This isn’t the average celebrity drama
John R. Allen and Michael T. Flynn are decorated war heroes with much respect inside and outside the military. Apparently, the heated race to the presidential polls took a wild turn, with both parties trying to key into the prestige of the retired generals.
On the surface, this really wasn’t anything political parties had not done a gazillion times over with leading artistes, A-list actors and actresses, distinguished members of the academic and scientific communities; you name it.
But generals, retired or serving, are on a different level in partisan politics. Allen and Flynn didn’t think so, and it led to a predictable backlash from several quarters culminating in a row between the duo and Martin E. Dempsey.
We may not be able to put a brake on the damage; but we should learn from it by understanding what was lost.
The U.S. military and partisan politics
The official stand of the U.S. military about the relationship between the military and partisan politics is similar to the official stand of the U.S. Federal Government about the relationship between church and state. There should be no mix-up.
The neutrality of the military in partisan politics is important so that regardless of which political party is in power and dishing the orders, our military can discharge its duties without a moment hesitation.
This professional ethic has legal and moral elements. The legal component of the ethic takes bearing in federal statute. Not following the statute carries specific penalties as described in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or what is known in public as a “courts martial.”
The moral component is just as important, if not more. It produces trust, which is the currency of military professions. Superiors rely on trust to keep the hegemony of the military establishment intact. Similarly, the military relies on trust for the respect and support the institution receives from the public.
A big part of this trust factor owes to the fact that enforcing the ethic rests squarely on internal self-policing. It is exactly what Dempsey was doing with his rebukes. It is why the American public holds the military in high esteem more than other U.S. organizations and institutions.
The ‘but’ doesn’t cut it this time around
Clearly, the actions of Allen and Flynn are legal. They have the right to speak.
That raises a big “but,” which unfortunately does not cut it. Take a moment and dwell hard on the precedence this sets. What happens when every senior military leader starts endorsing political candidates?
At what point would the public, which until date have shown unfailing support for the military, tout the military to be as untrustworthy as politicians if this continues?
Allen and Flynn are retired officers and respected citizens, and while they haven’t broken any law, the pressing question is “Should they have endorsed presidential candidates?”
The right to speak in this case is often better used when it is not exercised. Thinking about the greater good of the profession should have elicited self-restraint on the part of the generals.
Some may argue that in 2003, retired General Wesley Clark ran for the office of the president, and so the line between the military and politics had already begun to blur. The undisputable fact is that in the eyes of the public, Clark was not in the military profession. Therefore, the issue of whether the military can be trusted was not even in play with the general’s candidacy.
Allen and Flynn were not portrayed as candidates, they were depicted as generals. There is a fine line between both appearances.
It affects the military too
Who else is thinking about the impact of this saga on the trust within the ranks of our military? How do junior officers react to the exchange between Allen and Flynn on one hand and Dempsey on the other hand?
The military is going through a rough period. They have been active for the last fifteen years and there has been no clear victory during this one and half decade of combat.
Then just when everyone is speculating on the next direction for the military following the elections, junior professionals have the displeasure of seeing one of their revered leaders—Allen—being used by clever campaign teams as nothing but a pawn.
It is a sorry sight. Trump in his usual fashion latched out, describing Allen, a retired four-star general, as a “failed general.” Clinton retorted that Trump was being “unpresidential.”
The exchange brought the spotlight on Allen who now has to protect his reputation. In his words, “He [Trump] has no credibility to criticize me or my record or anything I have done.”
As the campaign season continues, junior professionals would begin to see that the partisan advocacy of Allen and Flynn was not the real prize for the presidential candidates, their campaign teams, or their parties. The real prize was coming on top for the weekend news cycle.
The advocacy of the generals was a means to an end. Unfortunately, the advocacy did nothing to engender trust in the military professions or senior leaders of the professions, quite the opposite really.
For our military, the vital trust relationship they maintain took a serious hit that shouldn’t have happened in the first place.