With retired Gen. James Mattis as President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of defense, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn as his choice for national security adviser, retired Gen. John Kelly likely getting the Homeland Security slot, and retired Gen. David Petraeus a finalist for secretary of state, some pundits are warning that tapping so many former top officers for senior administration posts is “dangerous” to America’s vital traditions of civilian control of the military.
“One more three or four-star general given a senior appointment, and we can start referring to a Trump junta rather than a Trump Administration,” Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and military scholar (and close friend), told Time magazine.
But it’s time to take a collective deep breath and get our facts straight: Civilian control of the military never has, and does not now, mean that retired generals are somehow unfit for public office simply because of their prior service. George Washington, America’s first (and arguably best) president was a retired general. Indeed, it would have never occurred to the Founding Fathers to oppose a retired officer holding a political office of any sort. Quite the opposite, as most had such service themselves and those who did not regretted their failure to serve. John Adams, for example, lamented to his wife Abigail, "I longed more ardently to be a Soldier than I ever did to be a Lawyer."
To be clear, ensuring that the president and other civilians maintain full control is rightfully considered to be a cornerstone of American democracy and a safeguard to block the types of coups common in much of the rest of the world. A former general myself, it’s an issue I agree with and have thought a lot about during my 34-year career in the Air Force and my six years teaching law at Duke.
Almost 25 years ago, I wrote a futuristic story entitled “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012” that detailed the collapse of civilian control of the armed forces amid widespread public disillusionment with democratic institutions and the rise of a general-turned-dictator. It garnered a lot of attention in both military circles and the world of journalism. To my genuine surprise, it’s been downloaded from the Duke Law repository alone almost 7,000 times in just the past four years.
Some people may try to twist the Coup of 2012’s message to fit today’s political environment, but there’s a key difference. The essay wasn’t about the military seeking to intrude into the civilian arena, but rather about the risks of civilian leaders — and the broader American public — giving the armed forces inappropriate domestic responsibilities ranging from policing to even teaching in the schools. There is no evidence of any appetite in the active or, especially, the retired ranks of top generals for the military to become deeply engaged here at home. It should go without saying that there are also no absurd “coup-like” inclinations either.
Retired generals don’t push for new wars. Civilians do.
Some opponents of tapping retired generals like Mattis raise a second concern: In their view, generals are inherently more hawkish than their civilian counterparts, and could — especially when paired with a tough-talking but inexperienced president like Trump — get America involved in more foreign conflicts. Mattis, for instance, is a longtime Iran hawk who describes Tehran as “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace” in the Middle East.” As Vox’s Yochi Dreazen notes, Mattis has wanted to confront the Iranians militarily for years. Under Trump, it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll finally get the chance.
Here, too, many in the civilian world misunderstand the ways most generals see the world, and particularly the question of whether to send young Americans off to fight and die overseas. Unlike their civilian overseers, most officers have seen the horrors of war firsthand and been shaped by the crucible of burying troops while seeing others return home mentally and physically wounded by war. Retired generals don’t clamor for war; they are typically the voices urging that all other avenues be exhausted before turning to force.
As chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then-Army Gen. Colin Powell authored a thoughtful but tempered use-of-force doctrine that said America should only go to war with defined objectives and a clear exit strategy. It was designed to persuade civilian policymakers to be extremely cautious about ordering troops into battle.
It didn’t work, and true “hawks” of Powell’s tenure often proved to be high-ranking civilian officials with liberal political leanings. In 1993, Time reported that a frustrated Secretary of State Madeline Albright, anxious to use military force in the Balkans but confronted with Powell’s reluctance, challenged the Vietnam veteran by scowling: "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" What was Powell’s response to what to military ears would be an overly cavalier approach to putting young Americans in harms’ way? "I thought I would have an aneurysm,” he would later remark.
In fact, when you think about it, what exactly do the civil-military relations alarmists fear? A coup? The very idea is preposterous. Yes, I used “coup” in my fictionalized essay as an attention-grabbing literary convention, but in the real world, there are a host of reasons it would not occur in the US. The biggest is that there is utterly nothing in our history to suggest that such thinking is any part of the American military’s culture or mindset.
