Amedium rise concerns on threats to American democracy, more than a dozen former US defense secretaries and top generals published an open letter Tuesday warning that the nation’s political polarization is putting “extreme strain” on the relationship between members of the military in uniform and the country’s civilian leadership.
The letter, signed by eight former defense secretaries and five former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who have served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, refuses to lay blame at the feet of any politician or political party, according to the military’s longstanding norm of nonpartisanship. However, he implicitly calls out former President Donald Trump and his refusal to accept that he lost the 2020 election to President Joe Biden.
“Politically, military professionals face a highly adverse environment characterized by a bifurcation of emotional polarization that culminated in the first election in more than a century where the peaceful transfer of political power was disrupted and called into question,” it said in the letter published on national security website, War on the Rocks.
It’s not just what’s duplicated,”The big lie.“The cascading challenges stem from the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturn and the disappointing end to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ‘without all objectives being satisfactorily achieved,'” the letter said. The convergence of these issues has placed undue strain on Americans. “Looking forward, all of these factors may get worse before they get better,” the letter said.
The chiefs — including two of former President Donald Trump’s defense secretaries, James Mathis and Mark Esper—then list the “fundamental principles and best practices” of civilian control of the military that have helped ensure democratic governance over the course of American history.
Previous presidents from both parties have been criticized for politicizing the military. It became part of a national debate in the summer of 2020, when then-President Trump tried to whip up the nation’s armed forces to quell the domestic turmoil that arose after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed by police in Minneapolis. The main concern was Trump ruled the armed forces for suppressing protests and disturbances in the country for personal political gain and not for national interests.
Recently, Biden has come under fire from critics to deliver a prime-time speech Thursday night in Philadelphia with two uniformed Marines behind him.
“Military and civilian leaders must be diligent to keep the military separate from party political activity,” the letter said. “The military accepts restrictions on the public expression of personal views — restrictions that would be unconstitutional if imposed on other citizens.”
The Pentagon remains deeply concerned about extremism within the ranks and about extremist groups trying to recruit military personnel. After it became clear that many of those who stormed the Capitol of January 6, 2021 were military veterans, the military launched various initiatives to remove individuals associated with extremist organizations. Service members take an oath to defend the Constitution, not individuals.
Politicians “have the right to be wrong,” the letter said, “even if other voices warn in advance that the proposed action is a mistake.” Troops are required to carry out lawful orders, regardless of whether they agree with the wisdom of the leaders. “Civil-military teams build this reservoir of trust in their daily interactions and draw on it in times of crisis,” the letter said.
The emphasis on civilian control of the military is notable given that two of the last three congressional-confirmed defense secretaries, Mattis and Lloyd Austin, were former four-star generals who failed to comply with the federal mandate that dictates the person who runs the Pentagon to be retired from the army for seven years. The fact that both Mattis and Austin require special waivers granted by Congress to take the job is not mentioned in the letter.
The letter was signed by former defense secretaries Mattis, Esper, Ash Carter, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, William Perry and William Cohen. Retired Admiral Mike Mullen and retired Generals Martin Dempsey, Joseph Dunford, Peter Pace and Richard Myers signed on as former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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