Officers refuse to say, of course. But retired officials needn’t hold back.
When President Obama tore into Donald Trump on Tuesday, many Washington hands noted that he did so with Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, standing next to him. That’s because the session had begun as a briefing on Islamic State, but Obama veered into condemnation of Trump’s statements on immigration and terrorism in the wake of the Orlando shooting. That was a mistake; no president should make a political speech standing beside a top military officer, who seemingly lends support to the commander-in-chief’s remarks. The scene raised a larger issue, illuminated by an excellent article on the website of our sister magazine Time: What does the military think of Trump? And for that matter, of Hillary Clinton?
Officers refuse to say, of course. A spokesman for Dunford said only that he “remains apolitical.” But retired officers needn’t hold back. “Mr. Trump is a potential disaster as commander-in-chief—uninformed, volatile, poor judgment,” retired four-star Army general Barry McCaffrey told Time. “Hard to believe this is the candidate of a major political party.” Retired Air Force chief of staff Merrill McPeak said, “Trump is unexpectedly increasing my enthusiasm for Hillary. What he is saying is not based on facts: it’s based on immaturity, bad judgment, and ignorance, and I think it’s going to be hard for people in uniform who are thoughtful about this to vote for him.”
As McPeak implies, many in the military are no fans of Clinton either, because they’re no fans of Obama, and they doubt she’d bring significant change. “There’s a lot of unhappiness about the plight of the military, the funding and the way wars are being prosecuted,” retired Marine general Anthony Zinni told Time.
Polling shows consistently that the U.S. military is the country’s most trusted and respected institution. Asking what it thinks of the candidates is a useful exercise, even if those currently serving won’t say. So I looked into a book I’ve often found helpful on the subject of leadership called Leading Marines, published by the Marines and publicly available. A passage worth pondering:
“We share the core values of honor, courage, and commitment…. It takes time for Marines to internalize these values and it is a leader’s responsibility to live them, demonstrate them, and instill them…. Another element that defines Marines is selflessness: a spirit that subordinates self-interest to that of the Country, Corps, and fellow Marines.”
Leading Marines quotes a letter from Major General John A. Lejeune, commandant from 1920 to 1929; the book notes that all the male nouns and pronouns from that era should be read as referring to men and women in the modern Marines:
“You should never forget the power of example. The young men serving as enlisted men take their cue from you. If you conduct yourselves at all times as officers and gentlemen should conduct themselves, the moral tone of the whole Corps will be raised, its reputation, which is most precious to all of us, will be enhanced, and the esteem and affection in which the Corps is held by the American people will be increased. . . .Let each one of us resolve to show in himself a good example of virtue, honor, patriotism, and subordination and to do all in his power, not only to maintain, but to increase the prestige, the efficiency, and the esprit of the grand old Corps to which we belong.”
Those quotations capture qualities that many of us would love to see in the country’s next leader. How today’s candidates measure up, I leave to you.