Basic rules for generals who just have to play politics
By Victor Davis Hanson
June 8, 2020
The Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits active generals from disparaging their commander in chief. Article 88 of the UCMJ makes it a crime to voice “contemptuous words against the president” and other senior civilian officials. But no one quite knows whether such codified prohibitions on free expression apply to retired generals receiving military pensions.
And lately, there has been a spate of “contemptuous words” against President Trump, leveled by retired generals, including some who under other presidents condemned just such conduct among their brethren.
Given the lack of legal clarity, a confused public could at least expect four rules of general decorum and courtesy when our top retired military leaders go on the attack against a sitting president. Unfortunately, a number of our most esteemed retired generals and admirals haven’t met these modest ethical expectations in their fury at Trump.
1) A retired general need not under any circumstances stoop to invoking Nazi Germany, Hitler or Fascism to criticize the president.
For example, the esteemed Gen. James Mattis, a former defense secretary in the Trump administration and a deservedly iconic figure, recently suggested that Trump fostered disunity in much the same way that Nazis did.
In a statement published in The Atlantic, Mattis wrote: “Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that ‘the Nazi slogan for destroying us . . . was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.’ We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis — confident that we are better than our politics. Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.
Couldn’t Mattis, at a time of national tensions, have been more careful to choose another, less polarizing simile to reflect his charge that Trump was eroding US unity in the fashion of the genocidal dictatorship of Adolf Hitler? And how exactly is an elected president emulating the divisiveness of the Nazis?
2) Any disparagement should not hint at any active resistance to, much less the removal of, an elected president other than through constitutionally mandated elections.
Yet retired Adm. William McRaven, an authentic American war hero, suggested in a New York Times column last October that America was being attacked from “within” by Trump. McRaven then mysteriously doubled down, saying that the current president should be removed from office, “the sooner, the better.”
Words have consequences. So what does this ultimatum of “sooner” exactly mean? In their infinite wisdom, do retired generals and admirals such as McRaven know best what qualifies as insufficient presidential leadership worthy of removal? Or is it the people who know best — and express it through national elections every four years?
3) The condemnation should rest on clear factual evidence, not emotive anger or partisan disagreement.
Sadly, Mattis has alleged that during these times of chaos there were only “a small number of lawbreakers.” But that assertion is factually untrue. It is contradicted by the on-the-ground evidence of large swaths of downtown Minneapolis, Manhattan, Philadelphia and Santa Monica that were looted, smashed and burned to the ground.
4) There should be no semblance of coordination among retired military officers.
Yet that seems to be just what’s afoot these days. Within the space of a few hours, there seemed to have been a synchronized chorus of a number of retired generals and admirals — Mattis, McRaven, Adm. Mike Mullen and others — voicing shared and scripted warnings to the public of the existential dangers posed by the president.
Indeed, and ironically, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who in 2016 warned fellow retired generals about public criticism and partisanship, has joined the chorus in rebuking the president for employing federal troops to quell the violence.
However well-meaning, they seem to have little inkling of how their advocacy and speech have only further polarized a divided country whose streets are currently in chaos.
In such a polarized climate, it seems reasonable to wish that even well-meaning retired generals would at least avoid incendiary comparisons of the president to America’s former Nazi or Fascist enemies. They could eschew factual inaccuracies. They might resist veiled hints about resisting or bypassing supposed alleged traitors in the White House.
And they should not coordinate their efforts in an ominous manner that could undermine the often-tenuous civilian and military balance at the core of our constitutional system.