Merrill "Tony" McPeak doesn't like George W. Bush. But it's more than that. McPeak has contempt for the president, which he freely expresses. Speaking from his home in Oregon, the John Kerry partisan describes Bush in terms usually employed by the likes of MoveOn.org. "Not even his best friends would accuse this president of having ideas," McPeak says. Mild stuff in the age of Michael Moore. Except that McPeak's first name is General.
The former Air Force chief of staff is not the only general describing the president in such vivid terms. On behalf of the Kerry campaign, an entire phalanx of generals —McPeak, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili, former Supreme Allied Commander for Europe Wesley Clark, Army Lieutenant General Daniel W. Christman, and a parade of eight others that the Kerry campaign set loose at the martial-themed Democratic convention in July—has taken to the airwaves in what a Kerry press release trumpets as an "unprecedented display of support from the military establishment." They've been touting Kerry's war record, and the president's lack of one, ever since.
This week, the Bush team responded in kind, boasting of 100 admirals and generals who have endorsed the president. And, though the Democratic convention had to make do with an address by the mild-mannered Shalikashvili, Republicans gathered in New York were treated to the folksy Texas wisdom of Army General Tommy Franks, fresh from invading Afghanistan and Iraq and barely out of uniform. Like Kerry's generals, Bush's generals—who include former Air Force Chief of Staff Ronald Fogelman, former Marine Corps Commandant P.X. Kelley, and Medal of Honor recipient Army General Pat Brady—won't confine themselves to touting the martial prowess of their chosen candidate. They'll also tear his opponent to pieces.
Thus begins a quadrennial ritual, in which the two campaigns vie to squeeze as many generals as possible onto their convention podiums and into our TV sets. And this year, the competition is fiercer than ever. "It really tells you something about John Kerry," says one of his aides, "that so many high-ranking officers would line up behind him." Not so, says Brady. "There are a miniscule number of general officers supporting Kerry," he says, "and I've talked to three times that number who support Bush." During a presidential contest in which both sides have embraced militarism as a campaign theme, such statements may not seem particularly notable. Over the long term, however, showcasing generals in the political arena harms both the services and the civilians who must control them.
Until a decade ago, the practice of senior officers endorsing politicians was virtually unheard of. True, from Ulysses S. Grant to Dwight Eisenhower, the United States boasts a long tradition of generals endorsing themselves. But, when a general runs for president, he openly presents himself as a partisan. Absent is any pretense of neutrality and, hence, any room to create the impression that, because a retired officer endorses candidate X, that candidate enjoys the unanimous support of the military establishment. In fact, in his 1957 book, The Soldier and the State, Samuel R. Huntington estimated that, in the period following the rise of a professional officer class during the Civil War, not one in 500 officers even cast a ballot. Nearly a century later, General George C. Marshall refused to vote while on active duty, making no secret of his rigid neutrality. Rather, the principle of subordination to civilian control and nonpartisanship at the heart of American military professionalism encouraged retired officers to follow the lead of General Omar Bradley, who opted to "hold my tongue and keep my name out of the papers." This nonpartisan ethos began to erode after Vietnam, with the advent of the all-volunteer—and, because of self-selection, increasingly conservative—force, which embraced, and was embraced by, a GOP that billed itself as the defender of the military.
This mutual admiration intensified during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies, but the clearest evidence that partisanship had infected even the most senior generals came, oddly enough, in the form of a Democratic endorsement. In 1992, Bill Clinton persuaded former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Crowe to support him publicly during the height of the controversy over whether Clinton had avoided the Vietnam draft. (Crowe was rewarded with an ambassadorship to Great Britain.) Picking up where Clinton left off, Bush rolled out the endorsement of no less than 27 flag-rank officers in 2000, prompting an Al Gore aide to remark to The New York Times, "This is the kind of thing you see in the Third World —all these generals lining up behind politicians." Today, by contrast, neither Bush nor Kerry share Gore's compunctions. While Bush has continued collecting generals, Kerry, too, has been wooing them for over a year—in green rooms, dinners at his Georgetown mansion, and phone calls from the candidate and his national security adviser, Rand Beers. Nor did Kerry's quest end with the Democratic convention: he continues to solicit endorsements from the brass culled from lists of officers put together by his own generals.
For their part, many generals say that, while they would prefer to remain nonpartisan, today the stakes are too great to remain silent. In fact, retired generals in both the Bush and Kerry camps agree on two points. First, that active-duty officers have no right to engage in partisan political activity; and second, that they themselves have every right to do so. Even Christman, a former superintendent of West Point, sees no harm in offering his endorsement to Kerry. "There's a clear red line between officers on active duty and retired officers," Christman says. "But, after retirement, there is no reason we cannot participate in the political process." Echoing this assessment, Brady says, "The idea that a retired general officer loses his citizenship is insane."
