Several weeks ago, Admiral William McRaven publicly chastised President Donald Trump’s decision to revoke the security clearance of John Brennan, a former CIA director and one of the president’s most vociferous critics. Since then, a number of commentaries have insisted that a critical norm governing civil-military relations was violated in the process. Many of these commentaries suggest that doing so was the price paid for speaking out against what they consider abuses of presidential power.
Why does this matter? One, the American public reveres the military to an extent enjoyed by no other institution. Two, commissioned officers, in particular active and former top brass like McRaven, are held in a regard enjoyed by few other professions. Three, McRaven was a Navy SEAL and as the leader of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was widely credited for the successful operation to eliminate Osama bin Laden in 2011. If the public reveres the military, it practically worships the special operations forces. The success of films and memoirs like American Sniper and the lionization of fallen special operators within the fitness community serve as evidence that when those who have served in elite units speak, folks listen.
McRaven was not criticizing the president over his handling of a single issue. He was questioning the president’s leadership and character. He declared of Trump, “you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.” This criticism goes well beyond what’s typically leveled at presidents by top brass in the military. There’s a big difference between judging one’s actions and one’s person; McRaven did the latter.
When the public sees a military officer of McRaven’s stature judging the president’s character, can the military still be regarded as apolitical? Or has the “cesspool of domestic politics” finally contaminated every last corner of American life? The fact that this debate is unfolding against the backdrop of a highly controversial and deeply unpopular presidency makes the implications all the more unsettling.
It is easy to dismiss concerns by noting that McRaven is retired and therefore speaks only for himself. But this is disingenuous. McRaven’s entire profile is defined by his time in uniform. The same way Colin Powell is remembered less as secretary of state and more as an Army general, McRaven was a Navy admiral, former Navy SEAL, and SOCOM commander. It’s because of those positions that his name carries significant weight both inside and outside the military. Hardly oblivious to his public stature, he likely made his comments knowing they would be taken more seriously than those of someone whose life hasn’t been defined by military service.
Of course, the active, uniformed military still has a lot to lose when speaking openly, as General Stanley McChrystal learned the hard way. But even formal regulations governing free expression among service members may not prevent the military from becoming further politicized. Those who serve, of course, individually hold strong views on various issues, including the president. And while they may be unable to share those views candidly, what is there to prevent others from speaking for them? As law professor Bruce Ackerman observed, “There is ongoing contact between present members of the high command and retired members. They stay silent while the retired members speak out. This is a fundamental challenge to the founding principles of the republic.”
It’s impossible to know whether the views of those like McRaven are in any way representative of the military at large. But if what Ackerman says is true, it means the military can express discontent and disobedience by relying on their comrades on the outside to do the talking on their behalf. And when someone as widely respected and well-connected as McRaven is doing the talking, voices carry. As Susan Hennessey and Mikhaila Fogel of Lawfare assess:
McRaven’s intended audience is not the general public, nor the president to whom this letter is addressed. Rather, McRaven is speaking to a small community of his peers, those who have served in high-ranking national security posts, both in and out of uniform, and have, like McRaven, remained staunchly apolitical.
Admiral McRaven chose to publicly reproach President Trump because he feels the commander-in-chief is a threat to the republic. While it is difficult to expect him to remain silent in the face of what he considers serious wrongs, speaking out is not without second-order repercussions. One example is that the public may increasingly condone members of the military speaking more openly and even engaging in potentially disobedient conduct in the name of rebuking problematic behavior on the part of civilian leaders.
We may already be far down the rabbit hole. The assertion that McRaven has, until recently, “remained staunchly apolitical,” is wrong—McRaven first criticized Trump in February 2017. Even worse, a few elected leaders have gone as far as to irresponsibly encourage disobedience by military officers. Military personnel and government officials who publicly condemn the president are considered heroes, reinforcing the notion of “resistance.”
At least one scholar, Carrie Lee, does not perceive anything inherently suspect about McRaven questioning Trump’s leadership and personality:
The implication here, however, is that McRaven’s expertise from the military is limited to issues on national security—a deeply problematic assertion. U.S. general and flag officers have a vast amount of leadership experience, advanced education in ethics, and decades of professional practice at identifying, cultivating, nurturing, and promoting leaders.
But Lee combats a “deeply problematic assertion” with a problematic implication of her own—that military officers are a standard by which leaders, uniformed or otherwise, ought to be judged. This contributes to an increasingly prevalent perception that the military is morally superior thanks to the values and ethics its members, especially the officers, are imbued with. But the military is a strictly structured, hierarchical, and largely authoritarian institution wielding incredible destructive power at the service of state and society. It is not that the military is morally superior; it is charged with responsibilities that demand an entirely different culture from that of civilians. Civilians enjoy liberty; the military protects it while depriving themselves of it. The suggestion that a military officer who has largely operated in an illiberal environment throughout his career is in any position to judge the leadership of the commander-in-chief, or any civilian, is specious.
This is not to say that military service members, active or retired, should keep their mouths shut and suffer in silence. The military is, after all, a part of society, and all service members eventually become civilians again. But having long belonged to an institution that not only operates on the principle of nonpartisanship but takes pride in it, men and women like Admiral McRaven need to remember they never speak only for themselves. Retired or not, they represent the services and in theory can be penalized for such conduct. There are ways to pass judgment without lowering oneself into the pit of partisan politics.
Donald Trump has certainly aroused debate and introspection about the role of the presidency. The military, however, should never compromise its integrity and become more politicized just because there is a controversial figure occupying the White House. Final judgments on the Age of Trump are up to the American people, and while those who have served can provide valuable insight unavailable from other quarters, such opinions should never be considered more legitimate than those of civilians. Ascribing extra importance to the wisdom of those like McRaven will only exacerbate the notion of moral superiority on the part of the military. It will further grease the slippery slope on which it becomes appropriate for service members to act politically and violate norms of non-partisanship.
It’s all too easy to believe the most powerful man in the world poses the greatest threat to the nation. We would do well to remember, however, that the Trump presidency will, one day, end. Meanwhile, the military will endure as an institution. What sort of institution will it be the day after Trump? If it becomes one in which its relationship with the presidency has become frayed and “listens to its own voice” more than it should, we may not like what we end up seeing in those who swore to protect us from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Edward Chang is a freelance defense, military, and foreign policy writer. His writing has appeared in the National Interest and War Is Boring.