Armed Conflict Democracy & Elections

Generally Speaking: Assessing Political Speech by Retired General and Flag Officers

Risa Brooks, Michael A. Robinson, Heidi A. Urben
Friday, March 8, 2024, 8:01 AM
Do retired generals think they should speak out on political issues? Most favor restraint—but how much and when is up for debate.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis (U.S. Secretary of Defense,, CC BY 2.0 DEED)

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Editor’s Note: Recent years have seen a surge in partisan speeches and other political activities by retired general and flag officers. What do other officers themselves think about this surge in political activity? Marquette’s Risa Brooks and my Georgetown colleagues Michael A. Robinson and Heidi Urben discuss the tension they found between traditional, apolitical civil-military relations and the officers’ concerns about threats to the constitution and other grave concerns.

Dan Byman


Since the 1990s, campaigns have regularly solicited endorsements from retired generals and admirals. But this phenomenon has surged in recent years, as high-profile retirees are speaking out more during elections or over controversial issues in U.S. politics. 

Both political parties in 2016 featured retired generals speaking at their political conventions. Under the Trump presidency, some prominent retired generals and admirals, alarmed by what they perceived as the former president’s anti-democratic inclinations, spoke out, including when retired Marine general and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned against using the military against protesters in June 2020. On the other side, Trump has had his own allies among the retiree ranks, including former Army intelligence officer Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his Russian contacts in 2017. Today, Flynn routinely makes pro-Trump speeches and is likely to be a regular on the campaign trail in the 2024 election. 

These actions have sparked significant commentary and debate among civil-military relations scholars about the appropriateness of retiree political speech. Yet, for all that controversy, we know little about what retired generals and admirals themselves actually think about the norms governing their political activism—whether they perceive that there should be limits to political speech and when and if they think it is ever appropriate to violate those conventions. Understanding these norms is important, because although retired officers remain bound by certain Department of Defense regulations regarding their political activity, such behavior is governed largely by norms—social conventions about what behaviors befit a former officer.

Research we published last month in the Texas National Security Review helps address this question with a novel survey of retired general and flag officers. (The specific ranks in the survey included O7-O10, while skewing toward the more senior ranking general and flag officers, O9s and O10s.) We asked them about the forms of political activism they had engaged in—such as statements to the press and campaign endorsements—and whether they viewed such activities as appropriate or controversial. 

Our results shed light on what we conclude is a contested norm of political speech by retired generals and admirals. On the one hand, almost all the respondents agreed that there is and should be a norm governing political activism by retirees and that it should remain limited. On the other hand, they disagreed significantly about the precise boundaries of that norm. Pairing those responses with an analysis of the empirical record of political activism by retirees over the past 35 years led us to conclude that there is no clear consensus among retirees about when and whether it is appropriate for them to speak out or engage in other forms of activism in relation to contentious issues in U.S. domestic politics. The norm exists, but how that translates into practical behavior is sometimes murky and often controversial among retirees themselves. 

A Contested and Deteriorating Norm

The first signs of that contestation date to the late 1980s—long before the current pressures of social media and the hyperpolarization that defines political discourse today. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. P.X. Kelley endorsed then-candidate George H.W. Bush in a primary after which former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. William J. Crowe endorsed Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential election. Since then, campaign endorsements by retired general and flag officers have grown in number and become a regular feature of campaigns on both sides of the aisle. At the same time, there has also been an increase in partisan commentary in op-eds, on cable news, and on social media by retired officers. 

While many civil-military analysts contend that political speech is damaging to the maintenance of a nonpartisan force, there are some who believe otherwise, arguing that senior officers, once retired, should be able to speak their minds. Proponents of such speech contend that retired general officers and flag officers can provide important context about different issues to the public, given their decades of public service, pointing to the fact that retired generals like Grant and Eisenhower became partisan political fixtures in their own times. Some point to the current environment and perceived existential stakes to the political system, alongside the competing obligations that officers must navigate, to justify such speech. 

Others worry about the long-term damage to democratic civil-military relations that can result from political activism becoming widespread and generally acceptable. They note that retirees are associated with the institution and may be seen by the public as speaking on behalf of the military as a whole. These former officers thus play an important role in protecting the nonpartisan status of the institution and maintaining the institution’s credibility as a neutral force in U.S. politics. Empirical research also underscores the limited effectiveness of such speech in actually changing anyone’s mind. Because the public is getting information within curated partisan media environments, retired officers’ comments on political issues rarely persuade audiences whose views are often fixed. As a result, such speech can sometimes trigger backlash among the public rather than meaningful reflection.

