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Generally speaking, military leaders should steer clear of politics

Many critics of the president want retired general John Kelly and other retired generals to go full metal jacket on Trump. That’s a big ask for those raised in a culture to think not just about themselves but their successors.

General George Casey says politics and the military can be a volatile mixture.
General George Casey says politics and the military can be a volatile mixture.-/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/file 2006

Last year, General George Casey Jr., the former Army chief of staff, gave a lecture at Boston College Law School about how essential it is to a functioning democracy to keep a clear line of demarcation between military command and civilian control.

Casey, who grew up in Allston and was the commanding general of multinational forces in Iraq, is the son of a general and teaches civil-military relations at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

That day at BC, he talked about the importance of civilian leaders concentrating on matters of national strategy while leaving the tactics to military leaders. He stressed the importance of military leaders steering clear of politics, while stressing their parallel duty to question policies they believe are mistaken and to “tell unpleasant truths” to civilian leaders.


And he also said something that wouldn’t go over well in my world, where transparency is the buzz word for everyone who gets paid by the taxpayer: Discussions about national security strategy should be robust, but they should take place in private.

General Casey’s words are ringing in my ears now as so many people clamor for another general with Boston roots, retired Marine General John Kelly, to become a vocal partisan.

Kelly, who grew up in Brighton, not far from General Casey, is under increasing pressure from President Trump’s critics to come forward to confirm and even elaborate on the contents of an article in The Atlantic that quotes the president calling American war dead “losers” and “suckers.”

But Kelly, like another Marine general who served under Trump, former defense secretary Jim Mattis, is reluctant to speak out.

It’s fair enough to debate whether these former military figures should feel free to publicly denounce a sitting president, given that they retired from the military before volunteering as members of the administration, Kelly first as homeland security secretary then White House chief of staff. There is no easy answer.


By resigning from Trump’s administration, and even by offering a few withering words about the president, Kelly and Mattis have made it abundantly clear what they think of Trump. Wanting them to become talking heads on cable news shows ignores the military culture that produced them.

As Casey’s academic work underscores, it is not the military’s job to save democracy, but the American people’s, at the ballot box.

When a retired general jumps into the political fray, choosing sides, it can undermine those military figures still engaged in public policy roles.

I checked in with Casey this week and he agreed that a lot of what’s going on right now underscores much of what he tries to teach future leaders. Politics and the military can be a volatile mixture.

“I don’t want to discourage veterans from running for political office,” he said, “just the senior folks that get used by political campaigns.”

The Atlantic story is based on anonymous sources, but some of the derogatory comments attributed to Trump have been corroborated by other news outlets — even Fox News — and are not so different from what he has said publicly in denigrating the service and sacrifice of the late senator and war hero John McCain or the lack of decorum he has shown for Gold Star families.


Trump has called President George H.W. Bush, who as a Navy pilot was rescued by a US submarine after being shot down by the Japanese during World War II, a loser.

Mattis and Kelly could go public and confirm or deny any number of disrespectful and tone-deaf things the president has said over the last four years and it wouldn’t change one mind in the coming election. Trump’s supporters have showed time and again that there is nothing he could do or say that would lessen their support for him.

Trump himself said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and wouldn’t lose one of his supporters. As the president who, by The Washington Post’s count, has uttered more than 20,000 lies or misleading statements, he told the truth on that.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.