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Former military leaders criticized the election and the administration. That hurts the military’s reputation.

Statements from retired generals can have an unintended impact, our surveys find

- May 14, 2021

Earlier this week, a group of 124 retired admirals and generals — calling themselves “Flag Officers 4 America” — published an open letter that questioned the legitimacy of the presidential election and criticized President Biden and the Democratic Party.

It’s tempting to dismiss the signatories as a tiny percentage of the retired senior officer corps, and an even smaller voice within U.S. veterans or the active force. But our research suggests the letter could have a lasting impact — but not the effect its authors intended.

The public recognizes their rank, not their names

Civil-military relations theory, in studying how the armed forces interact with political leaders and broader society, sometimes draws neat distinctions between active-duty and retired generals and admirals. Our surveys, however, show the public doesn’t make these same distinctions.

Check out TMC’s topic guide on civil-military relations

In theory, what would be unacceptable for an active-duty officer to say is tolerable for a retired officer, now garbed in the uniform of the ordinary citizen rather than of a military service. And in theory, active-duty military professionals never voice their partisan opinions in public — but retirees are free to be more open about both their partisan and policy preferences, since they no longer serve within the chain of command.

In 2019 and 2020, NORC conducted two nationally representative surveys on our behalf, designed to give a better understanding of what the public thinks about the military and why it holds those beliefs. Although we picked up differences in how the public views active troops and veterans, we did not find such nuanced assessments when it came to active and retired generals. In fact, our surveys demonstrate that most of the public fails to recognize the names of prominent generals who have served in recent decades. When we asked respondents whether retired generals Jim Mattis and David Petraeus were on active duty or retired, nearly 60 percent either said they either “didn’t know” or that they had “never heard of” those officers. More than 80 percent of the public could not recognize other flag and general officers frequently in the news, including Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Gen. Mark A. Milley, Adm. William H. McRaven and Adm. James Stavridis. Fewer than 10 percent knew whether they were active or retired.

This suggests that few Americans would recognize any names among the retirees in the inauspicious group who signed Monday’s letter — but our research also suggests large segments of the public would likely conflate the views of retired generals and admirals with those serving on active duty. Roughly 60 percent of the public told us that the views of retired officers either “closely” or “somewhat closely” reflect the views of the men and women on active duty. Among civilians who told us they follow military news closely (about half our sample), the perception that retired officers speak for those on active duty jumped to almost 80 percent.

Is Trump hurting the military?

Retired generals’ partisan statements don’t shift (many) political attitudes

In October 2020, we replicated a survey experiment we had previously conducted during the 2012 presidential election. We identified one control group of about 850 people to answer a straight presidential vote choice question. We then randomly selected four other groups of similar sizes, asking them to read different statements before telling us their preferred candidate. One group read that most members of the military supported Joe Biden, another read the same of Donald Trump, and the last two statements replaced “most members of the military” with “most retired admirals and generals.”

These partisan treatments did not have much aggregate impact — responses in the various groups were not statistically different than the control group. Vote choice among partisans did not change, either. The exception was among independents, roughly 12 percent of the sample. In both surveys, support among independents was nearly 10 points higher for President Barack Obama (2012 survey) and Biden (2020) when they received a treatment suggesting that the military supported the Democratic candidate, likely because military support for a Democratic candidate seemed surprising. Once again, the effects were roughly the same regardless of whether we primed respondents with information about active-duty or retired generals.

But the public may view the military in a more negative light

Here’s what we did discover: Partisan endorsements by retired military groups may have a negative impact on public opinion about the military.

In another experiment, we primed some respondents with information showing military behavior that was aligned with either Democrats or Republicans. With minor exceptions, we found that participants who were told that the military supports their party’s candidate were slightly more likely to view the military in a positive light. In contrast, being told that the military is supporting the opposition candidate tended to undermine the respondent’s views of the military.

Republicans who are told that the military is supporting Republicans mostly keep or even nudge up their positive view about military partisanship, competence, ethical standards, honesty and shared values. The same holds for Democrats in reverse.

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But when we told Democrats that the military is behaving in a partisan Republican way, these respondents expressed markedly more negative views. Respondents’ assessments of whether the military shared their values dropped 12 points compared to the control group, and their ratings of the military’s competence, ethical standards and honesty all decreased between 10 and 16 points. Likewise, Republicans who are told that the military is behaving in a partisan Democrat way end up scoring the military worse across the board, with assessments of the same attributes decreasing between 11 and 15 percentage points.

What does this mean?

To the extent the public even noticed the “Flag Officers 4 America” partisan salvo, this letter likely convinced very few to support Trump, or oppose the legitimacy of the constitutionally elected commander in chief. But this effort may have undermined overall support for the military by raising doubts in the minds of Democrats about the professionalism of the U.S. armed forces. And it further chipped away at the norm of military nonpartisanship upon which U.S. civil-military relations leans so heavily.

Jim Golby (@jimgolby) is a senior fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin and co-host of the CSIS “Thank You For Your Service” podcast.

Peter Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.