Gen. Dempsey To Fellow Officers: Stay Off The Political Battlefield

Aug 3, 2016
Originally published on August 4, 2016 2:00 pm

Two retired generals spoke at the national political conventions last month — one in favor of the Democratic candidate and one for the Republican.

At the Democrats' convention, Marine Corps Gen. John Allen offered a thinly veiled swipe at Donald Trump.

"But I also know that with [Hillary Clinton] as our commander in chief, our international relations will not be reduced to a business transaction," Allen said.

At the Republican convention, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn joined in the crowd's chants to arrest Hillary Clinton.

"Lock her up, that's right," Flynn said. "Yeah, that's right, lock her up."

These high-profile appearances have spurred a third retired general to step forward. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is asking his fellow retired generals to be quiet.

"The American people should not wonder where their military leaders draw the line between military advice and political preference," Dempsey wrote in a letter to the Washington Post. "And our nation's soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines should not wonder about the political leanings and motivations of their leaders."

The role of the military is set out in the Constitution and is based on trust, Dempsey told NPR's Renee Montagne. Delving into politics undermines that trust, he said.

"I was upset," he said, about generals at the conventions, "not at the two individuals, necessarily, but that somehow, the message that we have been sending about the proper role of senior leaders, both on active duty and beyond, had not made it every place it needed to make it."

To hear their full conversation, click the audio link above.


Interview Highlights

On the military's role in government

We very clearly are responsive to and supportive of our elected officials ... in order to sustain that relationship both with elected officials and the American people, really the foundation of all that is trust. The issue for me was that if we begin to become part of partisan politics, inevitably that trust will break down with some segment of society ... I wouldn't begrudge them a bit if they were speaking privately to candidates and giving them their advice. But it wasn't appropriate, in my judgment, that they spoke at a political convention.

On retired military officers' right to free speech

The freedom of speech argument is the one that is often invoked. But here's the reality: Generals and admirals are generals and admirals for life.

They can do this. There's no law that precludes them from doing this. ... The military profession is held in great esteem by the American people. The image of the American professional officer is one who is on guard for the nation, who is representative of all the people, who is subordinate to elected officials, not the image of someone giving an angry speech at a political convention.

On generals who have become politicians and presidents themselves

I think we do well to have military experience in the Congress of the United States. But here's the difference: If you run for office, what you essentially do is you put yourself into a position where you will now be accountable to voters. If you're speaking as a general or an admiral as part of a political campaign, you're not accountable to anyone.

And by the way, you're making life much more difficult for those who continue to serve, who actually are accountable for the actions of the United States military as they deploy them across the land in response to elected officials.

On the difficulty of mixing politics and the military

I've served at high levels for the last three presidents, and one of the things that is very clear to me is that to be a very effective military adviser, you have to have the trust of those you're advising. My assertion here is that when general officers and admirals become politicized, it can reflect back on those currently serving. It's my instinct that there will be certain elected officials who begin to be concerned that the general officer corps and the admirals are becoming politicized, and if they become concerned about that, that trust relationship begins to break down. The expectation is that you are neutral to politics so that you can do your job, no matter who's elected.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Both the Republican and Democratic conventions featured prime-time appearances by top military men, both now retired. As he endorsed Hillary Clinton, Gen. John Allen offered a thinly veiled but full-throated swipe at Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN ALLEN: I also know that with her as our commander in chief, our international relations will not be reduced to a business transaction.

MONTAGNE: A week earlier, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn joined in with Trump supporters chanting to arrest Hillary Clinton.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL FLYNN: Lock her up. That's right....

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Lock her up. Lock her up....

FLYNN: Yes, that's right. Lock her up.

MONTAGNE: Those high-profile appearances have prompted another retired general to step forward. Gen. Martin Dempsey was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015. But rather than endorsing a candidate, he's calling on his fellow retired generals to refrain from displaying their political leanings.

Good morning.

MARTIN DEMPSEY: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, you did see Generals Allen and Flynn come on stage at their respective party conventions. And were you surprised?

