Former U.S. Defense secretaries issue political polarization warning

Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is one of thirteen former Defense secretaries and retired generals who signed an open letter Tuesday warning political polarization in the United States is creating an "exceptionally challenging civil-military environment." File pool Photo by Michael Reynolds/UPI

Sept. 7 (UPI) — Thirteen former Defense secretaries and retired generals warned Tuesday that extreme political divisiveness in the United States is creating “an exceptionally challenging civil-military environment.”

In an open letter, published on the national security website “War on the Rocks,” the eight former Defense secretaries and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outlined 16 “core principles and best practices” for civilian and military professionals to live by during a time of extreme political polarization.

“Politically, military professionals confront an extremely adverse environment characterized by the divisiveness of affective polarization that culminated in the first election in over a century when the peaceful transfer of political power was disrupted and in doubt,” the letter said in an indirect reference to former President Donald Trump‘s stolen election claims in 2020 and the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the U.S. Capitol.

The leaders also cited geopolitical tensions, such as the winding down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as social tensions including the COVID-19 pandemic and economic uncertainty.

“Looking ahead, all of these factors could well get worse before they get better,” the letter said. “In such an environment, it is helpful to review the core principles and best practices by which civilian and military professionals have conducted healthy American civil-military relations in the past — and can continue to do so, if vigilant and mindful.”

The officials, who signed the letter, are former Defense secretaries from the Trump, Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations and include Mark Esper, Ashton Carter, William CohenRobert GatesChuck HagelJames MattisLeon Panetta and William Perry. The former chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff include Martin Dempsey, Joseph Dunford, Michael MullenRichard Myers and Peter Pace.

Among the core practices the former leaders warned against, is the politicization of armed forces. The letter calls for military personnel to limit their public role in partisan politics saying “military and civilian leaders must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity.”

During his presidency, Trump hosted a Fourth of July parade in 2019 that featured military troops and tanks, while President Joe Biden recently blurred the lines between military and politics during a prime-time address in Philadelphia where he was flanked by two U.S. marines as he urged Americans to reject the ideology of “MAGA Republicans.”

Tuesday’s letter reiterated constitutional power over the military ultimately belongs to U.S. citizens.

“Civilian control of the military is part of the bedrock foundation of American democracy,” the leaders said. “Under the U.S. Constitution, civilian control of the military is shared across all three branches of government. Ultimately, civilian control is wielded by the will of the American people as expressed through elections.”


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