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Should Retired Military Officers Speak Out: Always, Never -- or It Sort of Depends?


General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has spoken out in criticism of various retired officers, many of them from special forces, for drawing on their military bona fides in voicing displeasure over the Obama administration’s serial leaks (the details of the Osama bin Laden raid, the drone protocols, the cyberwar against Iran, the Yemeni double agent, etc.). Dempsey makes a good point (e.g., “If someone uses the uniform, whatever uniform it is, for partisan politics, I’m disappointed by that, because I think it does erode that bond of trust that we have with the American people”). Or at least he would have made a good point, had the political horse not long ago left the military barn.

By that I mean, the military has already broken precedent by allowing serving personnel to march in uniform in overtly politically inspired parades, such as the recent gay-pride parade in San Diego (will we see soldiers in uniform at tea-party marches protesting uncontrolled federal spending or the takeover of health care?). And we should not forget the recent so-called revolt of the generals when retired officers such as Major General Paul Eaton, Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold, Major General John Riggs, Major General Charles Swannack, General Anthony Zinni, and Major General John Batiste variously blasted the Bush administration, the ongoing strategy in Iraq, the idea of a surge, and called for the firing of the sitting secretary of defense — while we were in the midst of  both a war in Iraq and a polarized political debate over it at home. All were canonized by the media as sincere patriots who were speaking truth to power. Perhaps — but many of them outranked those who appear in the anti-Obama-administration-leak video, and their anger at the Bush administration in some ways was even more overtly political than the current video critique of the administration’s damaging leaks.

I think the matter of retired (or currently serving) senior officers weighing in on contemporary politics (if condemning leaks is, in fact, that) — including advocating the firing of their immediate civilian superiors — is a complex issue (cf. the earlier 1949 “revolt of the admirals” against Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, General MacArthur’s politicking following his 1951 dismissal, Eisenhower’s 1952 campaigning, Curtis LeMay’s VP nomination on the 1968 Wallace third-party ticket, and the brief 2004 presidential run of Wesley Clark). 

For some strange reason when the military, or ex-military, seems to support causes deemed progressive, then politics is not such a problem — and, indeed, partisans, counting on the prestige of their past service, are often lauded as enlightened (cf. General Clark’s advice last week for veterans to vote for Obama: “He and Michelle have put more effort, personal effort, and personal attention to the men and women who serve in uniform. [He] gets out into the veterans community more than any commander in chief in my lifetime.”). And yet when more conservative officers do the same, they are looked on as if they were Seven Days in May potential subversives. 

What is needed from the Pentagon is some sort of consistent ethics policy that is not antithetical to the constitutional right of free speech and First Amendment protected expression — and to apply it across the board regardless of politics. 

That most certainly is not now the case and it shows — and so we are left with the impression that the admonishers can appear as partisan as the targets of their sermons.