Military officers: Just retire and shut up

If dozens of America’s retired military officers dressed up in cheerleader skirts, went out in public and leaped in the air, did the splits and executed a backward somersault or two, it wouldn’t be much more an affront to their dignity than what an equal number are now doing, and far less a threat to the country they love.

To an extent never before witnessed in American history, retired officers are endorsing presidential candidates and sometimes making a big show of it. Former admirals and generals have been trotted out for press conferences with Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. John McCain, himself a former officer, has rounded up military supporters, too. But hey, you may ask, what’s wrong with all of this? It’s the land of the free, correct?

Yes it is, and the point is to keep it that way. No one is suggesting that these retired officers should be denied their First Amendment rights to say whatever they want to say. And no one is contending that we’re looking at a real-life re-enactment of “Seven Days in May,” a 1964 movie in which the Joint Chiefs of Staff plot a coup. There is nevertheless a slight but nagging divergence here from a blessed tradition.

That tradition — vital to the preservation of liberty and to an effectively functioning Army, Navy and Air Force — is civilian control of the military with all the nuances and subtleties of that arrangement intact. Richard Kohn, a leading scholar on the subject, writes that a chief means of maintaining this tradition is a military that has “internalized” subordination to civil rule. He says you have to have a “military establishment” that is “trained, committed and dedicated to political neutrality.”

Even retired officers must avoid partisanship, Kohn argues. “Like princes of the church,” he has written, “they represent the culture and the profession just as authoritatively as their counterparts on active duty.”

A professor at the University at North Carolina, Kohn writes that presidents ought to be able to trust top military leaders on active duty not to do them harm with “inside knowledge” once they have retired. If the presidents have to worry about this, they could start putting “pliability” and “political views” ahead of “excellence, achievement, character and candor” in looking at candidates for major military positions.

Several retired officers themselves have expressed deep concerns on the issue. Some have been quoted as worrying that a perception of partisanship could cost the armed forces public credibility. John Jumper, former Air Force chief of staff, told the Los Angeles Times that while retired officers should share their knowledge of national security with candidates who want it, their expertise is not in politics and political endorsements make even their national-security views suspect.

There are, of course, worse infringements of civilian control of the military than endorsements, which brings us to a subject unavoidable in this connection: Adm. William Fallon, the head of the Central Command who recently resigned.

Maybe it’s an exaggeration to say Fallon was this administration’s version of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who got canned from his job in the Korean War for refusing to heed the Truman administration. Yet Fallon likewise went public with his opposition to a president on policy. Leftists who think this is terrific ought to read up on the anti-democratic dangers inherent in such behavior, of how it undermines the rule of law and the whole apparatus of authority derived from the consent of the people.

Fortunately for this great republic of ours, military officers are quite possibly the most consistently honorable professionals in America, men and women quick to sacrifice as necessary for the good of the nation. One thing retired officers ought to sacrifice is cheerleading for politicians. It demeans them and does the nation harm.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)


  1. RMolineaux

    Robert J Molineaux

    I hold the opinion that military personnel already reap enormous favorable publicity from taxpayer-paid propaganda. The result is an already excessive glamorization of behavior that is frequently unethical, misleading the young and gullible into forgetting their basic principles.

    But one of these basic principles is that criminal behavior cannot be tolerated regardless of who orders it.

    Would Mr. Ambrose have preferred that Admiral Fallon had stated clearly that an order to invade Iran would be illegal, and that he would not obey it?

  2. 33rdSt

    George Washington
    Andrew Jackson
    William Henry Harrison
    Zachary Taylor
    Ulysses S. Grant
    Theodore Roosevelt
    Dwight D. Eisenhower

    All men who rode their military reputations into the Presidency.

    Add John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush who made prominent use of their military records in their campaigns for the Presidency.

    And many in recent memory who have tried to grab the brass ring using their military service as evidence of their qualifications for the job. Clark and McCain come to mind.

    If retired military men may serve as President without catastrophe befalling the nation, then it seems a bit odd that we would deny any who have served the privilege of stating their preferences openly for fear that they would now forget the honor with which they served.

    IMHO, any man or woman who has laid life on the line for us may endorse whomever they choose for any office in the nation. I think they’ve earned the privilege.

  3. pollchecker

    Even retired officers must avoid partisanship, Kohn argues.

    BS! If you have laid your life on the line for this country, you have more of a right to speak out for or against it, than anyone else does.

    What is this guy? Another whack job from the neo-con Bushie group?

    Way to go Generals. You can’t tell the truth about what is going on while you serve these idiots but you sure can tell the truth when you’re free.

    You don’t really think all these Military retirements are voluntary do you? They all have been order by the madmen in the WH because they dared to disagree with the “Decider”.

  4. neondesert

    Really? Interesting.

    This is the first I’ve heard you address the egregious threat by our retired veterans. I must have missed all of your previous columns about this horrendous problem during the years of Ollie North’s daily radio program.

