Feaver is usually a phlegmatic chap. So when he tells a reporter that something is “an appalling breach of military professionalism and the norms on which democratic civil-military relations depends,” the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts takes notice.
What prompted Feaver’s ire was an open letter released this week from a group of retired admirals and generals called Flag Officers 4 America. The letter’s opening is pretty stark: “Our Nation is in deep peril. We are in a fight for our survival as a Constitutional Republic like no other time since our founding in 1776. The conflict is between supporters of Socialism and Marxism vs. supporters of Constitutional freedom and liberty.”
The letter gets worse from there. The parts that are not flat-out false reveal a knowledge base that would flunk a high school civics class.
As Politico’s Bryan Bender notes, “The talking points in the letter fall generally in line with die-hard loyalists in Trump’s orbit, who question the results of the election despite the fact that the courts and Trump’s own Justice Department said there was no reason to declare him the winner.” The letter evokes a similar missive released last month by French retired military officials that hits similar reactionary talking points.
So this is, how you say, not good. But how not good is it? In reality, the list of signatories is quite small. It contains no former four-star, very few three-stars, and primarily consists of officers who retired more than 20 years ago. In other words, these are former military folks, but they are the former military folks who exercise the least influence over the current active military.
Nonetheless, my concern matches Feaver’s — that this is further erosion of what used to be a very strong norm against retired military officials wading en masse into politics. In the old days, retired general officers leaned conservative but largely kept their mouths shut. In the past decade, however, more retired generals began to speak out, mostly in reaction to the rise of Donald Trump. Some, like Michael Flynn, supported him to the hilt; most opposed him.
At least those interventions into partisan politics came during political campaigns. This letter, on the other hand, was released with Joe Biden less than four months into his first term. Even the organizer of the letter acknowledged to Politico that, “the partisan nature of the effort is not normal.”
The problem is not this bad letter — the problem is that this letter might be a harbinger of worse letters. In breaching this norm, Flag Officers 4 America has enabled other groups of former generals to collectively weigh in on partisan politics. Such a trend would not be healthy for either the country or the military. It should be obvious why the country does not benefit from having retired military officers weigh in as retired officers on matters of domestic politics. If nothing else, it poses some risks to civilian control of the military. And although it’s a fun movie, I do not want the beginning of “Starship Troopers” to transpire in real life.
There are risks to the military as an institution, too. On Tuesday, Kori Schake tweeted, “If you want to understand why there’s a ~14% drop in public admiration for our military recently, it’s the political activism of veterans on subjects beyond their military expertise.” The more the military is dragged into partisan politics, the less able it will be to be trusted by the partisans out of power.
In isolation, this letter is insignificant and mostly beclowns its signatories. If it accelerates political actions by general officers to a near-constant level, this letter is a harbinger of civil-military doom.