Civ-Mil Relations: 6 Lessons from a Tweet

With the announcement last week that thousands of additional troops will be sent to the border to help surveil the “vast areas” between ports entry, it will be interesting to see if we again hear from a previous critic of the deployment, retired General Marty Dempsey, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS).

Shortly before the election last November, he leveled a sharp attack on the President’s deployment decision – via a tweet.  Are there lessons to be learned about retired officers using that social media platform to critique complicated national security matters?

As Lawfire® readers may recall, we’ve discussed the President’s tweets (see here), so let’s look at this social media phenomena from another perspective.  Here’s the current context: early last month (Jan 6th) the Washington Times published an article about the “brigade of retired generals criticizing the commander in chief in TV appearances and on social media [as] reaching a dangerous level.” The story went on to say:

Just days before midterm elections in November, retired Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, railed against the president’s decision to send troops to the southern border. Critics interpreted his remarks as encouragement for voters to support Democrats.

Here’s the text of General Dempsey’s tweet:

“Our men and women in uniform are better trained, better equipped, and better led so they meet any threat with confidence. A wasteful deployment of over-stretched Soldiers and Marines would be made much worse if they use force disproportional to the threat they face. They won’t.”

Allow me to offer some thoughts as to what “lessons” we might draw for future reference.

Lesson # 1: Absent supporting data, retired officers ought to avoid creating the impression that their views reflect those of the active duty force. 

In his tweet, General Dempsey included his rank and, most importantly, featured the official photo of himself in his military uniform. Let’s ask ourselves: given the use of the uniform, wouldn’t it be wholly understandable if the public thought his assessment was shared by those still serving, or at least that he was speaking with special insight into their thinking?  Actually, on this issue General Dempsey seems surprisingly at odds with the mindset of active and retired members of the armed forces.

Consider: The January 2019 issue of Smithsonian Magazine relates a poll of current and former service members that found that fully 65% support “the use of U.S. military armed services deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent people from entering the United States illegally.”

This is consistent with a separate, post-election poll of current and former service members (released 31 Dec) that showed “high support for the president’s handling of border security and his efforts to make the U.S. safer from terrorism.” Moreover, a poll of the American public taken around the time of General Dempsey’s tweet, found that 57% of likely U.S. voters favored the deployment (including, notably, 51% of Hispanic respondents).

Ironically, General Dempsey once warned retired officers that they “should not become part of the public political landscape,” and that theiropinion is valued chiefly because it is assumed they speak with authority for those who have served in uniform.” 

Lesson #2: Retired officers need to be circumspect about questioning the military’s ability to accomplish a mission assigned by the commander-in-chief, particularly when they soon will embark upon it.

General Dempsey claimed that “Soldiers and Marines” were “overstretched.” (Inexplicably, he did not mention the Air Force even though its troops are also involved in the deployment).

It isn’t clear what General Dempsey meant by “overstretched,” but if he is talking about overseas commitments, you be the judge: in 2017 the Pew Research Center found that the “U.S. active-duty military presence overseas is at its smallest in decades.” Only about 15% of the U.S.’s nearly 1.3 million active duty troops are stationed abroad, and most of those are in Japan, Germany, and Korea. There are more U.S. troops in Italy than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

What does that mean for the border deployment?  Even if that deployment reaches 6,000 troops, that means that less than one half of one percent of active duty servicemembers would be involved at the border. That’s obviously just a small fraction of America’s armed forces.

Still, does this stateside deployment degrade readiness for overseas combat missions? After visiting the border last December, then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said he “did not see a lessening of readiness with that group because, in fact, they’re doing — they’re very close to many of the things they would do in the regular jobs…” Mattis added definitively “I don’t see this as having an appreciable impact on military readiness.”

Why does this matter?  Part of leadership is making troops believe in themselves. While General Dempsey does acknowledge that their training, equipment and leadership qualifies them to meet threats with confidence, he, at the same time, implicitly questions their ability to do so by saying they are “overstretched.”

