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.”
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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.”