Eight former secretaries of defense and five former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff jointly signed an open letter released Tuesday declaring U.S. civilian-military relations under “extreme strain” and called for an urgent return to healthy civil-military principles.
The letter, first published by the national security publication War on the Rocks, began, “We are in an exceptionally challenging civil-military environment. Many of the factors that shape civil-military relations have undergone extreme strain in recent years.”
The letter was signed by former Defense Secretaries Ash Carter, William Cohen, Mark Esper, Robert Gates, Chuck Hagel, James Mattis, Leon Panetta, and William Perry. Retired Gens. Martin Dempsey, Joseph Dunford Jr., Richard Myers, Peter Pace, and Adm. Michael Mullen – who are former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – also signed the letter.
The letter said that military leaders face “an extremely adverse environment characterized by the divisiveness of affective polarization,” and pointed to the events of Jan. 6, 2021 when “the peaceful transfer of political power was disrupted and in doubt.”
The letter explored president elections further, saying the military must support a president’s duty to protect the constitution while preparing for “whomever the voters pick” for the incoming president.
The leaders warned that the civilian-military environment is poised to “get worse before they get better,” and urge current leaders to be “vigilant and mindful” to carry on “healthy American civil-military relations.”
The letter went on to describe the “core principles” of civilian-military relations, noting that civilian control of the military was essential to the “bedrock foundation of American democracy.”
Among those core principles, the leaders remarked on mutual trust. “Trust upward that civilian leaders will rigorously explore alternatives that are best for the country regardless of the implications for partisan politics and trust downward that the military will faithfully implement directives that run counter to their professional military preference,” the leaders wrote.
The leaders also noted the limits of the military in areas of law enforcement and politics. “In most cases, the military should play a supporting rather than a leading role to law enforcement,” the letter said. “Military and civilian leaders must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity.”
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