'Disturbing and reckless': Retired brass spread election lie in attack on Biden, Democrats

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A day after 124 retired generals and admirals released a letter spreading the lie that President Joe Biden stole the election, current and former military officers are speaking out, calling the missive a dangerous new sign of the military being dragged into the trenches of partisan warfare.

The open letter on Monday from a group calling itself Flag Officers 4 America advanced the false conspiracy theory that the presidential vote was rigged in Biden's favor and warned that the nation is "in deep peril" from "a full-blown assault on our Constitutional rights."

“Under a Democrat Congress and the Current Administration,” they wrote, “our Country has taken a hard left turn toward Socialism and a Marxist form of tyrannical government which must be countered now by electing congressional and presidential candidates who will always act to defend our Constitutional Republic.”

The broadside also raises questions about “the mental and physical condition of the Commander in Chief" and sounds the alarm about a host of hot-button issues, such as the border wall. It goes on to accuse congressional leaders of "using the U.S. military as political pawns with thousands of troops deployed around the U.S. Capitol Building."

The group's website claims that "we are in a fight for our survival as a Constitutional Republic like no other time since our founding in 1776."

As news of the letter spread, it set off a round of recriminations among current and former military members. One serving Navy officer, who did not want to be identified publicly, called it "disturbing and reckless."

Jim Golby, an expert in civil-military relations, called it a "shameful effort to use their rank and the military's reputation for such a gross and blatant partisan attack," while a retired Air Force colonel who teaches cadets at the Air Force Academy, Marybeth Ulrich, labeled it "anti-democratic."

"I think it hurts the military and by extension it hurts the country," said retired Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, describing it as replete with "right-wing Republican talking points."

The talking points in the letter fall generally in line with die-hard loyalists in Trump's orbit, who question the results of the election despite the fact that the courts and Trump's own Justice Department said there was no reason to declare him the winner.

Several experts said it reminded them of the current crisis in civil-military relations in France, where dozens of retired generals were recently sanctioned after warning in an open letter in a right-wing magazine of civil war for the "protection of our civilisational values."

That letter was followed up by an anonymous one from current officers calling French politicians cowards for not dealing with the Muslim population, sparking calls for a purge of the ranks. The controversy has undermined public confidence in the French military and recalled the bitter feuds between the brass and elected officials during the early years of the Cold War.

The American letter was striking for several reasons. It is not unusual for retired officers to take sides in electoral politics and endorse candidates. But its fiery, even angry, language and conspiracy-mongering struck multiple long-time observers as particularly out of bounds and dangerous. Coming outside the campaign season was also seen as rare if not unprecedented.

Notable signatories included retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who is running for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire; retired Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who stirred controversy for some of his anti-Muslim views and is now executive vice president of the Family Research Council; and retired Vice Adm. John Poindexter, who was the deputy national security adviser for President Ronald Reagan and was convicted in the Iran-Contra Affair.

The letter, mostly signed by ex-military leaders who have been out of uniform for decades, was organized by retired Army Maj. Gen. Joe Arbuckle, a Vietnam veteran who retired in 2000.

Arbuckle, in response to questions from POLITICO, acknowledged in an email that the partisan nature of the effort is not normal but defended it as necessary, given what's at stake.

”Retired generals and admirals normally do not engage in political actions," he said, "but the situation facing our nation today is dire and we must speak out in order to be faithful to our oath to support and defend the Constitution of the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

"We are facing threats greater than at any other time since our country was founded," Arbuckle added. "Aside from China, many of these threats flow directly from policy positions and actions of our own government. It is critical that the threats to our national security be brought to the attention of the American people and that is the main purpose of the letter. To remain silent would be a dereliction of duty.”

But the missive alarmed fellow officers in the halls of the Pentagon and far-flung bases due to its strident tone and for using the stature of the nation's generals and admirals to spread misinformation.

It also sent shock waves through the community of experts who train military officers on the long tradition of the U.S. military staying above the political fray.

That includes while in uniform, when they are prohibited from engaging in partisan politicking, and after they retire, when they have commonly kept their political views private in deference to that tradition and to safeguard the democratic principle of civilian control of the military.

The Pentagon declined through a spokesperson to comment on the letter. But others clearly took notice.

“That was way worse than I was expecting,” said Ulrich, a retired Air Force colonel who teaches civil-military relations at the Army War College and Air Force Academy. “They are perpetuating the big lie about the election. I think it is outrageous. Some of it is very anti-democratic behavior.”

She said she plans to use the letter in her classes to demonstrate to young military officers the extent to which the military's apolitical tradition has eroded in recent years and why that is dangerous.

“They are absolutely violating the norm to be apolitical,” she added. “They are being used for partisan purposes. They are going against their constitutional oath.”

Both parties have increasingly relied on the endorsements of retired military leaders to lend credibility to their campaigns and support for their national security views. Both Biden and Trump boasted of a long list of former military brass who were supporting their presidential bids, including some who served as official campaign advisers.

In some specific cases, highly regarded retired officers have staked out singular political positions, such as when retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal mounted a campaign against assault weapons or when retired Navy Adm. William McRaven accused Trump in 2019 of endangering the republic with his leadership.

The growing practice has raised concerns about blurring the civil-military divide and injecting politics into the armed forces.

The politicization of the military is also seen by some experts as a possible contributing factor to an erosion of the military's standing among the public, as found in a recent survey by the Ronald Reagan Institute.

But the new attack on Biden and the Democrats is seen as in a class of its own.

"I've seen a lot of these letters, but this one really is something," said Golby, a senior fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at The University of Texas at Austin and an expert on civil-military relations. "We've seen isolated statements from retired generals and admirals like McChrystal or McRaven, but this statement is the first full-blown partisan attack from a large group of retired officers that is not explicitly tied to an election or specific issue."

"The tone is shocking," he added, "especially because it targets the entire Democratic party, implies the election was illegitimate and contains a number of verifiable lies."

Mullen also said the timing was unusual. "Normally those kinds of things occur in an election," he said. "It's out of cycle."

"The only positive sign," added Golby, "is that most of the retired officers who signed this letter have been out of the military for almost two decades, and that no recent retirees joined this shameful effort to use their rank and the military's reputation for such a gross and blatant partisan attack."

Mullen also pointed out that no retired four-stars signed it and only a handful of three-stars. "It's not very senior," he said. "In our world it's not very significant in terms of people."

But others were less sanguine. Peter Feaver, a scholar in civil-military relations at Duke University who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, called the letter "an appalling breach of military professionalism and the norms on which democratic civil-military relations depends.”

"For the first few decades after World War II, the French military had some of the worst civil-military relations of any of the advanced industrial democracies," added Feaver, a retired naval officer. "They had a genuine coup attempt in 1961. Every military that coups or threatens to coup constructs a narrative in which the military is acting to save the country from something worse than military rule. Clearly the authors are attempting to write that narrative.”