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08-21-04, 07:16 AM
Trumpeting military officers' support

By Joseph L. Galloway
August 19, 2004

In the good old days of the 20th century, generals and admirals for the most part steered clear of politics and politicians and political parties. Many of them as a matter of principle wouldn't even vote in the elections of the country they defended.

Until Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to seek the presidency, no one even knew whether he was a Republican or a Democrat.

Some say that they date the change in flag officer attitudes toward politics to Eisenhower's reorganization and cutback in the Army in the late 1950s. Two respected generals, Matthew Ridgeway and James Gavin, resigned in protest and spoke out against the Pentomic Army, another flawed experiment with the institution.

A cluster of five Civil War officers won the presidency after their war – Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur and Benjamin Harrison. Three others – George McClellan, Winfield Scott and Winfield Scott Hancock – won nominations but lost their elections.

Only one general, Eisenhower, won the office in the 20th century. Two others, Leonard Wood and Douglas MacArthur, widely advertised their availability, but no one came calling. Many believed Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and his boss in the Gulf War, Gen. Colin Powell, would seek the office. Neither did, and some say that the country might have been better off if even one of them had.

Standing up, saying your piece and running for office is the right of all Americans, including retired generals and admirals. And we can only wish that more who wear stars would resign in protest when their civilian political masters get things wrong, and go public with their arguments against the kind of folly that costs soldiers their lives.

What is unseemly and undignified is the way both political parties are trotting out their four-star supporters in this election season. The Democrats put a dozen generals and admirals on the podium at their convention, backing Sen. John Kerry. The Republicans say they will bring out a hundred retired flag officers to back the re-election of President Bush.

Shame on the parties for using the retired officers in this fashion; shame on the retired officers for letting themselves be so used.

There is a worry that this unseemly display sends a message to those still wearing the uniform on active duty that it is all right to be political, to declare for a party and a candidate, when it is not. That the polarization and division of the country may infect the institution that defends it.

Participating in such a political spectacle further diminishes what respect the public still has for its retired generals and admirals – what respect survives after watching many of them walk out of the Pentagon and straight onto the boards of defense industries. The worst of them, the Beltway Bandits, pimp their friends still on active duty for this or that weapons system or aircraft or aircraft carrier.

For the sake of the country and the sake of their profession, the retired generals and admirals ought to steer clear of endorsing parties and candidates. Speak out on defense issues? You bet. Vote in November? Sure.

March and strut for the political hacks? No way.

Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young."