On the eve of the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions, the nation’s senior military officer has cautioned both serving and retired officers to stay out of partisan politics.

General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said in a message to the armed forces, in his blog, and in press interviews that earning the trust of the American people “is the cornerstone of our profession.”

“One way we earn this trust is by avoiding partisan activities,” the Army general said. “We must understand why our military as a profession embraces political neutrality as a core value.”

The commander of the Special Operations Command, Admiral William McRaven, issued a similar caution: “Our promise to the American people is that we, the military, are nonpartisan, apolitical and will serve the president of the United States regardless of his political party.”

The admonitions from Dempsey and McRaven were triggered by criticism of President Obama coming from former military and intelligence people who contended that the White House had leaked sensitive information for political purposes.

On a wider scale, Dempsey seemed critical of the retired senior officers who took part in the Republican and Democratic conventions of 2004 and 2008, with some endorsing presidential candidates in a departure from longstanding tradition.

In contrast to the political neutrality for which Dempsey appealed, several military services in the Asia-Pacific region, notably in China and North Korea, are deep into the politics and security policy of their nations.

In China, officers swear allegiance to the Communist Party, not to the nation. Senior officers serve in high political councils. The People’s Liberation Army, which comprises all of China’s armed forces, often sets its own foreign policy. In North Korea, the “songun” or “military first” policy gives the armed forces priority in every facet of life.

To the contrary, Japan’s armed forces, which were heavily engaged in politics before World War II, have kept out of politics in the postwar era. An exception: General Toshio Tamogami, chief of the air force, was forced to retire in 2008 for publishing a political essay defending Japan’s attempted conquest of Asia in World War II.

Elsewhere in Asia, the army in Thailand is politically engaged daily. In South Korea, the army has retreated to garrison after running the country until the 1990’s. Much the same is true in Taiwan. Soldiers in the Philippines and Indonesia have gone back to their barracks but lurk there ready to return to politics on short notice.

In the U.S., two retired Army officers, Steve Corbett and Michael Davidson, wrote in 2010: “The public endorsement of presidential candidates by retired general officers reflects a disturbing trend toward the politicization of the American military, and concomitantly, a gradual departure from the nonpartisan professional military ethic.”

Several officers who advocate political neutrality hoped that established principles would be observed when the Republican convention is held this week in Tampa, Florida, and the Democratic convention takes place next week in Charlotte, North Carolina.

  • Officers on active duty by law must refrain from all partisan activity. But when asked in Congressional testimony or in private meetings with elected officials, they are legally and traditionally required to give their professional assessments of a policy, decision, or action—even if it differs from that of a political leader.
  • Retired officers may draw on their experience of 20 years or more to contribute a professional judgment on military issues. Some officers even contend that experienced officers have a moral obligation to share what they have learned. But all should refrain from taking sides when a dispute over policy becomes a political debate.

There seems to be general agreement that military officers were permitted to doff their uniforms to stand for elective office. Presidents Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower were generals before being voted into the White House, as were others throughout American history.

Most recently, Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, was a naval officer before being elected to the Senate and then standing for the presidency in 2008. Similarly, Senator James Webb, Democrat of Virginia, was a Marine, an assistant secretary of defense, and Secretary of the Navy before being elected to the Senate.

For many, perhaps a majority, of retired senior officers, political silence may be as much a matter of taste as tradition. General Eric Shinseki, a former Chief of Staff of the Army, seems to have reflected their stance when he was asked to comment on a dispute with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over the war in Iraq.

Shinseki, who comes from Hawaii and is now Secretary of Veterans Affairs, declined, saying: “That’s not my style.”

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About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth