Over a dozen former Defense secretaries and Joint Chiefs chairmen signed a letter warning of a “challenging civil-military environment” days after President Joe Biden delivered a polarizing political speech with two marines in the backdrop.
The open letter was published Tuesday on the national security website War On The Rocks. Eight former secretaries of Defense and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff signed onto the letter.
“We are in an exceptionally challenging civil-military environment. Many of the factors that shape civil-military relations have undergone extreme strain in recent years,” the letter begins, citing the “winding down” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year was defined by chaos and bloodshed as 13 U.S. service members died in a terror attack in the war’s final days.
The letter also cites strains from the “pandemic and the economic dislocations.” It said military professionals have experienced an “extremely adverse environment characterized by the divisiveness of affective polarization” that culminated in the January 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
The letter then outlines 16 “core principles and best practices” to be observed by military and civilian leaders to protect the integrity of the military from politicization and controversy. The letter comes five days after Biden stirred such a controversy by featuring two U.S. marines in the backdrop of a political speech in which he declared: “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”
While plenty of critics blasted Biden’s language, many others took note of the conspicuous placement of the marines in the background. Presidents typically refrain from using the U.S. military as props when making political speeches, and the presence of the marines gave Biden’s speech an ominous undertone.
“The message to other military personnel, particularly other Marines, is that support for the president’s opponents is considered a threat to the constitutional Republic,” wrote Jonathan Turley, a law professor at the George Washington University Law School.
The military leaders’ open letter appeared to address such a controversy as the U.S. military appearing to be part of a political event. It also noted that military rules expressly forbid certain political activities by service members.
“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. Military and civilian leaders must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity,” the letter states.
The letter was signed by former Defense secretaries Dr. Ashton Baldwin Carter, William Sebastian Cohen, Dr. Mark Thomas Esper, Dr. Robert Michael Gates, Charles Timothy Hagel, James Norman Mattis, Leon Edward Panetta, and Dr. William James Perry, and joined by former Joint Chiefs chairmen Gen. Martin Edward Dempsey, Gen. Joseph Francis Dunford Jr., Adm. Michael Glenn Mullen, Gen. Richard Bowman Myers, and Gen. Peter Pace.