The Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns on Tuesday are announcing the support of retired senior military officers they say validate their respective candidate’s bona fides to be commander in chief. But not only are these endorsements ineffective, they also risk further damaging the balance of political-military relations in our country.
Tuesday morning, the New York Times published an article announcing that 88 retired military officers signed a letter supporting Trump. The actual link to the letter was broken, but it doesn’t really matter. Few voters will have heard of any of them, except for perhaps retired Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin, who was disciplined for making anti-Muslim remarks while in uniform and who likened the war on Islamist extremism to a Christian battle against Satan.
Not to be outdone, the Clinton campaign told reporters Tuesday morning that vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine would give “a major national security address” in North Carolina Tuesday afternoon and a spokesman touted the endorsements of retired generals Bob Sennewald (former commanding general of the U.S. Army Forces Command) and David Maddox (formerly commander in chief of the U.S. Army-Europe). Last week, the Clinton campaign bragged about the endorsement of former deputy assistant secretary of defense James Clad.
The endorsements don’t seem to be swaying military voters, who are disapproving of both Trump and Clinton. Polling of active duty military service members shows that the rank and file preferred Trump over Clinton by about a 2 to 1 margin earlier in the summer but that Clinton closed that gap to about 10 points in August after Trump attacked a Muslim Gold Star family that spoke out against him. One informal poll of troops had both candidates trailing Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson when his name was included in the survey.
Nevertheless, the campaigns can’t help but indulge in trotting out as many former top officers as they can find. The most egregious examples were at the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Trump’s military cheerleading team was led by retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, who led chants of “Lock her up.” Clinton’s top military surrogate was retired Gen. John Allen, whom Trump later called a “failed general” because he was in charge of coordinating the campaign against the Islamic State.
Two former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, retired Gen. Martin Dempsey and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, have called on their former colleagues to refrain from becoming overtly partisan and damaging civil-military relations. Current Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford has issued a similar warning to troops still serving.
Top experts on the issue are calling on both campaigns to end the tactic before the line between the military and politics is blurred any further. “The military is not a partisan prize, and it should not be used for this,” said Mackubin Thomas Owens, a retired colonel in the Marine Corps reserves and dean of academic affairs at the Institute of World Politics. Allen and Flynn “were not introduced at the conventions as John or Mike, they were introduced as generals,” Owens said. “So the idea was more or less trade on their military experience. And I think that’s very destructive of civil-military relations.”
Owens wrote a chapter on military-civil relations in a new book called “Warriors and Citizens,” which was edited by retired Gen. James Mattis and former Bush administration national security official Kori Schake. Schake said that Allen, Flynn and the other retired officers are taking advantage of the fact that public support for elected political officials has plummeted while public support for the military remains high. But by presenting themselves as representatives of the military, they are hurting the independence of those still serving.
“That makes it harder for active duty people to be persuasive with their elected political leadership,” she said. “Flynn is by far the worst offender.”
It’s true that the involvement of senior retired military figures in presidential politics is not new. Gen. Douglas MacArthur gave the keynote speech at the 1952 Republican convention. Retired Adm. William Crowe endorsed Bill Clinton in 1992, shielding him from charges of draft dodging. In 2000 and 2008, both candidates lined up former top officers, some of whom were rewarded with plum jobs in the winning side’s administration.
But in this election cycle, the partisanship and breathlessness of the retired generals and admirals has reached new heights. Voters should be reminded that military experience or lack thereof doesn’t correlate to a president’s success in national security. Abraham Lincoln famously said his only military experiences before becoming president were “many bloody struggles with mosquitoes.” Both campaigns should instead focus on explaining what policies they would implement to solve the nation’s real security challenges. More photo ops and more letters signed by more retired generals just do more harm than good.