Ask yourself: is it helpful for a retired senior officer to tell troops at the moment they embark on a difficult mission that they are “overstretched”?  Can this make the task of the leaders still serving all more difficult?

Again, you be the judge, but shortly after Dempsey’s tweet, we saw the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, reassuring the public – and, for that matter, the troops – that the military did indeed have the “capability [and] the wherewithal to perform the task.”  To underline his point, he added that they “know exactly what they are doing, they know why they are doing it and they have the proper training and equipment to do it.”

Lesson #3: Words matter. Because the term “wasteful” raises particular concerns under military law, it should not be lightly used by retired officers to express a policy difference.

Is the deployment “wasteful” as General Dempsey claims? Substantively, even the Washington Post admits that “the costs of the border deployments will be a tiny slice of a $716 billion annual defense budget.” Moreover, “waste” is something of a matter of perspective, and one that cannot easily be explained with the confines of a tweet.

For example, as CJCS General Dempsey presided over the war in Afghanistan which, just during his tenure (2011-2015), cost over $400 billion. That conflict is one that few Americans now think was successful, and one that 84% of troops think has gone on too long. Additionally, according to NBC News, reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction say that billions of dollars “have been squandered on projects that were either useless or sub-standard, or lost to waste, corruption, and systemic abuse.”

Nothing of that sort has been alleged about the border deployment. Indeed, the military leader heading the effort sees it as a “valuable” deterrent.

Specifically, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the commander of the troops at the border, told U.S. News last November that he “believes his forces are necessary and are contributing a valuable deterrent against the incoming group of migrants.”

He also explained that Customs and Border Protection officials “want to use our military to help them deter access, deter movement across the border between the ports [of entry], and to better control the movement within the ports.”

Not surprisingly, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen also has a rather different view from General Dempsey about the utility of the deployment. She said in late December that:

The Department of Defense supports the DHS mission by deploying troops to the southern border to assist and protect the brave men and women of CBP. This collaboration has resulted in the increased prevention of illegal entry, tens of thousands of apprehensions and “turnbacks” – aliens who attempt to illegally enter our country but decide to turn back due to the presence of our agents at the border.

Lesson #4: Retired officers should not miss an opportunity to reinforce in the public’s mind the military value of training.

Beyond the significance to DHS, General Dempsey seems to overlook the purely military value of the deployment. Given that 85% of U.S. troops are now stationed here in the U.S., training for future wartime deployments has to be a top priority. What makes this challenging is the fact that the majority of military members serve only a few years, so actual deployment experience in the active force can disappear rapidly. For example, RAND reported last March, that the “vast majority of soldiers who have deployed over the past 15 years are no longer serving in the Army.”

Former Secretary Mattis recognized the importance of the real-world experience the troops were acquiring at the border. Again, after visiting the troops there, he said:

“It’s been interesting to see the feedback, I would say, from the captains, lieutenant colonels and senior NCO’s. One of them — the report came into me, they said, we were not anticipating this, we received the warning order, we got the execute order, we had to deploy to a non-traditional mission away from home station.

These are all the same things we would do if we were deploying anywhere in the world, and he said right now, he said we’re deployed, we’re living out of tents. He said this is actually very good training because they’re rehearsing everything that we do in a real — in a deployment elsewhere in the world. 

So had I put myself in his shoes, I could have anticipated that but in fact, in terms of readiness, it’s actually, I believe so far improving our readiness for deployment, for making certain our procedures for mount-out are correct and we know how to get stuff on board aircraft for — for movement.

So far the — that cost has not been borne out, it’s actually helping us. (Emphasis and color added.)”

Lesson #5: Rules for the use of force are just too complicated – and too important – to be shorthanded in a 280 character (or less) tweet.

General Dempsey tried to give use-of-force guidance in his tweet. When he said the deployment “would be made much worse if [the troops] use force disproportional to the threat they face,” he appears to be conflating rules of engagement (ROE), which mainly apply overseas combat situations, with the law enforcement-like rules for the use of force (RUF) which apply domestically.

