The General and Political Speech
Yet again, a remarkable thing happened last week which has not garnered even a yawn from the mainstream media. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave an interview with Fox News on 22 August and discussed his "disappointment" with the critique of the Obama administration by the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund (OPSEC). In an amazing contortion -- even for one who has spent many years in the upper levels of the Pentagon -- he claims that as the steward of the military profession, he is critical of former service members for "using the uniform, whatever uniform, for partisan politics" while giving the referenced interview in uniform. He continues by complaining about OPSEC by claiming that their effort to educate the public regarding the sensitive nature of national intelligence information is "not useful. It's not useful to me."
Frankly, it is General Dempsey's statement which is not useful. The issues raised by OPSEC aren't about General Dempsey or what is useful to him; they are about the security of the United States -- which these former special operators are well-qualified to discuss. The security of the United States is Dempsey's number-one job as the principal military adviser to the president. His job description does not include using the weight of his star-studded rank and lofty position to influence the political process for one side or another in the country, nor does it include the suppression of political activities of informed and engaged veterans.
By tradition and statute, actively serving members of the Armed Forces of the United States are enjoined against bringing discredit to the service by openly advocating one political position or another as a representative of the military. That tradition is based upon the concept of civilian control of the military, which reaches back to the very foundation of our nation. In 1951, when General of the Army Douglas MacArthur openly contradicted President Harry Truman with respect to the conduct of the Korean War, Truman had every right -- in fact, the duty -- to relieve MacArthur of his position because of conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline. That action was taken to support the concept that the uniformed military remains apolitical. Remarkably, General Dempsey has crossed that line by using his uniformed position for political purposes just as MacArthur did, but in this instance to suppress a political opponent of the administration.
Each officer, upon commissioning, takes a solemn oath to "uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic." When General Dempsey makes statements such as he made in the interview, he dishonors the oath he took on the West Point Plain so many years ago and brings discredit to his office. By engaging in an effort to muzzle OPSEC, he attempts to suppress the First Amendment right to political speech that he is sworn to protect. The position he takes in his interview is at odds with the counsel that I received from his colleague, General Norton Schwartz (the outgoing U.S. Air Force chief of staff) when I retired from the Air Force in 2007. He told me in effect to use what I had learned during my military career to make my new community a better place, to get involved, and to be a leader. I was told much the same thing by Lt. General Bruce Green (the recently retired U.S. Air Force surgeon general) at my retirement ceremony.
In the interview, General Dempsey continued, "If someone uses the uniform, whatever uniform, for partisan politics, I am disappointed because I think it erodes that bond of trust we have with the American people." However, he has done just that: he has used his position as chairman and the uniform he currently wears as a means to inject himself into a partisan political matter involving former and retired service members who are in OPSEC. Somehow this strengthens the bond of trust he so vociferously cherishes? Did he feel the same level of "disappointment" with General Wesley K. Clark, General Merrill McPeak, General Colin Powell, or the slew of other retired flag officers when they endorsed Barack Obama in 2008? If so, where is this disappointment documented? Is he disappointed with me because I happen to hold a position as a precinct delegate in my community?
General Dempsey's statements are every bit as heinous as when then-Lt. Gen. George S. Patton slapped a hospitalized soldier during World War II. Dempsey has just slapped the faces of countless veterans who hold views on national security that may differ from his own exalted perspective. His official statements (he was in uniform, remember) -- and not the political speech of a group of veteran special operators who may have a contrarian view of the current regime -- is what erodes the "trust we have with the American people."
General Dempsey is the one who has crossed the line here. He is the one trying to suppress the constitutional liberties we officers have sworn to uphold and defend. If he is a man of honor -- like in Duty, Honor, Country, from his West Point days -- he should at very least apologize to every veteran for his statements. At best, he should resign...for Honor's sake.
James Stewart retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2007.