mid rising concerns about threats to American democracy, more than a dozen former U.S. defense secretaries and top generals published an open letter Tuesday warning that the nation’s political polarization is putting “extreme strain” on the relationship between uniformed service members and the country’s civilian leadership.
The letter, signed by eight former Defense secretaries and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, refuses to lay blame at the feet of any one politician or political party in keeping with the military’s longstanding norm of non-partisanship. It implicitly names former President Donald Trump, and his inability to accept that he lost to President Joe Biden’s 2020 election.
“Politically, military professionals confront an extremely adverse environment characterized by the divisiveness of affective polarization that culminated in the first election in over a century when the peaceful transfer of political power was disrupted and in doubt,” says the letter, which was published on the national security website, War on the Rocks.
It’s not just what’s been dubbed, “the Big Lie.” Cascading challenges derive from the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn and the disillusioning end of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “without all the goals satisfactorily accomplished,” the letter says. These woes have put undue pressure on Americans. “Looking ahead, all of these factors could well get worse before they get better,” the letter says.
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The chiefs—including two of former President Donald Trump’s defense secretaries, James Mattis and Mark Esper—then enumerate “core principles and best practices” of civilian control of the military that have helped ensure democratic governance over the course of American history.
Both past presidents have been criticised for politicizing military affairs. It became part of a national debate during the summer of 2020 when then-President Trump attempted to brandish the nation’s armed services to crush domestic turmoil that sprang up after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police. Trump used the armed forces in order to suppress protests and other unrest within the country, not for national security. This was the overriding concern.
Biden was recently criticized for his Thursday night speech at Philadelphia’s prime time with two Marines in uniform behind him.
“Military and civilian leaders must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity,” the letter says. “Members of the military accept limits on the public expression of their private views—limits that would be unconstitutional if imposed on other citizens.”
The Pentagon is still concerned about the rise of extremism within military ranks as well as extremist organizations trying to recruit personnel. Following the revelation that many of those storming Capitol in Jan. 6 2021 were former military personnel, the military took a number of measures to get rid of people with links to extremist organisations. The Constitution is protected by service members, and not individual personnel.
Politicians “have the right to be wrong,” the letter says, “even if other voices warn in advance that the proposed action is a mistake.” Troops are required to carry out legal orders, regardless whether they agree with leaders’ wisdom. “Civil-military teams build up that reservoir of trust in their day-to-day interactions and draw upon it during times of crisis,” the letter says.
This emphasis on civilian control is quite remarkable considering that Mattis, and Lloyd Austin, the two most recent Defense Secretaries to be confirmed by Congress, are former four star generals. They did not fulfill the federal mandate that the Pentagon’s leader must have been retired for seven consecutive years. The fact that both Mattis and Austin required special waivers granted by Congress to take over the job isn’t mentioned in the letter.
Former Defense Secretaries Mattis Esper, Ash Carter and Robert Gates signed the letter. As former chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Admiral Mike Mullen, Joseph Dunford and Peter Pace, as well as Richard Myers, Richard Myers, Richard Myers, and Martin Dempsey signed.
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