Even if one wanted to attribute nefariousness to any of the retired officers being considered for civilian leadership positions (an outrageous suggestion in my view), there are a host of legal, institutional and, more importantly, practical reasons it would not occur. Although I realize it may be hard for some civilians to grasp this, it is laughable to think that a retired general of a particular service would have any sway over the mass of active duty troops if it was suggested to them to act in a way so obviously at odds with the Constitution. There are times when things really are that simple, and this is one of them.
That means some people may simply believe that serving in a senior post in the military should, in and of itself, disqualify them from serving in a Cabinet or other high-level civilian post. If that is the case, we ought to reject out of hand that sort of anti-military and anti-veteran animus. It not only doesn’t befit a great nation, it is out of line with a citizenry whose confidence in the military far outstrips that of any other institution in American society, and which considers the military officership among the nation’s most prestigious professions. Honesty and ethics? In the public’s mind, few professions top military officers in that category.
That doesn’t mean individuals ought not be scrutinized. Personally, I like Mattis and Petraeus, but don’t know Kelly. Like all Americans I want to be comfortable with our Cabinet officers, so a tough confirmation hearing ought to be de rigueur for all picks, especially for retired officers. But I doubt most Americans would want anyone barred from a civilian post simply and solely because the nominee served in the armed forces. They correctly perceive that retired generals, by and large, have a considerable set of leadership and organizational skills, not to mention a work ethic, which would be valued by any large organization, including the government.
Generals can lead troops. Serving in the Cabinet can be much harder.
Having said all this, it would be wise to temper expectations, especially when retired generals are asked to do a job outside their specialty — generals are not miracle workers. A Cabinet position is simply not the same as leading an armored division.
While Brent Scowcroft, a retired Air Force general, was widely seen as one of the most effective national security advisers in American history, there have certainly been some other retired generals that have struggled with the government job they transitioned into.
Some don’t master the political dimension of civilian leadership. Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant’s second term was marred by political scandals that hurt his reputation. Others don’t fully internalize the different mindset of many civilians. Former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki resigned from his post as the head of the Veterans Affairs department when he was unable to solve the long-standing problem of excessive patient waiting times, an issue exacerbated by civilian subordinates covering up the problem.
Even his fiercest critics said that Shinseki was an honorable man, but it was clear that he wasn’t comfortable as a politician — a serious shortcoming for the political demands of running a large, complex civilian bureaucracy that is constantly in the public eye. When confronted by the scope of the unethical behavior of some of his VA subordinates, Shinseki conceded that it was something he “rarely encountered during [his] 38 years in uniform.”
Still, many retired officers do succeed. Being a true leader is less about the environment he or she is in, and more about integrity, inspiring confidence, and the ability to plan and interpret situations with critical thinking and vision.
Retired generals typically do have a lot of know-how in a particular area, as well as mission focus and the ability to adapt quickly in addition to leadership skills, but, of course, not all generals would be the right choice for political appointments, Cabinet-level or otherwise. But some clearly would be — and are.
We also shouldn’t forget that leadership at the highest levels in government demands attention to an astonishingly wide range of issues. No single human being, military or civilian, could claim deep expertise in every area. Accordingly, it is vitally important that a retired general (or, for that matter, a civilian) be paired with a deputy and a staff that will complement the leader’s strengths, deliver any needed subject-matter expertise and support, and fill the inevitable gaps.
For their part, retired generals need to think carefully before committing to working in a civilian administration. The sometimes bitterly polarized environment in which they will operate as a political appointee could present challenges that divert their talents. And they cannot count on the deference and respect they enjoyed while in uniform. My sense is that the public understands the difference between an active duty and retired officer more readily than some pundits think, and will not be especially tolerant of an officer-turned-civilian political appointee or elected official who fails to perform.
Retired generals tapped for high-ranking positions in the Trump administration ought to be subject to the same kind of scrutiny as civilian nominees, but we should not yield to vaguely defined fears that the generals would push Trump into war or wield too much influence simply because they served their country. Next to the economy and jobs, Americans consider national security the top priority for the next administration. That means our quest for the best shouldn’t rule out talented people simply because they once wore uniforms with stars on them.