In an ominous open letter published on wonky national security site War on the Rocks Tuesday, eight former secretaries of defense and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned of what they call an "exceptionally challenging civil-military environment" developing in the United States that apparently concerned them enough to publish their thoughts ahead of November's consequential midterm elections. Never mind, apparently, that the signatories were at the helm of the U.S. military for the better part of the last two decades during which that "environment" was degraded.
Citing "extreme strain" to "[m]any of the factors that shape civil-military relations" in "recent years," the letter points to "the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ramping up of great power conflict" while alluding to the fact that last August's withdrawal from Afghanistan — and fresh chaos in Iraq — mean that "the U.S. military must simultaneously come to terms with wars that ended without all the goals satisfactorily accomplished while preparing for more daunting competition with near-peer rivals."
The letter also not-so-subtly refers to "the divisiveness of affective polarization that culminated in the first election in over a century when the peaceful transfer of political power was disrupted and in doubt" as a reason "military professionals confront an extremely adverse environment."
"Looking ahead, all of these factors could well get worse before they get better," the former Pentagon officials warn. "In such an environment, it is helpful to review the core principles and best practices by which civilian and military professionals have conducted healthy American civil-military relations in the past — and can continue to do so, if vigilant and mindful."
What follows are 16 enumerated "best practices" that deal with the chain of command, political pressure, and civilian control of the U.S. military, all signed by former Pentagon brass including Ash Carter, Mark Esper, Bob Gates, Chuck Hagel, Jim Mattis, Leon Panetta, Martin Dempsey, Joseph Dunford, and Peter Pace.
"Military officers swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution, not an oath of fealty to an individual or to an office," the letter explains. "All civilians, whether they swear an oath or not, are likewise obligated to support and defend the Constitution as their highest duty."
Another point discusses the "responsibility of senior military and civilian leaders to ensure that any order they receive from the president is legal" and "to provide the president with their views and advice that includes the implications of an order."
"The military — active-duty, reserve, and National Guard — have carefully delimited roles in law enforcement," another "best practice" explains. "Those roles must be taken only insofar as they are consistent with the Constitution and relevant statutes. The military has an obligation to advise on the wisdom of proposed action and civilians should create the opportunity for such deliberation," the letter explains. "The military is required ultimately to carry out legal directives that result. In most cases, the military should play a supporting rather than a leading role to law enforcement."
The letter also explains that "[t]here are significant limits on the public role of military personnel in partisan politics, as outlined in longstanding Defense Department policy and regulations. Members of the military accept limits on the public expression of their private views — limits that would be unconstitutional if imposed on other citizens," the letter notes. "Military and civilian leaders must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity."
Whether the former officials are looking backward at the 2020 election or ahead at the 2024 election, their letter dives into the military's responsibilities during a presidential election year:
During presidential elections, the military has a dual obligation. First, because the Constitution provides for only one commander-in chief at a time, the military must assist the current commander-in-chief in the exercise of his or her constitutional duty to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. Second, because the voters (not the military) decide who will be commander-in-chief, they must prepare for whomever the voters pick — whether a reelected incumbent or someone new. This dual obligation reinforces the importance of the principles and best practices described above.
The only thing that's missing from the bulleted manifesto-y letter about the military's "best practices" is an explanation for why it was written. Is it more (very delayed) fallout from January 6? A response to President Joe Biden's use of Marine guards as staging for his angry and divisive speech in Philadelphia in which he declared war on Republicans? A warning of things yet to come?
Speaking with Townhall, Former Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense Amber Smith reiterated that "healthy civil-military relations are incredibly important" for the United States. However, as Smith pointed out, "it’s completely hypocritical for these former Defense Secretaries and [Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] to preach about how important civ-mil relations are while setting the stage for using military leaders and officials to undermine the president," she said. "They are getting ready for Trump’s second term."
"Additionally, those who penned this letter are complicit with the deterioration of trust and the breakdown in the relationship between the military and civilians they speak of," Smith also noted. "They are essentially raising the alarm for an environment they helped create."
Smith is right. The letter is conveniently revisionist in its glossing over of recent military history while attempting to frame the former officials' legacies in a positive light. Claiming the disaster that was the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan merely "ended without all the goals satisfactorily accomplished" is a rather appalling way to characterize what was a complete failure on multiple levels — one that further undermined Americans' trust in military leaders.
What's more, the signatories were at the helm of the U.S. military for the better part of the last two decades — if there are issues with the civil-military relationship, they had a hand in that. They were also on watch as the armed forces barreled toward recruitment, retention, and fitness level failures through multiple administrations.
Then there's the matter of the signers' decision to chime in on politics, invoke the events of January 6, and talk about presidential elections. Among the letter's signers is General Dempsey who, in 2016, said that "the American people should not wonder where their military leaders draw the line between military advice and political preference" in a statement to The Washington Post that was described by NPR as an instruction for former Pentagon officials to "stay off the political battlefield" even after leaving their posts.
Evidently Dempsey's earlier admonishment did not apply to his and the other former brass who decided, seemingly without a clear impetus, to publish their open letter this week.