Retired military officers have played a serious role in this presidential election, endorsing candidates and appearing at campaign events. With their experience, they bring expertise to the public discussion, but their involvement is threatening one of the most cherished principles of the U.S. military: its independence from partisan politics.
When news reports suggested that if the Obama administration did not follow General Stanley McChrystal's recommendations for the war in Afghanistan, the general might quit, McChrystal immediately slapped them down. But soon after, others appeared to be urging him to do just that. The respected former vice chief of the U.S. Army, retired General Jack Keane, stated on a Sunday talk show that were he in McChrystal's shoes, he would probably resign. And in an op-ed, John S.D. Eisenhower, the son of President Dwight Eisenhower and a professional soldier and military historian, went so far as to claim that officers "have an obligation to resign if they are unable to carry out the commander in chief's policies."
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, resigning (asking for retirement or reassignment) over advice not taken, policy disagreements, or moral or ethical qualms undermines the relationship between military officials and their civilian superiors and destroys the professionalism of the U.S. armed forces.
As General Richard Myers and I argued two years ago in Foreign Affairs ("Salute and Disobey?" September/October 2007), an officer who threatens to -- or does -- resign over a policy decision commits a political act. He or she is publicly disputing the judgment of civilian leaders and violating the principle of civilian control over the military, a fundamental tenet of American government and a basic precept of military professionalism. Because of the military's prestige and reputation for disinterested patriotism, such public dissent weakens civilian leadership in the public eye. Those opposing the decision could become emboldened, and the policy decision likely submerged, in partisan bickering. Indeed, that is why administrations have frequently negotiated with military leaders to gain their support prior to announcing important defense decisions, and why recent administrations have sometimes asked potential appointees about their political party or the circumstances under which they might resign...
This is a premium article
SubscribeSubscribe and get premium access to ForeignAffairs.com.