General Joseph Dunford, a former Joint Chiefs chairman, salutes Donald Trump.Alexander Drago / Reuters

Here is the unenviable calculation retired senior military officials must make in this politically unprecedented moment: Say nothing as norms shatter around you, and you’re implicitly enabling a president who some of your former colleagues believe is threatening national security. Speak up, and you risk destroying the balance of power that protects American democracy.  

“For the U.S. military, being apolitical is a critical element of civilian control of the military—an absolute in a democracy,” the retired four-star general Joseph Dunford told us in his first extensive comments since leaving active duty. “The alternative is a military dictatorship.”

Dunford, who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until this fall, suggests a choice that is uncomplicated. But he did feel compelled to speak out last month, when he publicly defended Alexander Vindman, the White House Ukraine specialist and a witness in the impeachment inquiry, after attacks on Vindman’s character and loyalty in the right-wing media, later echoed by the president himself. He still maintains that he will not directly comment on politics—even as other retired senior military officers have taken the rare step of weighing in on policy matters, including in some cases calling for the president’s impeachment.

“I had no intent to enter the political fray or address policy,” Dunford told us in an email. “Alex Vindman was one of my officers and it was an easy decision for me to speak about him after political figures and members of the media questioned his loyalty to the Constitution and our Nation.”

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis is perhaps the highest-profile example of the silent general, and he has repeatedly declined to discuss policy or the president he served. “If you leave an administration, you owe some silence,” he told The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, recently. Mattis has said he won’t criticize a sitting president, but he seems comfortable doing so once a president has left office. In his new book, Mattis freely criticizes both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Yet his resignation letter to Donald Trump can be read as an implicit criticism of the president, in that he laid out his belief in the importance of alliances and declared that Trump needed a defense secretary whose views better aligned with his own.

Following one of Trump’s most controversial defense-policy decisions yet—the announcement that he would take U.S. troops out of the way of a Turkish assault on America’s Kurdish partners against the Islamic State—we made efforts to contact more than two dozen four-star generals and admirals who retired under Trump to see whether they believed the moment warranted breaking silence.

But Dunford was one of only three we reached who would comment for this story on the record. (Some former senior officers have been willing to criticize the president or his policies anonymously, however.) We found that, for now, the military’s apolitical ethos is stronger than some commentators have argued it should be; and in any case, Trump tends to have more support among veterans than the general public, though nearly half say he doesn’t listen enough to military advice, according to one poll. But there are notable exceptions.

John Kelly, the retired four-star general who served for a time as Trump’s chief of staff, recently made the eye-popping admission that he had warned Trump he would be impeached if someone wasn’t there to check his instincts. Prior to that, Joseph Votel, the recently retired head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, wrote with Elizabeth Dent in this magazine that “the abrupt policy decision to seemingly abandon our Kurdish partners could not come at a worse time.”

Retired four-star generals have come up with a variety of ways to express doubts about the president. Their methods range from the passive-aggressive (like former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey’s series of #leadership tweets drawing implicit contrasts with the president’s conduct), to the explicit (like the Osama bin Laden–raid architect William H. McRaven’s op-ed declaring that if the president won’t demonstrate the leadership America needs, “it is time for a new person in the Oval Office … the sooner, the better,” or ex–CIA Director Michael Hayden’s outright call for impeachment). They also favor the kind-of-but-maybe-not-really joking about Trump’s own lack of military service due to bone spurs (like Mattis’s remark in October that “I earned my spurs on the battlefield … and Donald Trump earned his in a letter from a doctor”).

The drumbeat of open criticism of the commander in chief from retired senior military leaders is highly unusual. While the overwhelming majority have kept quiet, some retired officers are still calibrating their own sense of what’s most important in this moment.

“Honestly, I think there’s a balance point that is not well defined,” Vincent K. Brooks, who retired last year as the head of U.S. forces in Korea, told us of considerations about speaking publicly. “And I don’t think that I know it.” Brooks has previously commented on Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea, saying that the summits with Kim Jong Un didn’t achieve a breakthrough but that the Korean peninsula was safer thanks to the diplomacy. He told us, though, that given the stakes of preserving an apolitical military, the decision to weigh in is personal—and that there’s a difference between offering policy analysis, which he has done, and taking a partisan stand, which he says should be avoided.

“I think what you’re seeing is a growing concern that military advice is not being sought, and if sought, is not being considered,” he said. “I share the concerns as well.”

Paul Zukunft, who served as Coast Guard commandant before his 2018 retirement, has his own concerns. He has tried not to criticize Trump’s policies—but suggested that it can be difficult in this administration to discern what policy actually is. “We’re in uncharted territory, quite honestly,” he told us. For example, if a presidential idea comes out as a tweet and not an executive order, is it really a policy? “In that case, that red line becomes very blurred,” he said. Zukunft said at a think-tank event in 2017 that he stood by the Coast Guard’s transgender troops even after Trump had tweeted they should not serve. Zukunft now says he stands by that comment—when he made it, Trump had only sent a tweet, not set a policy.

The no-politics tradition has had exceptions for decades—probably most dramatically with General Douglas MacArthur’s open defiance of President Harry Truman during the Korean War, but more recently with the so-called revolt of the generals during the Iraq War in 2006, when a number of senior retired officers called for the resignation of then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Retired generals such as Jack Keane and Barry McCaffrey appear routinely on cable news; others went fully political on either side of the 2016 election, with Michael Flynn leading “Lock her up!” chants at the Republican National Convention and John R. Allen telling the Democratic National Convention that Hillary Clinton would be “exactly, exactly the kind of commander in chief America needs.”

The dilemma for retired senior officers now is whether the oath they took to the Constitution in military life requires deference to the sitting president—as, for example, Mattis has argued—or whether the president himself is such a danger to the Constitution that upholding the oath actually demands discarding the apolitical norm, as McRaven and Hayden have done. Brooks said that commenting on any politician in an ad hominem way represents the crossing of a Rubicon, and that he didn’t know what might force him to do so.

But, he said, “silence itself, like being overly aggressive, can undermine the Constitution.”

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