But the issue isn't sanity; it's propriety. To begin with, the line distinguishing retired generals from active-duty generals isn't so clear, and the campaigns have done their best to blur it. As Richard Kohn, the nation's preeminent scholar of civil-military relations, puts it, "Those in the know understand that four-stars never really 'retire' but, like princes of the church, embody the core culture, and, because of their experience and diversity, collectively represent the military community as authoritatively as the active-duty leadership." Whether shuttling back and forth to the Pentagon offices of their protégés, consulting for the Pentagon, or sitting on the boards of military contractors, in name and influence, they remain generals for life. Yet, the retired generals insist it is self-evident that they speak for themselves, not the establishment that made them. Thus, in response to an op-ed earlier this month in which military historian Eliot Cohen criticized the retired generals, Shalikashvili wrote a letter to The Wall Street Journal objecting that officers "have spoken as individuals, rather than for the military institution." But, if so, why did the Kerry campaign bill Shalikashvili's endorsement as evidence of "unprecedented support from the military establishment?" And why did Shalikashvili open his speech to the Democratic convention with the caveat, "I do not stand here as a political figure. Rather, I stand here as an old soldier?" Retired Marine Corps General Bernard Trainor, who directed Harvard's National Security Program, sees through these explanations. "If these guys didn't have the name 'General,'" he says, "what value would they have? They're being exploited for their titles, and it politicizes the military."
The harm, indeed, accrues mostly to the military establishment on whose behalf the generals pretend to speak. When generals take to the hustings, politicians respond by treating the military as if it were an interest group like the AFL-CIO or the NAACP —a constituency to be coddled, as Republicans have done since the Reagan era, or ignored and treated with suspicion, the response of many Democratic legislators during the same period. The practice also exacts a price in public confidence. "The military, along with the Supreme Court, is the most respected public institution because it is viewed as nonpartisan," says Duke University's Christopher Gelpi, co-author of the new book Choosing Your Battles: Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Force. "When the public views the military as a special interest out for pork, as it certainly has done before, it distrusts the military like any other lobbyist."
Nor is the problem solved when both parties compete for the affections of generals. If the pattern of senior officers retiring and endorsing candidates becomes the norm, it won't be long before generals find themselves promoted on the basis of political affiliation rather than expertise. What president, after all, would want advice from an officer who, a year from now, might be denouncing him on The Today Show? (The Clinton team didn't; in at least one instance, it asked a candidate for promotion what party he belonged to.) Politicization, then, creates the danger that presidents will end up with yes-men rather than military professionals, a phenomenon whose downsides became famously apparent when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor surrendered his critical faculties during the run-up to the war in Vietnam.
The politicization also may have a longer-term pernicious effect. There is a reason—beyond the Constitution —that political neutrality and military professionalism go hand in hand: As the nonpartisan ethos of the Armed Forces weakens, so, too, can traditional measures of military effectiveness. "Politicization erodes the cohesion, morale, and professional dedication of the officer corps," says Kohn, who points to a hemorrhage of officers during the Clinton era as evidence of what follows when the military adopts partisan views and expectations. And it has: According to a survey taken by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies before the 2000 election, 64 percent of officers identify with the Republican Party, twice the percentage who did two decades before, and only 8 percent list themselves as Democrats. Given recent history, this may stand to reason. But, now more than ever, the Armed Forces need to be able to retain officers, maintain morale, and operate effectively, regardless of the party in the White House.
Alas, having called the generals out of retirement, the politicians may find they won't easily go back to the barracks. By inviting senior officers into the political arena, Kerry and Bush have sent a message that it is legitimate for the officer corps to take sides on politically charged issues. It is a message that needs no encouragement. Asked about the propriety of retired flag officers endorsing political candidates, Christman rightly notes that it has been over two centuries since the threat of a coup hung over the republic. But the danger isn't as dramatic as a coup: it is that the military may gain undue influence over decisions that, properly understood, remain the exclusive property of civilians. During the '90s, the Armed Services swelled with such contempt for their civilian superiors that service chiefs had to admonish subordinates to behave themselves in front of the commander-in-chief; at the top, the same chiefs publicly opposed White House policy on issues ranging from gays in the military to U.S. intervention in Bosnia. Asking generals to vet our presidential candidates simply encourages more of the same.
The campaigns, filled as they are with P.R. specialists and Ivy League interns who view military officers as anthropological totems, do not understand the implications of their own actions. But do the generals? In Boston for the Democratic convention, Wesley Clark insisted that former military officers "have an obligation at this time in our nation's history to speak up and be heard." No, they don't.
Lawrence F. Kaplan is editor of Entanglements. Previously, he was editor of World Affairs, executive editor of The National Interest, and senior editor at The New Republic, for which he reported from Iraq during 2005-2007. Kaplan is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate of Columbia University, Oxford, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.