Retired military officers at odds over propriety of their politics

High-profile vets backing Bush raises issue of neutral officer vs. civilian

September 22, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - This week a half-dozen recently retired top military officers backed Texas Gov. George W. Bush for president. George A. Joulwan was not among them.

The former four-star Army general and Supreme Allied commander of NATO, who left active duty in 1997, questions his former colleagues for jumping into the political fray.

"We carry out the nation's missions and we should not side with one guy over another," said Joulwan. "We should offer advice to any candidate. I would urge that we as a bloc not choose one or another."

Wednesday, six retired generals and admirals who served under President Clinton were among 93 high-profile veterans who endorsed Bush. The group included four who served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Gen. Charles C. Krulak, Marine Corps commandant; Adm. Jay Johnson, chief of naval operations; and Gens. Merrill McPeak and Ronald R. Fogleman, Air Force chiefs of staff.

The retired officers contend that they are merely exercising their constitutional rights, but their support has led to concern that they are going against the tradition of a politically neutral officer corps providing professional advice to civilian leaders. Some in the Pentagon worry that the political activities of the retired officers, especially when they act in unison, will alter the perceptions of the American people.

"They trust us to do what's best for the country without regard to partisan politics," said a senior officer, who requested anonymity.

Retired Air Force historian Richard Kohn, in a Washington Post opinion piece this week, called the retired officers' action "a serious erosion of military professionalism."

A president may now worry that a senior officer will turn around and "blow the whistle on him," Kohn said in an interview. Worse yet, a president may decide as a consequence to appoint top military leaders who "are pliable" to his political agenda, he said.

"Then the republic really will be in danger," said Kohn, who singled out Krulak, the co-chairman of Veterans for Bush-Cheney. "Gen. Krulak doesn't understand the implications of his behavior."

But Krulak and the other officers - as well as some former government officials and military sociologists - sharply disagree. Neutrality is necessary in uniform, but officers who retire enjoy the rights of every other citizen to be active in the political process, they insist.

Kohn is "attacking the First Amendment right. He's attacking our right to vote," said Krulak, who retired last year. "When you take the uniform off, you gain all the rights you've been fighting for back. When is the deadline for me to be able to speak out?"

Krulak dismissed misgivings about the retired officers acting as a bloc. The retired generals and admirals - and the other veterans supporting Bush - have the "knowledge and experience" to address important national security issues, he said.

There has been a "mismatch" during the Clinton years between the number of military missions and the necessary defense spending to support them, Krulak charged. Moreover, said Krulak, Bush is talking more than his rival, Vice President Al Gore, about future threats, such as religious or ethnic wars. "We can't stand silently by," Krulak said. "It would be our silence, not our voices, that would do the greater harm."

For many military leaders, the modern model of the citizen soldier has been Army Gen. George C. Marshall, the World War II chief of staff. Marshall didn't even vote while in uniform. But there was also Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who toyed with the idea of running for president while he was still on active duty, said David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I would be very troubled if lots of active-duty officers took partisan stands," said Segal. "Once they're out of uniform, they're American citizens."

With the advent of the all-volunteer military, those in uniform have become political, like doctors and lawyers, pressing their own interests, he added.

Kohn, the former Air Force historian, said the political partisanship of military retirees isn't a phenomenon of the 2000 presidential race. In 1992, recently retired Adm. William Crowe, having just stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton. Crowe convinced a number of other retired officers to sign on with the Arkansas governor. Clinton later named Crowe ambassador to Great Britain.

Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University, recalled that some retired generals refused to join Crowe, believing it was "not a proper role." Moskos said he, like Kohn, worries that future presidents may start politically "vetting" their choices for senior military leadership posts should the political endorsements continue.

"You could really start politicizing military leadership," said Moskos. He suggested a "waiting period" of four or more years before retired admirals and generals begin campaigning for their favorite candidates.

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