What Retired Generals and Admirals Really Think

Despite the high-profile nature of retired officer political speech, we have had only limited grasp about how retired generals and admirals actually think about the decision to engage in public political commentary. Other surveys and empirical studies have provided insights into the attitudes of active-duty service members, including at the midgrade and junior officer level. But there have been comparably fewer prior efforts to systematically explore retired general and flag officer beliefs and rationale on these issues in an anonymized setting. 

During December 2020 and January 2021, we surveyed 23 retired generals and admirals—principally at the three- and four-star level—on the types of political activities in which they have engaged and their thoughts on the appropriateness of such activities. The small sample limits our ability to generalize our findings across all retired general and flag officers—at any given time, there are about 7,500 retired general and flag officers. Still, the responses from this unique, difficult-to-reach sample, including their open-ended text answers, provide intriguing insights about the views of retired officers toward the norm of nonpartisanship and political speech. 

We found that the retired general and flag officers we surveyed were aware and supportive of the norm with implications for their behavior in retirement. For example, 79 percent of our survey respondents felt the standards governing political commentary for retired officers should be different from those on active duty. Most respondents indicated retired officers should exercise caution when considering speaking out on political matters; however, most also bristled at outright prohibitions on retired officer political speech.

The retired generals and admirals we surveyed remarked that some of their senior retired officer peers had pressured them to either engage in political activism or refrain from such advocacy. However, they also dismissed peer pressure as an influence on their decision-making to speak out when asked about their motivations. We question the degree to which senior retired officers are, in fact, immune to such peer pressure given the importance they attach to their social networks of fellow retired general and flag officers—their responses likely reflect some degree of social desirability bias. Still, the fact that they saw their decisions as stemming from highly personal calculations and convictions was intriguing. 

While sensitive to the norm against partisan speech by retirees, many questioned its limits. Some even supported openly violating it under certain conditions. To justify such actions, many pointed to their individual moral obligations, as well as support for the Constitution and democratic processes. Some also cited specific controversial events in U.S. domestic politics and political circumstances during the Trump presidency, such as the use of force to disperse peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square, to explain why they thought speaking out was warranted. 

What Lies Ahead

Given the current political environment and what is likely to be an extraordinarily tense and high-stakes campaign season, we may yet see more commentary by retirees. As the survey suggests, retirees often perceive that they are bound by conflicting obligations, which puts a professional norm of self-censorship about political matters into tension with support for democratic governance. Indeed, while electoral preferences or personal gain might motivate some speakers, our findings suggest that retired generals and admirals may calculate in good faith that the dictates of their oath require them to speak out, and that adherence to civil-military norms should not constitute “a suicide pact.” 

But our and other scholars’ research nonetheless offers a warning of what is at stake in such speech. Retired officer speech is one expression of a dilemma facing many professions today that strive to remain outside the partisan fray, such as lawyers and academics. Supporting democracy requires adhering to democratic norms. This includes limiting partisan-laden speech by retirees, given its potential to erode overall perceptions within the public that the military is and should be a nonpartisan actor in a democratic country. In other words, it is hard to make the case that democracy is worth upholding if one is not abiding by its norms and showing that they matter. Partisan speech, over time, can corrode the fabric of democratic civil-military relations. Perhaps most importantly though, such speech may bolster the mistaken belief among many Americans that the military can and should uphold democracy for them.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Army, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Risa Brooks is Allis-Chalmers Professor of Political Science at Marquette University. She is the author of numerous articles on U.S. civil-military relations and co-editor of “Reconsidering American Civil-Military Relations: The Military, Society, Politics and Modern War” (Oxford University Press, 2021).
Michael A. Robinson is an active-duty Army strategist and an adjunct associate professor in the Security Studies Program in Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is the author of “Dangerous Instrument: Political Polarization and U.S. Civil-Military Relations” (Oxford University Press, 2022).
Heidi A. Urben is professor of the practice and director of external education and outreach in the Security Studies Program in Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is the author of “Party, Politics, and the Post-9/11 Army” (Cambria Press, November 2021).

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