversation on military affairs jointly hosted by the Center for Company-Level Leaders (CCL) at the US Military Academy at West Point and the Kings of War (KOW), a blog of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the US Army or the Department of Defense. Read the post and join the discussion on Twitter #CCLKOW.

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