A group of the nation’s former defense secretaries and top generals warned of an “exceptionally challenging” relationship between the military and the general public following former President Donald Trump’s attempt to stay in power during the 2020 election.
In an open letter published Tuesday, eight former Pentagon secretaries and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said they fear the military’s standing could worsen after the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump’s unprecedented efforts to challenge the results of the race he lost to Joe Biden.
“We are in an exceptionally challenging civil-military environment,” the group wrote. “Many of the factors that shape civil-military relations have undergone extreme strain in recent years.”
The letter doesn’t mention Trump by name, but the signatories include two of his former Pentagon chiefs: Jim Mattis and Mark Esper. The document also refers in depth to ongoing political polarization that, the group says, “culminated in the first election in over a century when the peaceful transfer of political power was disrupted and in doubt.”
“Military officers swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution, not an oath of fealty to an individual or to an office,” the letter reads. “All civilians, whether they swear an oath or not, are likewise obligated to support and defend the Constitution as their highest duty.”
Trump, who is weighing another bid at the White House, regularly tried to leverage the military for his own aims, including sending troops to the southern border with Mexico and using them against racial justice demonstrations. Such efforts caused tension with the nation’s top generals, and both Mattis and Esper were ultimately removed from their positions.
Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told The New York Times Tuesday that while Trump wasn’t mentioned, his comments while in office contributed to the strained relationship the signatories mentioned. He pointed specifically to reports that Trump asked his chief of staff, John Kelly, why he couldn’t have loyal military aides like the “German generals in World War II.”
“[The letter] is not pointed at Trump, but when you hear him talk about Hitler’s generals, well, that’s not who we are,” Mullen told the paper.
Mullen went on in an interview with The Washington Post to say he’s worried the U.S. is on the precepts of “losing a democracy,” pointing to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the U.S. Capitol.
The signatories said that things may get worse before they improve, but the group added that it was important to reflect on the past.
“Looking ahead, all of these factors could well get worse before they get better,” the letter states. “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.”