© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Military Leaders' Endorsements Of Political Candidates Questioned


Current and former members of the U.S. military are asking how involved they really want to be in politics. Both presidential campaigns have been collecting generals and admirals on their sides and have been keeping count. Hillary Clinton released a list of 95 this week. Donald Trump released a list of 88. We heard one of each on the program yesterday. This is happening even though General Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says this kind of behavior is upsetting.


MARTIN DEMPSEY: We very clearly are responsive to and supportive of our elected officials. And in order to sustain that relationship both with elected officials and with the American people, really, the foundation of all that is trust. The issue for me was that if we begin to become part of partisan politics, inevitably, that trust will break down with some segment of society.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about this some more with John Nagl. He is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who served in the Gulf War and the Iraq War, was involved in much strategic thinking in the Army. He's published two books and is now the headmaster of a Pennsylvania school.

Colonel, welcome back to the program.

JOHN NAGL: It's great to be back, Steve.

INSKEEP: And there you are, a civilian now. Have you been surprised by all these very public endorsements?

NAGL: I haven't been surprised. I've been disappointed, honestly. I know both General Flynn and General Allen, the two most prominent endorsers of the two presidential candidates, and respect both of them, but do feel that, as General Dempsey said, they are at risk of damaging the trust that both the American people and American political leaders place in our military.

INSKEEP: If they're retired, what's the harm?

NAGL: So that - they are retired. They are private citizens. They are certainly well within their legal rights to do this. But the truth is that the American people revere the American military precisely because it is not seen to be a political organization. The highest loyalty of military officers is supposed to be to the Constitution and to the defense of the nation. And when they engage in partisan politics by doing things like attending and speaking at national conventions, I think the American people can lose the fact that these are retired officers and can see the American military engaging in a political system that does not earn the same respect from the American people that the military does.

INSKEEP: When you were coming up in the Army, how strongly were you told to stay out of politics?

NAGL: It was very clear that we were not allowed to engage in partisan politics while in uniform. We are allowed to do political things as a private citizen, but without wearing our uniform, without referring to our rank. And obviously, these retired generals are not wearing their uniforms, although they tend to have put pictures of them wearing their uniform up on stage. But they are still using their rank. And I think that it's hard for the American people to understand that distinction.

INSKEEP: Well, is this tendency just making real and public something that is happening behind the scenes because senior military officers and retired senior military officers, as you know very well, are political figures? They're quite influential in Washington and in other places sometimes.

NAGL: They are. They have a disturbing tendency to become president of the United States, in fact.

INSKEEP: There's also that.

NAGL: So war is inherently political. This is a political - war is a political enterprise. Clausewitz said that war's the continuation of politics by other means. But there is a line that I think has been crossed. And I think both General Dempsey and the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, have both warned that we are at risk of damaging the trust the American people hold in the uniformed military. But also - and this is a point that Dempsey made that is worth drawing out a little bit more - we want to make sure that political leaders, when they've got military folks in the room, think of them as servants of the nation and not as possible representatives of a political party or participants in that political process.


NAGL: And I really think we're coming close to crossing that line.

INSKEEP: Is it especially dangerous this year, in your view, because of who the two candidates are? Both of them have high disapproval ratings. Lots of people dislike both of them.

NAGL: Well, something I've noticed is that for the second election in a row, while the nation is at war, neither ticket has personal military experience. Neither the vice presidential candidates nor the presidential candidates have direct military experience themselves. And so I think they are drawing upon military support to try to demonstrate their suitability to be commander in chief when the nation is still fighting a number of wars around the globe. And so I think that may be causing more pressure on them to push generals - retired generals to engage in the political process.

INSKEEP: John Nagl, always a pleasure to talk with you.

NAGL: Great to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.