Military Must Beware of 'Extreme Strain' from Political Divides, Warn 13 Former Defense Leaders

Member of th National Guard provides security near the U.S. Capitol.
Member of the Indiana National Guard provides security near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, March 1, 2021. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class R.J. Lannom Jr.)

Eight former defense secretaries and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are warning of an "extreme strain" on the relationship between the military and civilians caused by political polarization and other societal pressures.

In an open letter published Tuesday in the national security blog War on the Rocks, the former Pentagon and military leaders argued it is important to review "best practices" for healthy civil-military relations in the face of what they described as an "exceptionally challenging civil-military environment."

The letter does not ascribe the challenges to any one politician or political party. But it notes that the 2020 election was the "first election in over a century when the peaceful transfer of political power was disrupted and in doubt" -- a situation caused by former President Donald Trump and his allies lying that the election had been stolen and his supporters' attack on the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn President Joe Biden's victory.

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In addition to politics, the former officials also cite the COVID-19 pandemic and economic disruptions, as well as the end of the post-9/11 wars "without all the goals satisfactorily accomplished" and the ramping up of so-called great power competition, as straining civil-military relations.

"Looking ahead, all of these factors could well get worse before they get better," the former officials wrote.

The warning about an erosion of civil-military relations in recent years is not new, but the letter is notable for how many top leaders joined together to sign.

The signatories include both of Trump's confirmed defense secretaries, Jim Mattis and Mark Esper. The letter was also signed by defense secretaries from the Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton administrations: Ash Carter, William Cohen, Bob Gates, Chuck Hagel, Leon Panetta and William Perry.

Every chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since October 2001 also signed: Gen. Martin Dempsey, Gen. Joe Dunford, Adm. Mike Mullen, Gen. Richard Myers and Gen. Peter Pace.

The letter comes ahead of the midterm elections in November that, along with questions raised every election cycle about politicking in uniform, could exacerbate political polarization with far-right candidates continuing to deny the 2020 election results.

It also comes after the Trump years put considerable strain on civil-military relations as he routinely ignored norms meant to shield the military from politics, such as advocating for the use of troops to quell racial justice protests in summer 2020.

Biden ran on a promise to restore norms, but he too has recently been accused of a civil-military relations violation. In a speech last week in which he described Trump-aligned Republicans as a threat to democracy, Biden had two Marines standing behind him in view of cameras.

The Army also set off a debate about politicizing the military by airing a reenlistment ceremony on the Fox News morning show "Fox and Friends," a favorite program of Trump's that has, among other partisan targets, invited guests who have attacked the military during the Biden administration as "woke" for trying to improve diversity.

In their letter, the former Pentagon officials stress that service members have significant limits on participation in partisan politics and that the military has "carefully delimited roles in law enforcement."

The letter also emphasizes the constitutional roles of the executive, legislative and judicial branches in civilian control of the military. The military has an obligation to carry out civilian orders regardless of the wisdom of the orders "provided that the directives are legal," the former officials added, italicizing that phrase for emphasis.

"Civilian control of the military is part of the bedrock foundation of American democracy," they wrote. "The democratic project is not threatened by the existence of a powerful standing military so long as civilian and military leaders -- and the rank-and-file they lead -- embrace and implement effective civilian control."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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