The ouster of US Rep. Liz Cheney from the Republican leadership on Wednesday for the sin of telling the truth about former President Donald Trump may not be the most depressing example of partisan folly this week. No less sad, in my view, was an open letter signed by more than 100 retired US general and flag officers that accused President Joe Biden of installing "a Marxist form of tyrannical government."
This piece of appalling partisan invective was newsworthy mainly because it was signed by retired military officers who, in so doing, violated the norms of their profession and contributed to the erosion of healthy civil-military relations in the United States.
Perhaps we should not be shocked to discover that, at a time when American society is reeling from extreme partisan polarization—when significant numbers of prominent politicians are openly promoting falsehoods such as the bogus claim that Trump's resounding defeat at the ballot box was due to electoral fraud—some fraction of the retired military community has fallen prey to the same myths. If a problem exists in civilian society, one can expect to see it in the military assigned to protect that society as well.
The letter's content is not necessarily the issue. It is a dog's breakfast of partisan hyperbole and misleading innuendo about the 2020 election of the kind that is ubiquitous in the darker corners of the internet and the worst fringes of the Republican Party.
What makes the letter so disturbing is that the 124 signatories are all retired members of a profession whose treasured principles demand that it be subject to civilian command and should remain separate from parochial partisan politics. This is a group of men—and it appears they are all men—who repeatedly pledged an oath of allegiance to the US Constitution and are now doing their level best to undermine it and, in particular, the crucial principle of civilian control.
In the letter, the group calling itself "Flag Officers 4 America" writes: "We are in a fight for our survival as a Constitutional Republic like no other time since our founding in 1776. The conflict is between supporters of Socialism and Marxism vs. supporters of Constitutional freedom and liberty."
Though they do not clearly say they believe the 2020 election was illegitimate—as a majority of Republicans appear to believe—the signatories come close, and they question Biden's "mental and physical condition." They add: "Aside from the election, the Current Administration has launched a full-blown assault on our Constitutional rights in a dictatorial manner, bypassing the Congress, with more than 50 Executive Orders quickly signed, many reversing the previous Administration's effective policies and regulations."
This is the same group of retired officers who during the 2020 election declared that if Trump were defeated by Biden, "our historic way of life is at stake."
One can find ample precedents for this sort of partisan behavior, especially by superannuated military retirees, throughout the years. Yet this instance is troubling because it comes at such a parlous time in American political history. With the embers of the Jan. 6 attempt to block the peaceful presidential transition still smoldering, this letter pours gasoline on the fire in a brazen attempt to ignite more unconstitutional challenges to the elected government.
It should be taken seriously—not as a serious statement of problems, which it is not, but as a serious manifestation of a social ill that Americans must collectively confront.
Let's be clear: The letter raises in passing some legitimate areas of policy debate, including ones on which senior military leaders, active and even retired, might offer some useful perspective. What risks should the United States undertake to manage Iran's nuclear ambitions—are the risks entailed with reviving a too-weak 2015 nuclear deal worse than the risks of pursuing maximum sanctions that Iran will defy? Are there ways to provide security against another attack on the US Capitol that impose less of a readiness burden on the military?
These are all topics I and countless other national security specialists have debated and are on the table today. Many senior military officers—though few who signed this letter—have relevant experience that renders their opinions especially worthy.
But most of the letter strays far from areas where the military as a whole—and the signatories in particular—can claim any special expertise. What set of election procedures best protects the rights of citizens to vote and, at the same time, the integrity of their votes? How fairly are law enforcement and the judicial system enforcing the law? Is a progressive agenda no different from a socialist agenda or a Marxist one? If the American electorate chooses the more progressive candidate, should that choice be respected? On all of these issues, the military as a profession does not have any special expertise or claim of authority, and to pretend otherwise is to inch along the path patrolled by coup-prone officers in unstable democracies.
And that is the real gravamen of the letter. This letter is a primal scream by several scores of older Republican men who are angry that the electorate, in a free and fair election, chose Biden as president instead of their preferred candidate, Trump. Rather than accept this defeat and prepare for the next election, they are trying to delegitimize the victory by making false claims about the duly elected commander in chief.
They are entitled to believe untruths, even to express untruths, but the only reason we bother noticing them is that they once were commanders in the most potent coercive instrument of state power, the military—and the nagging fear that they might be speaking for others who have the potential to wield real coercive power now.
I am confident they do not, subject to the caveat stated at the outset: Doubtless some tiny fraction of active-duty military harbor similar misguided views, because a military can never be completely insulated from the toxins prevalent in civilian society. But the vast majority—especially at the seniormost ranks who command the most influence throughout the military—take their oaths more seriously and honorably than do the signatories of this letter.
The Biden administration need not engage in an extended back-and-forth with this letter, as doing so would elevate it well beyond what it deserves. What would not go amiss is a simple, direct, and unambiguous statement that no doubt exists regarding who is at the top of the constitutionally ordained chain of command and who has been chosen by the electorate to set policy.
This is something that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is uniquely positioned to say. Not only is he the second-most-senior civilian in the chain of command atop all of the current serving military, but he also comes from among the ranks of retired senior military from which this letter drew its signatories. He also happened to serve with greater distinction than any of the signatories, and so his voice commands greater respect among the active-duty and retired communities.
Now would be a good time for him to use that voice to speak once more on behalf of the Constitution and against those who have lost their professional bearings.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.