Should military veterans endorse presidential candidates?

A provocative new study examines some potential pitfalls when retired military veterans wade into political campaigning. Endorsements could erode trust in the military, the report finds.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Veterans applaud as Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan speaks during a campaign event, Oct. 8, in Swanton, Ohio.

Should US military veterans endorse presidential candidates – and what are the dangers to democracy if they do?

That is the question behind a provocative new study from an influential Washington think tank.

True, retired veterans are private citizens. But there is a “fine line” between vets voicing private concerns and doing so in a way “that makes it appear that they’re speaking on behalf of the institution” of the US military, says Maj. James Golby, an instructor of politics at the US Military Academy at West Point.

The “main issue” is “respecting the moral authority that has been bestowed on people who have served in the military to guard” the trust the public has placed in them, adds Golby, lead author in the new study entitled, “Military Campaigns: Veterans’ Endorsements and Presidential Elections,” from the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

The problem is that very few American voters make the distinction between retired military personnel and those on active duty, notes the study, which was also written by Kyle Dropp and Peter Feaver. Active-duty personnel are not allowed to wear uniforms at political events and make political speeches.

The campaigns, in turn, are aware of this and tend to recruit the highest-ranking retirees they can find to support candidates, particularly “flag officers” – admirals and generals.

“Retired senior officers may think they are drawing fine distinctions between the formal institution of active-duty military and their own views as retired citizens, but the truth is that no one, especially not the campaigns, is very interested in their views as private citizens,” the study says.

While the report finds that these endorsements do not appear to notably sway voters, the problem is that over time these endorsements have the potential to erode trust in the military.

What's more, the topic is particularly relevant during a presidential election in which, for the first time in American history, neither of the candidates has served in the military.

“Endorsements by retired military officers can diminish the perception of the military as a nonpartisan institution serving the nation and increase the perception of the military as just another interest group serving its own bureaucratic and political interests,” the authors warn.

Because of this, endorsements from retired military officers – particularly the high-ranking ones – could be seen as coming with a thinly veiled threat about what could happen if the nonpreferred candidate wins.

This is particularly true of some of the negative political ads this campaign season, when retired Special Operations Forces officers attacked President Obama for discussing the strike on Osama bin Laden’s compound, Golby says.

“The real downside to negative ads is that they do create a perception that the military doesn’t support one candidate, and they raise questions about whether military leaders will be able to faithfully carry out the orders of the other party,” he says.

As the report notes, “Indeed, the military is obliged to serve wholeheartedly whichever candidate wins, and public participation in the campaign process undermines the perception that it can or will do so if the vote goes against members’ preferences.”

For this reason, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has weighed in on the issue.

“In my judgment, we must continue to be thoughtful about how our actions and opinions reflect on the profession beyond active service,” he wrote in a message to US troops. “Former and retired service members, especially generals and admirals, are connected to military service for life. When the title or uniform is used for partisan purposes, it can erode the trust relationship.”

The report’s authors acknowledge that the vast majority of retired officers who make endorsements have only the interests of their country at heart. “Many of these retired generals and admirals have served their nation faithfully for many years and have noble ambitions. They are pursuing what they think is right in terms of broader policies for the nation,” Golby says.

What’s more, veterans groups have legitimate concerns about issues that elected officials address – or choose not to – after having “born the brunt” of America’s two wars for a decade, he notes, adding that no one is suggesting that veterans forgo voting.

The key may be weighing these endorsements – particularly among high-profile, high-ranking officers – against the greater good for the nation. In any event, "the message of such endorsements is clear and unmistakable," the report concludes. '' 'I am a distinguished military voice speaking on behalf of the military. Because “we the military” trust this person to be commander-in-chief, you can, too.' "

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