Every election there seems to be a string of retired military flag and general officers that come out of the woodwork to support one candidate or another. The media acts like these opinions really matter, and we’ll hear endless debate about what “the generals” think. But do these people’s opinions really matter?
Like any good question, the correct answer is “it depends.” First, retired military members can share whatever opinion they want. Active duty members are restricted on what opinions they can share, since they work for the executive branch of the government. That’s why you see the disclaimer at the bottom of my articles, and why I don’t get too edgy on any sitting President from either party. Retired military members don’t have these restrictions, despite what people may think or want.
OK, so they can talk, but do they say anything useful? Most retired flag or general officers were in the service for between 25 and 40 years. That translates to somewhere between 8 to 16 different duty stations. Many of these were in different states and different countries, so in terms of understanding how different parts of the world work, these officers were certainly exposed to that. Moving between different continents exposes them to the good and the bad of how countries operate and the issues each country faces. This is particularly important when thinking about foreign policy, where the U.S. news service is terrible at covering issues like the water crisis in the Sudan, competition between Russia and China in central Asia, and the continuing problems in the Balkans.
There is a caveat to this that is really important. Military members go to places that have trouble. We don’t send people to Africa or the Middle East because its fun. Every overseas tour or travel is in the lens of failed diplomacy or democracy, so the member is there to fix it. Civil war in Yemen? Shoot some missiles in and kill some bad guys! Military members are primed for action. That’s not a bad thing. The military mindset of solving problems is positive, but it has two drawbacks. First, we hesitate to say “not my problem,” and second, we value U.S. intervention over others.
Let’s look at Syria for the first issue. Syria is a mess. We have Russia attempting to maintain influence in the country, especially since it owns a major naval base at Latakia. Turkey, a NATO ally, and Syria share a long, not the best defined border that has a host of illegal crossings. Then we have Iran shipping weapons and people across a poorly controlled Iraqi border to Syria. Combine that with a government focused on maintaining power rather than protecting its own people, and you have a California-sized tinder box just waiting for a gender reveal party.
So, could we go in and sort it out. Yes! Whats the cost? I’d start at ~5,000 U.S. deaths and we’d need to sit there for at least 15-30 years. Sounds crazy? Well, we won World War 2 over 70 years ago and we’re still in Germany and Japan. Maybe that’s not fair, let’s go with when the Berlin Wall collapsed…that’s still 44 years! Thirty years might be an understatement. That sounds a lot like colonization, and is guaranteed to get us a lot bad press.
Is there suffering in Syria? Yes, and at horrible levels. I’m not denying that. There is a lot of suffering all over the place. Should we care about Syria? Yes. But that’s not the important question. The important question is:
Do we care about Syria enough, and more than anyone else in the area, to commit to a very long term stay that will cost American lives?
It’s like a mortgage that you can’t sell back. You buy a house with a 30 year mortgage. You can just walk away, but it’ll rot and rust, and someone else might move in. That’s our problem with making everything our problem. We simply don’t have the resources to fix every problem in the world. We should pick and choose wisely. I wasn’t surprised when President Trump pulled the U.S. out of Syria. I was surprised by the backlash from military members. That’s the first big issue with retired flag and general officers: they all too often don’t ask whether we should get involved at all.
The second issue is valuing U.S. intervention over others. We talk the talk about loving our allies, but lets be honest, only about a handful are capable in any sort of extended, high intensity fight. That’s OK, because they’re allied with us, but it also makes them wary of jumping feet first into what looks like reckless U.S. intervention. Everyone loved being part of the first coalition to free Kuwait, but once we freed Kuwait, there was no desire by other countries to turn north to Iraq. We invaded Iraq years later to topple a really bad dictator, and we had allies come with, but they weren’t exactly thrilled. Our allies were happy to jump into Afghanistan, but after it dragged past four years, that enthusiasm waned.
When our allies work without us, it takes them longer, and our retired military members make plenty of comments like “we should support them,” without asking whether it makes any sense. When Mali fought Islamic insurgents and France wanted U.S. support, President Obama asked them to pay for it. He’s not wrong, because the correct question to ask is, are we willing to stay there for a long time? Most Americans can’t find Mali on a map, let alone pick out any U.S. interest in that country.
We also need to ask a really hard question about what retired admirals and generals do when they get out of the service. A few of them retire and “go fishing,” but plenty get another job, and most of these jobs are with major defense contractors. If I’m working at Raytheon and the government is shooting a lot of Raytheon missiles, I’m keeping a nice job for many years to come. Its the hammer tool problem: if all you have is a hammer, the world is full of nails. If you go from working 30+ years on solving military problems, then shift to a job making military equipment, you are likely inclined to think the military is the only (or at least, the best way) to solve problems. In many cases you are right, but there are plenty where you are not.
That’s the grain of salt you need for retired military opinions. Are they valuable? Yes! Retired military have different experiences than the populace, and their understanding of the world has value in many cases. But it comes with its own biases and special interests that aren’t obvious at the outset. We need to keep that in mind when we determine how much value to place on someone’s opinion.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, Raytheon Corporation, or any other government agency.