As has become abundantly clear, the president of the United States has no qualms about using the power of his office to lash out at his personal and political enemies. That was on display again last week when he stripped former CIA Director John Brennan—a vocal critic of President Trump—of his security clearance. In a response, retired Admiral William McRaven, penned a short open letter to the commander-in-chief of America’s armed forces, defending Brennan’s honor and challenging the president to strip him of his clearance as well.
Admiral McRaven is a former U.S. Navy SEAL and, as commander of Special Operations Command, the chief architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. McRaven has been retired since 2014. While the admiral’s decision to speak out against the president’s actions is admirable—and well within his rights as a private citizen—it is also problematic from the perspective of American civil-military relations for two reasons.
First, it contributes to a growing desire in some quarters for what James Golby refers to as a veterans “arms race” in American politics. As discussed here previously, Golby has argued that such an arms race is concerning:
Appeals for one side to counterbalance another ultimately have the effect, not of providing balance, but undermining trust in the military and corrupting the perception of nonpartisan competence that the American armed forces currently enjoy and that leads to the military’s high approval in the first place.
Washington and Madison both understood that the republic would flourish if political disputes were settled through political means without relying on military power, be it force or prestige, to arbitrate disputes. This insight, of course, does not mean that veterans or service members are no longer citizens. It does mean that their citizenship requires greater vigilance and less enjoyment of liberty than is required of the citizen who has never worn the uniform.
Second, and related, is that part of the reason why the military is so popular with the American people is because service members and veterans are seen as apolitical. That perception provides both current and former service members with a form of political power. In an excellent essay for War on the Rocks, Kori Schake—a former official in the Bush administration and current deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies—explained why McRaven’s open letter was both powerful and deeply political. Schake writes,
McRaven’s condemnation went well beyond the strictures of denying a former CIA director continued access to classified information. In comparing the president to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and criticizing Trump’s moral example — “you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage” — McRaven crossed an important line from making a national security case, on which his expertise is deeper and more significant than most, to a political one on which for civil-military purposes, he ought to be treated as any other voter.
But, of course, we do not treat retired military leaders as if they were any other voter. Forty-five years into an all-volunteer military, we treat our veterans with an outsized deference that borders on dangerous for a republic. McRaven is trading on his stature as a widely respected military leader to persuade our public that the president is a genuine danger to our civic life. McRaven is not a political partisan — he was senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council Staff of George W. Bush (where I worked with him). He is not endorsing a political candidate or advocating a specific political platform. That he is making such a brazenly political argument suggests a cri de coeur, an appeal to conscience utilizing whatever public stature he may have to stand sentinel at a dangerous time for our republic.
Schake rightly places the blame for the current political environment on the Trump administration, most importantly in the president’s own brazen attempts to politicize the military. However, it is necessary as well to understand the problems these types of responses can create.
Given the level of admiration for the military among the American people, there is an ever-present incentive to lean on those who served to validate political positions. However, if former and current military personnel routinely play the role of validator—whether by their own initiative or having been dragooned into it to serve someone else’s political agenda—it will eventually erode the idea that the military is or should be apolitical.
It is important not to exaggerate the problems in civil-military relations at any given point. Cries of a “crisis” in civil-military relations are nothing new in American history, but the danger is often overstated. That does not mean that vigilance is not warranted. Admiral McRaven is someone worthy of a great deal of admiration. His words carry a great deal of weight. And for that reason, they could have long-term consequences.