Press coverage of President Trump’s national security team has routinely described Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, White House chief of staff John Kelly, and Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster as “the generals.” It is a convenient framing for those who fear a Trump presidency, for whom the three constitute “the adults in the room,” or alternatively the sinister undercurrent to military predominance in policy making, and for the President’s supporters, for whom the three are proof of the President’s seriousness of purpose.
Coverage has reached a crescendo with announcement of President Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan, widely reported as a victory for “the generals” over the “America first” nationalist opponents of persevering in that war.
The description is deeply problematic, however, because it makes no distinction between active duty service men and veterans.
Americans have always been leery of the political influence of a standing army. John Adams ruminated that “soldiers are apt to consider themselves as a Body distinct from the rest of the Citizens.” George Washington setting aside his uniform when ascending to the Presidency is one of his most important political acts. The Constitution is quite clear about reserving to the Congress the right to raise armies and maintain a navy, out of concern the Commander in Chief could use that power for despotism.
Survey data collected by YouGov for Jim Mattis’ and my book on civil-military relations demonstrates, though, that in recent years Americans have become deeply distrustful of our elected leaders while sustaining high levels of support for and admiration of our military. Contributors to our book differed on whether that inversion of trust poses cause for concern about the erosion of civilian control over the military.
But what is clear is that elected politicians have strong incentives to associate themselves closely with the military and with veterans. As a result, we are likely to see a continued trend toward appointment of both active duty military officers and veterans into political roles where public trust is at a premium—whether mopping up scandals or placating concerns about performance of the Veterans’ Administration.
It is important, though, to make a distinction between those currently serving in the military and veterans. Active duty military are constrained by the professional responsibilities of their commissioning oath; veterans are regular citizens, as free to express their views and participate in politics as all other Americans. Veterans have specialized expertise no longer pervasive in the public, and to which the broader public is deferential. But treating them as “the generals” blurs the line and would proscribe veterans from public service in ways that deprive us of their skills and impinge on their individual aspirations.
It also associates our military with political activities. Research by Peter Feaver and James Golby shows that even when voters encourage military endorsements and participation in political campaigns, those same voters respect the military less as a result. The apolitical nature of our military is a significant contributor to the public’s admiration for the military; blurring the line between the active duty and veterans in political life is damaging to our military. Those of us who want to ensure a close bond between our military and civilian society ought to be careful about allowing politicians and journalists to make no distinction between the two.