How Veterans’ Endorsements of Presidential Candidates Are Detrimental to the U.S. Military

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he speaks with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn during a town hall Sept. 6 in Virginia Beach, Va.

By KORI SCHAKE – – – – – – –

Kori Schake is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. She is co-editor, along with retired Gen. Jim Mattis, of “Warriors and Civilians: American Views of Our Military.” She is on Twitter: @KoriSchake. She has signed a public letter pledging not to vote for Donald Trump.

The “Commander in Chief” forum brought both major-party nominees to the same location to talk about issues related to national security, the U.S. military, and veterans. Our military and related policy issues will be a major focus for the next president, but in this forum and at other points in the campaign our military is being distorted by this political focus.

Wednesday night, Mr. Trump pointed to retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn–seated next to his wife, Melania, in the audience–while noting that “We have admirals, we have generals, we have colonels. We have a lot of people that I respect.” He said that under the Obama administration “the generals have been reduced to rubble, reduced to a point where it is embarrassing for our country” and suggested that as president he would replace many. People in and outside of the military are uncomfortable with it being used as a political pawn. Part of the blame for this dynamic lies with the veterans making political endorsements while pointing toward their experience in the services. Such endorsements are bad for the military for multiple reasons, including:

* They erode trust between military leaders and elected officials. Some friction is common in civil-military relations. There are, however, indications of high-level tensions in recent years: think of the multiple reviews of U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and the suggestion that President Barack Obama felt “boxed in” by the military. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his immediate predecessor have said during this election cycle that political activism makes it more difficult to maintain trust between elected leaders and the military. Retired military officers have involved themselves in partisan politics for decades, but political activism by retired officers in this presidential campaign has gone further than what has been considered appropriate behavior. Gen. Flynn participated in chants of “lock her up” while addressing the Republican National Convention. At the Democratic convention, retired Gen. John Allen marched on stage to martial music with a formation of veterans following, and he encouraged active-duty troops to vote for Hillary Clinton. Retired officers who endorse in this manner are trading on the reputation of the military in ways that stands to erode public confidence in the institution. Surveys conducted for a Hoover Institution project on civil-military affairs show that policy elites already consider military advice to be politically motivated and that is making political elites less likely to take military advice.

* For all the damage that they inflict, the endorsements aren’t particularly effective.Most research about whether or the extent to which endorsements change voters’ views is done by political campaigns. The most rigorousstudy of public attitudes that I have seen, published by the Center for a New American Security in October 2012, found that veteran endorsements don’t sway voters.

The U.S. military is the most trusted institution in our political life; politicians, much less so. Fifty-one percent of respondents to Hoover Institution polling in 2014 said they believe that the military shares their values; only 10% said they believe politicians do. It will remain irresistible for politicians to get endorsements from the military, but such practices are not helping that institution.

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