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Both of last month’s party conventions left much to be desired, but for my money, the worst feature was the attempt by both parties to treat the U.S. military as a partisan prize. So, in Cleveland, the Republicans featured retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, speaking on behalf of Donald Trump; and, in Philadelphia, retired Marine Gen. John Allen did the same for Hillary Clinton. Neither convention should have asked for these speeches. Neither officer should have given one.
These speeches were troubling for several reasons. First, they undermined a pillar of American civil-military relations: that members of the U.S. military remain nonpartisan in the performance of their duties. It doesn’t matter that both speakers were retired. They were not introduced as “Mike” or “John,” but “General,” implying that neither was speaking in his capacity as a private citizen but as a military officer.
Second, the U.S. military is highly respected by the American people. If the public begins to perceive the military as just another interest group vying for power though partisan politics, that respect will wither. Third, partisanship undermines the claim of the U.S. military to be a profession, the essence of which is service to a client, in the case of the U.S. military, the American people as a whole, not just Democrats or Republicans.
Some will object that we have a tradition of military participation in partisan politics. A number of military men have become president, beginning with George Washington and ending with Dwight Eisenhower. That is true but irrelevant. The era of military partisanship predates the rise of military professionalism. Since the rise of military professionalism, displays of partisanship have been rare until recently.