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?