Is the Military Wading into Politics?

Democracy Examined

On Mon., May 10, a group of retired generals and admirals calling themselves “Flag Officers 4 America” published an open letter alleging that the 2020 Election was rigged, among other conspiratorial claims. After a recent update, more than 150 veterans have signed, including GOP Senate candidate Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, Reagan deputy security adviser Vice Adm. John Poindexter of the Iran-Contra Affair, letter organizer Maj. Gen. Joe Arbuckle, and others of note

The letter makes a number of extreme assertions including:

  • America is “in a fight for our survival as a Constitutional Republic” against “supporters of Socialism and Marxism.”
  • “Election irregularities” were “ignore[d]” in 2020 
  •  Biden’s “mental and physical condition” is questionable.
  • “The Current Administration has launched a full-blown assault on our Constitutional rights in a dictatorial manner” and supports voting rights legislation that would “allow Democrats to forever remain in power.”
  • COVID containment measures are “population control.”

Peter Feaver, a leading scholar of civil-military relations, called the letter “an appalling breach of military professionalism and the norms on which democratic civil-military relations depends.” It is certainly a clear departure from what Americans expect of their retired military leadership.

How worried should we be about this letter?

It’s fair to worry, but let’s not go overboard.

First, compared to other open letters from retired officers, this group is smaller and less decorated. The group of about 150 includes just one four-star general (Adm. Jerome Johnson). They pale in comparison to the 700+ officers, 30 four-star generals, and five former defense secretaries who signed onto letters endorsing either Trump or Biden in the 2020 election, or the eight members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who denounced the Capitol Riot.

Second, most of the officers are long-retired and otherwise unrepresentative. One amateur demographic analysis of the initial group of signers found their average age is 80, all are white, and all are men. This is hardly a group reflective of modern military leadership.

What does this mean for civil-military relations?

“Flag Officers 4 America” is only the latest and most dramatic example of the erosion of a foundational American principle: an apolitical military subject to civilian control

In recent years the military has been using its power to act with more autonomy. High-ranking officers increasingly thwart political decisions that they disagree with. Presidents Obama and Trump both struggled with generals leaking information, resisting their military orders, and publicly pushing for some policies that neither President supported.

Importantly, politicians don’t seem to be resisting this trend, and there’s a simple explanation why: America loves its armed forces. As faith in other elements of the government has plummeted, the military has become one of the few institutions that Americans by and large still support. As of 2020, 72% Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military, compared with 40% for the Supreme Court, 39% for the presidency, and an abysmal 13% for Congress. 

With faith in the military far exceeding other institutions, calls for the military to assume an active role in American government are growing more common. As a candidate, Biden suggested that the military remove Trump from the White House if he wouldn’t step down himself, causing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley to publicly reject speculation of any military involvement in the transfer of power.

Presidents Biden & Trump both tried to channel this public support by appointing former generals who had served in active duty within the last seven years as their Secretaries of Defense. These appointments required waivers from Congress and represented only the second and third time since the 7-year “cooling-off period” was established that the norm had been broken.

A politicized military sets a dangerous precedent, whether the result is damaging the military’s reputation or, at the more extreme end, the obstruction of a democratically-elected American government. If this letter is a preview of further politicization, the nation may face a serious threat––just not the one the “Flag Officers” are concerned about.