DEMPSEY: I was surprised. We've been trying to renew our sense of professionalism and what it means to be a professional. And so because, I think, this was out of bounds, if you will, in terms of the way we define ourselves, our relationship with America, our relationship with our elected officials - I was surprised.

MONTAGNE: And - surprised and, I'm going to guess, upset.

DEMPSEY: Yeah, I was upset. Not at the two individuals, necessarily, but that somehow the message that we have been sending about the proper role of senior leaders, both on active duty and beyond, had not apparently made it every place it needed to make it.

MONTAGNE: Well, the message, as you put it, that was contained in this letter that you wrote to The Washington Post - kind of letter to the editor - you speak of the special role that the military plays in our democracy and its relation to political leaders, civilian leaders. Sum that up for us.

DEMPSEY: The relationship of the military to our elected officials is, in the first place, codified in the Constitution. We very clearly are responsive to and supportive of our elected officials. Secondly, in order to sustain that relationship, both with elected officials and with the American people, really, the foundation of all that is trust.

And the issue for me was that if we begin to become part of partisan politics, inevitably, that trust will break down with some segment of society. You know, I mean, right now we've got one general officer speaking on behalf of each candidate. And frankly, I wouldn't begrudge them a bit if they were speaking privately to candidates and giving them their advice. But it was inappropriate, in my judgment, I should say, that they spoke at a political convention.

MONTAGNE: Although, they are retired. And I know that, you know, after you've spoken out, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has come back to say he might have left behind his military career, but he took with him his freedom of speech.

DEMPSEY: Yeah, the freedom of speech argument is the one that's often invoked. But here - look, here's the reality. I mean, generals and admirals are generals and admirals for life. And they can do this. There's no law that precludes them from doing this. What I'm suggesting is that, as members of a profession, they have both a personal reputation built on their own and they have a collective reputation that comes to them by virtue of the fact that they've been part of a profession for 30-plus years.

As you know, the military profession is held in great esteem by the American people. And the image of the American professional officer is one who's on guard for the nation, who is representative of all the people, who is subordinate to elected officials, not the image of someone giving an angry speech at a political convention.

MONTAGNE: You know, 12 generals have become president. I mean, starting with George Washington, obviously, on to President Eisenhower. What's the difference?

DEMPSEY: Oh, for sure. And by the way, I've often said if a general officer, an admiral, wanted to, or, for that matter, any member of the military, wanted to run for political office, I'm all for it. I think we'd do well to have military experience in the Congress of the United States.

But here's the difference. If you run for office, what you essentially do is you put yourself into a position where you will now be accountable to voters. If you're speaking as a general or an admirable (ph) as part of a political campaign, you're not accountable to anyone and, by the way, making life much more difficult for those who continue to serve, who actually are accountable for the actions of the United States military as they deploy them across the land in response to the orders of elected officials.

MONTAGNE: What would be an example of that - of making it difficult, say, for someone who is currently a general and, say, waging a war on the Islamic State?

DEMPSEY: Well, let me speak from personal experience. And - so I've served at high levels for the last three presidents. And one of the things that was very clear to me is that to be an effective military adviser, you have to have the trust of those you're advising. And my assertion here is that when general officers and admirals become politicized, it can reflect back on those currently serving. And it's my instinct that there will be certain elected officials who begin to be concerned that the general officer corps and the admirals are becoming politicized. And if they become concerned about that, that trust relationship begins to break down. The expectation is that you are neutral to politics so that you can do your job no matter who's elected.

MONTAGNE: Do you have strong political opinions?

DEMPSEY: Of course I do. I'm a - you know, I'm a United States citizen. I will exercise my right to vote in November. I do have some very strong feelings about the right path for this country. I will talk about the issues, whether it's terrorism or Russia or China or Iran or DPRK and how we manage all of those simultaneously as a global power. I do talk about the issues frequently. But I don't talk about who I think should be the next commander in chief.

MONTAGNE: Gen. Martin Dempsey was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015. Thank you very much for joining us.

DEMPSEY: OK, Renee. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.