  5. Hexalectris

    Yes, RMO’s, keep your bloody mouth shut, at least about the there-I-was-at-40,000-feet crap. And also, probably especially, when you know of plans and policies that will lead the nation to disaster, by all means it’s your patriotic duty to shut up about it. You might endanger the President’s ability to rule the country. And the word is rule, not govern with the consent of the governed.

  6. SEAL

    I totally disgree with Mr. Ambrose. As one of those who served and commanded those who enforced the policies of this nation I know that we have a personal knowlege of the effect of those policies that is untainted by political rhetoric and, therefore, realistic. As part of the cause and effect we see the actual results up close and personal.

    I would respect the opinion of Adm. Fallon who, as the head of Central Command, is in the prime position to view and feel the actual results of the administration’s policies more than I would any other person.

    His resignation was not a political statement and nothing he has said is political. It is his declaration of factual reality. His experience has been that the policies he has been directed to carry out are the wrong ones for the conditions and he, in good conscience of service to his country, cannot carry them out. He cannot disobey a direct order, therefore, he must resign.

    There is nothing political about the admiral’s reasons. Orders given to the military are never political orders, just orders. There is no question that many orders given the military commanders are born of politics and the commanders are fully cognizant of that fact.

    But orders are orders regardless of reasons and the only concern is to carry them out to the best of your abilty. If the military commanders see that the effect of those orders is causing harm to the nation they serve they have the DUTY to tell their superiors.

    The way the chain of command is supposed to work is the information is fed from the boots on the ground right up the line so that the superiors (president & secretary of defense) can make the right decisions. If the superiors ignore the information and advice of their military commanders and continue a policy that is causing harm to the nation, the commanders are then faced with The decision Adm. Fallon had to make.

    Seldom do career military officers give up the service they love plus all the time and effort to their retirement benefits and resign because of administration policies, especially in time of war. The fact that we have had so many do this the last few years speaks directly to the reality of failing Bush policies.

    As the Director of Central Command, Adm. Fallon’s decision and actions are the most significant and he should be listened to. Not because of politics but because of his direct knowledge of conditions and the actual effects of the Bush policies. The fact that he cares enough about his country to inform its people of the damage Bush is causing them and give up the remainder of his stellar career, his love of duty and service for the people for so long, says it all. This is his final and most important service.

    The man should be given a parade!

  7. mary cali

    If more in the military and intelligence agencies had voiced their doubts prior to our unnecessary invasion of Iraq and about our incompetent occupation there, thousands may not have had to die for Bush’s seriously flawed policies. Unfortunately, most went along to get along despite serious doubts.

  8. pollchecker

    The military has a code….they don’t speak out publicly against their commander in chief while they are in the military…..even when they fervently disagree.

    And when they present their commander in chief with their best advice and he doesn’t listen to it or even give it the consideration it deserves, then they leave and they tell.

    Why do you think we have had more Generals retire from our military in the last 7 years than any other period in history. Because they realize that GW doesn’t care about the troops the way he purports to, and that he is going to stay in Iraq as long as he resides in the WH.

  9. mary cali

    I am well aware that active duty military cannot speak out against the CIC. However, more of them could have resigned in order to speak out as some did. Many had their doubts about the Iraq misadventure. As for General Powell, his actions are totally unforgiveable. He should have known better. Not only did he not speak out, he aided and abetted this stupid military action which went totally against the Powell Doctrine he devised.

  10. pollchecker

    “However, more of them could have resigned in order to speak out as some did. Many had their doubts about the Iraq misadventure. ”

    Mary, you and I both know that’s not the way men do things (wink, grin). Or is that a racial slur? (hahaha)

  11. stoney55

    Retired military members, no matter what their rank, do not give up their First Amendment rights because of their previous service in the protection of this nation. I served as an enlisted person in the early 1970’s in Europe during the late unpleasantness in Vietnam. We were instructed at that time that even though we were active-duty military, we had not given up our rights under the first amendment to express political opinions or participate in political demonstrations (as long was we did not wear our uniforms or any parts thereof or identify ourselves as military). Our retired Flag rank officers should not be restricted in their right to political expression any more than I was.

  12. Ardie

    The only difference between Bush and Stalin, is that the latter killed his good officers–Bush just makes them resign. I hope the generals speak out. Bush is using the military as a political tool to push the PNAC. In addition, he violated the U.S. Constitution by invading Iraq. As a result of this criminal invasion, he has also turned out military in to a version of the Nazi Waffen SS. The last time I checked Article. VI of that document called the U.S. Constitutional, the UN Charter, a treaty the U.S. made, is also the “supreme Law of the Land”. When did the Security Council give Bush the green light to invade? It surely didn’t. Our officers and NCOs should refuse to obey any more unlawful orders. They should refuse to fight.