Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His new book is “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
You join the most elite club in the US military when you pin on your fourth star; there were, as of 2019, only 39 four-star general officers across the various services of the US armed forces, according to the US Congressional Research Service.
Once those four-star generals and admirals retire, with a very few exceptions they avoid taking any kind of public stance on political issues, seeking even in retirement to uphold the apolitical nature of the US military, a key to its widespread popularity among Americans.
Because of this norm, when retired three-star general Michael Flynn went on the campaign trail for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and led crowds at the 2016 Republican convention chanting “Lock her up” of Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton, his behavior was widely viewed by his peers as completely beyond the pale.
So, it has been extraordinary to see over the past week the flood of public criticism of President Donald Trump for his handling of the protests over the death of George Floyd coming from so many of the United States’ leading retired generals and admirals, including unprecedented criticism from four who have served in the post of top ranking military officer in the nation: chairman of the joint chiefs.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the joint chiefs, told NPR that Trump’s threat to use military force against protesters was “very troubling,” and “dangerous.”
Dempsey’s predecessor Admiral Mike Mullen wrote in The Atlantic that he was “sickened” to see peaceful protestors “forcibly and violently” removed from around the White House last week so President Trump could visit St. John’s Church nearby, and be photographed holding aloft a bible.
Speaking of the forcible removal of the peaceful protesters outside the White House, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs under President George W. Bush, told CNN, “that should not happen in America. And so, I was sad. I mean, we should all shed tears over that, that particular act.”
Then on Sunday came Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the joint chiefs under President George H.W. Bush, who told CNN’s Jake Tapper that President Trump lies “all the time” and that he had “drifted away” from the Constitution.
This came on top of a week in which retired four-star Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, who served as US Secretary of Defense for President Trump, broke his long silence about the President that he had served for two years saying in a statement to The Atlantic, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”
Trump’s former chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly also weighed in to say, in an interview Friday, that he agreed with Mattis, adding for good measure, “I think we need to look harder at who we elect. I think we should look at people that are running for office and put them through the filter: What is their character like? What are their ethics?”
Other top retired officers have added their voices to the chorus of criticism of the President. The architect of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, Admiral William McRaven, told MSNBC on Friday, “You’re not going to use, whether it’s the military, or the National Guard, or law enforcement, to clear peaceful American citizens for the President of the United States to do a photo op. There is nothing morally right about that.”
Gen. Vincent Brooks, who commanded all US troops in South Korea under President Trump until he retired last year, released a statement in which he outlined his “dismay and disappointment” at the “the manipulation of the image of the military by our President.”
Trump has long had a boyish fascination with the military, idolizing World War II generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur and reveling in his stint at a military-style boarding school in New York when he was a teenager. Trump’s administration has presided over a major expansion of US military budgets.
But historians will surely find that when President Trump took his short walk from the White House to St. John’s Church, his path violently cleared of peaceful protesters, he lost the support of key elements of the US military that he so reveres.
During the 2016 presidential election, Flynn was an outlier when he took an active role in the Trump campaign. Now that so many top retired military officers are speaking out against Trump as the 2020 presidential election campaign heats up some of these officers may organize to try to defeat him.
That would be uncharted territory for the United States, but Americans are living through extraordinary times.