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Past service is no free pass for present bad behavior
A group of retired generals and admirals calling themselves "Flag Officers 4 America" signed an open letter clearly seeking to leverage the gravitas of their service as former flag officers of the United States military to add weight to their status as political commentators.
■ Their letter is full of conspiratorial thinking, sloppy writing, and squishy logic. It deserves to be read as the cranky wingnuttery that it is, and little more. In no way should it be granted special immunity from criticism because its writers once wore high-ranking uniforms. Paula Thornhill -- herself a retired Air Force brigadier general -- did a good job of breaking down why the open letter is more embarrassing than alarming. In her words, "We can appreciate what retired flag officers did on active duty, but until we know what they've done since their retirement, we should not privilege their perspectives."
■ The public owes no indefinite deference to the judgment of people who once wore stars on their uniforms, nor for that matter to those who once wore any uniform at all. Stratocracy is a choice, but it's not one that America has made (nor should we make). The military obtains its legitimacy from the authority granted by the people through the states, the Congress, and the Constitution. It does not work the other way around.
■ The perspectives of veterans matter, just as do the perspectives of countless other groups who share some form of common experience or mutual identity. Their interests are even addressed directly by an entire Cabinet department. But their perspectives do not matter in a way that excuses faulty logic or corner-cutting arguments.
■ Should we defer to retired computer programmers about technology policy? To retired surgeons on health-care policy? To retired teachers on educational immigration policy? No -- not outside their field of knowledge, and not unless they can demonstrate that their thinking has kept pace with developments related to their expertise. Officers who retired from military service decades ago should similarly be viewed with deep skepticism when they attempt to weigh in by arguing to the authority of their former ranks.
■ Claims like "We must counter this on all fronts beginning with removing Section 230 protection from big tech" don't extend in any way from special insight they might have gained while in uniform, and the retired officer's uniform itself shouldn't be used as a cloak for what is a claim without substance. In fact, the use of retired titles as a political bludgeon is exactly the kind of behavior that undermines public trust in the active duty military.
■ More than anything, the open letter suggests that we are too slow to find ways in which to keep people like our retired flag officers productively engaged in constructing a productive future. Cincinnatus may have been satisfied to return to his plow, but with most people likely to live for at least one decade (but often a few) after retirement, it would be wise for us as a society to find productive outlets for the energies of our most senior retired officers -- lest they grow restless and turn their minds over to the consumption of conspiratorial media. Only the 5-star generals never retire.
■ You can like or respect what a person did in the past and choose to disrespect their conduct later -- or vice-versa. Expect people to grow. Hold them accountable when they don't. Don't cut slack for people cruising on past glories. People can hold terrible ideas with the best of intentions, and people who do great things can go on to make terrible choices later (see, for instance, the atrocious choices of latter-day Charles Lindbergh).
■ Once one comes to realize that human nature itself changes very little over the centuries, one is liberated to see that each individual is a perpetual work in progress. Deep down, we today are very much like the people about whom we read in Shakespeare, the Bible, or even ancient Sumerian literature. We tend to seek pleasant things in life, fear death, and long for a sense of meaning and belonging. Our mistakes call for atonement and redemption. And no good deed any one of us performed in the past is a free pass forever.