Retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said two former high-ranking colleagues were wrong to speak at the political conventions.
Both retired Marine Gen. John Allen and retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn broke with the apolitical traditions of the U.S. military in their highly charged addresses -- Allen in support of Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention and Flynn in support of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention, Dempsey said.
In a letter to The Washington Post, Dempsey also said that Clinton and Trump were wrong to use Allen and Flynn as proxies for their political agendas.
"Politicians should take the advice of senior military leaders but keep them off the stage. The American people should not wonder where their military leaders draw the line between military advice and political preference," he said.
"And our nation's soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines should not wonder about the political leanings and motivations of their leaders," he added.
Critics will likely charge that Dempsey himself has offered views that could be considered political, even while in uniform, but his brief letter of two paragraphs also appeared to reflect his long-standing concern that the bitterness of the current political discourse was damaging to the military.
"I think we've been a bit distracted recently on the way we've been talking about the world and talking about the homeland," Dempsey said earlier this month in an interview with National Public Radio. "I mean, we've seemed as though we've kind of pushed ourselves to the ideological edges, and where we really need to be is in the middle. And so I am concerned."
In his letter to the Post, Dempsey said Allen and Flynn "weren't introduced at the Democratic and Republican conventions, respectively, as 'John' and 'Mike.' They were introduced as generals. As generals, they have an obligation to uphold our apolitical traditions."
By appearing at the conventions, Allen and Flynn, "have just made the task of their successors -- who continue to serve in uniform and are accountable for our security -- more complicated. It was a mistake for them to participate as they did. It was a mistake for our presidential candidates to ask them to do so."
In his speech to the DNC, Allen, the former commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, attacked Trump by inference. With Clinton as commander-in-chief, "our international relations will not be reduced to a business transaction," Allen said.
"I also know that our armed forces will not become an instrument of torture, and they will not be engaged in murder or carry out other illegal activities," he said.
At the RNC, Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who had been mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick for Trump, said, "We are tired of Obama's empty speeches and his misguided rhetoric. This, this has caused the world to have no respect for America's word, nor does it fear our might."
Flynn also criticized "political correctness," a frequent theme at Trump rallies, and debates over transgender bathrooms.
"My God, war is not about bathrooms. War is not about political correctness or words that are meaningless. War is about winning," Flynn said. "My message to you is very clear: Wake up, America! There is no substitute for American leadership and exceptionalism."
In the course of the political campaign, senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle have occasionally used hearings in attempts to draw out the Pentagon's leadership on statements made by the candidates.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford have declined, but Dunford has spoken in general terms without mentioning Trump's name when asked about waterboarding and torture.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in May, Dunford was questioned by Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who lost to Trump in the primaries, whether the use of extreme interrogation techniques would go against "American values" and adversely impact on troop morale.
Graham also avoided using Trump's name but said "some have suggested that we intentionally target civilians or go back to waterboarding. What effect, if any, would this have on the warfighter if we started telling our men and women to intentionally target civilian non-combatants and engage in techniques such as waterboarding or more extreme forms of interrogation?"
Dunford responded, "I've said publicly before, our men and women -- we ought to be proud of it -- when they go to war they go with the values of our nation. And those kind of activities you've described are inconsistent with the values of our nation and, quite frankly, I think would have an adverse effect."
Dunford said one of those adverse effects "would be on the morale of the force, and what you're suggesting are things that actually aren't legal for them to do anyway" under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the law of armed conflict and the Geneva Conventions.
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.