Fmr. Trump defense secretaries join in warning letter: military must not show ‘fealty to an individual’

Eight former US secretaries of defense and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote a letter warning that civilian-military relations have hit bottom, citing events both at home and abroad that have weakened faith in the military.

“We are in an exceptionally challenging civil-military environment,” the former officials stated in the public letter that was published by the War on the Rocks blog. “Many of the factors that shape civil-military relations have undergone extreme strain in recent years.”

The military leaders noted the “winding down” of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The letter asserts that the military has to “come to terms with” war efforts that were not entirely successful “while preparing for more daunting competition with near-peer rivals.”

On the domestic front, they charged that military officials “confront an extremely adverse environment” marked by political polarization “that culminated in the first election in over a century when the peaceful transfer of political power was disrupted and in doubt.”

The letter goes on to elaborate on how the pandemic and economic upheaval “have disrupted societal patterns and put enormous strain on individuals and families,” in what feels like a warning of a coming civil war.

In “[l]ooking ahead, all of these factors could well get worse before they get better,” the letter posits.

It delves into the “core principles” of civilian and military cooperation. At the top of the list was that “[c]ivilian control of the military is part of the bedrock foundation of American democracy.”

“In such an environment, it is helpful to review the core principles and best practices by which civilian and military professionals have conducted healthy American civil-military relations in the past — and can continue to do so, if vigilant and mindful,” the letter contends.

“Civilian control of the military is part of the bedrock foundation of American democracy. The democratic project is not threatened by the existence of a powerful standing military so long as civilian and military leaders — and the rank-and-file they lead — embrace and implement effective civilian control,” it continues.

The former military officials laid out how the civilian control of the military is shared by all three branches of the federal government.

The letter was not specific concerning events or individuals but it did state that appointed officials “have the right to be wrong,” concerning policies that later turn out to be a mistake, even if military advisers warned them in advance of it. The statement appears to allude to President Biden’s catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan and provides cover for his missteps.

With midterm elections around the corner, the letter warned that there are “significant limits on the public role of military personnel in partisan politics,” and that “leaders must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity.”

That admonition comes after Biden gave his “Soul of the Nation” speech where he declared supporters of former President Trump as “a threat to this country” with Marines standing in the background.

Other core principles mentioned in the letter are telling as well.

“Military officers swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution, not an oath of fealty to an individual or to an office,” it reads.

“There are significant limits on the public role of military personnel in partisan politics, as outlined in longstanding Defense Department policy and regulations. Members of the military accept limits on the public expression of their private views — limits that would be unconstitutional if imposed on other citizens,” the letter states.

In regards to elections, the letter charges that the military must “assist the current commander in chief in the exercise of his or her constitutional duty” while preparing for the possibility of a leader.

And then there is the matter of trust: “Mutual trust — trust upward that civilian leaders will rigorously explore alternatives that are best for the country regardless of the implications for partisan politics and trust downward that the military will faithfully implement directives that run counter to their professional military preference — helps overcome the friction built into this process. Civil-military teams build up that reservoir of trust in their day-to-day interactions and draw upon it during times of crisis.”

Former Defense Secretaries Ash Carter, William Cohen, Mark Esper, Robert Gates, Chuck Hagel, James Mattis, Leon Panetta, and William Perry signed the letter. They were joined by five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, namely retired Gens. Martin Dempsey, Joseph Dunford Jr., Richard Myers, and Peter Pace as well as retired Adm. Michael Mullen.

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