The application of the RUF is not just about the “disproportional” use of force; indeed, a use of force – even if proportional – may not necessarily be authorized by the RUF in a particular instance. The RUF says that when possible “the threatening force should be warned and given the opportunity to withdraw or cease threatening actions.”

Furthermore, the RUF says:

Normally, force is to be used only as a last resort, and the force used should be the minimum necessary. The use of force must be reasonable in intensity, duration and magnitude based on the totality of circumstances to counter the threat.

Finally, it says that “[d]eadly force is to be used only when all lesser means have failed or cannot reasonably be employed.” This reiteration of the “last resort” concept in the RUF is in contrast to combat-oriented ROE where deadly force might properly be the “first resort.”

Thus, even a proposed use of force that is not “disproportional” under the RUF must nevertheless normally be preceded by warnings.  Moreover, force that is technically “proportional” to the threat still might not be the “minimum” necessary, or be that which is “reasonable in intensity, duration and magnitude based on the totality of circumstances.”  To illustrate, countering a gunshot with a gunshot might be “proportional” in some sense, but still not necessarily the “minimum” needed – or the last resort – where (as just one example), non-lethal technologies are realistic alternatives.

It’s easy to imagine that abbreviated efforts to talk about the RUF – which are inevitable with Twitter – could create serious misunderstandings for both the troops and the public.

Lesson #6: With respect to commenting on highly-partisan issues, timing matters when retired officers speak out.

What is rather puzzling about General Dempsey’s tweet shortly before the election, is that he had previously been a stalwart of the view that retired officers – and especially senior ones – ought to stay out of partisan politics.

To be clear, I am not among those who believe retired officers should never be heard. Others seem to agree: a poll published in the October 2016 by Military Officer Magazine found that almost 80% of respondents thought it appropriate for retired senior officers to state their views on public policy issues. The same year Ohio State professor Chris Gelpi said his research “suggests that by recusing themselves from political discourse, American veterans would be withholding from our nation a distinct set of political values, beliefs, and attitudes that should remain a part of our national debate.”

Nevertheless, timing matters. Here’s the question: how problematic is it for a retired officer to launch criticism of a decision of a Republican President in the very shadow of the election, particularly for an officer who was elevated to the military’s highest post by a Democratic President?  Or does doing so invite questions about partisanship that perhaps could have been avoided had the tweet been delayed just a week?  As it was, the tweet was very widely circulated, so is it really surprising, as the Washington Times reported, that “critics interpreted his remarks as encouragement for voters to support Democrats” – even if that wasn’t the actual intent?

Although I think this particular tweet may be an outlier for General Dempsey, I nevertheless very much respect that he – or any other American – has the right to express his opinion on a partisan issue, even if I disagree (mainly as to when and how it is done). Twitter certainly has its place as communication platform, but it can fall short when it comes to relaying commentary about national security matters.

Nevertheless, we still need to hear from General Dempsey (and I’ve eagerly bought his new book, Radical Inclusion What the Post-9/11 World Should Have Taught Us About Leadership). Yet I still think there is much wisdom in reviewing what he said in 2016:

“Generals and admirals are generals and admirals for life. What they say carries the weight of their professional judgment and the credibility of their professional reputation.

More than an individual reputation, retired generals and admirals enjoy a collective reputation earned by having been part of a profession. It is therefore nearly impossible for them to speak exclusively for themselves when speaking publicly. If that were even possible, few would want to hear from them.”

I believe retired senior officers can continue to serve the nation by offering ideas and, yes, leveling stinging criticisms at the right time, so long as they are sensitive to the political dynamic (especially when elections are imminent) and avoid as best one can eroding the admiration and confidence that the American people have for those now in uniform. As the Washington Times reported in January:

Despite the dangers of the current dynamic, observers say, retired officers should be free to express their views and policy ideas in a way that is respectful of the commander in chief.“

Americans want and, really, need to be able to consider the views of those who served, along with others with expertise,” Mr. Dunlap said. “It should be the brightness of their ideas, not that of the stars they previously wore, that should carry the day.”

Still, as we like to say at Lawfire®, check the facts, assess the law and the arguments, and decide for yourself!



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