When senior retired military people endorse a presidential candidate - as some 85 of them, including five former service chiefs, reportedly plan to do for the George W. Bush campaign - it marks a major step toward politicizing the American military.
For nearly all its history, the officer corps shunned partisan politics in the belief that the confidence of the government and the trust of the American people required the armed forces to stand above the ugly struggle.
The change began in 1992, when retired Joint Chiefs chairman William Crowe and a handful of other retired flag officers endorsed Bill Clinton, defusing his draft dodging as an issue. Before that election, for over two centuries professional soldiers occasionally sought high office or in retirement assailed some policy almost always in areas where they could claim experience or expertise.
But few tried to use the public's esteem to push a candidate. The professional ethic, which carried over into retirement, was captured by Omar Bradley: "Thirty-two years in the peacetime Army had taught me to do my job, hold my tongue, and keep my name out of the papers."
This intervention in politics communicates exactly the opposite. Those in the know understand that four-stars never really "retire" but, like princes of the church, embody the core culture and collectively represent the military community as authoritatively as the active-duty leadership.
The message to serving officers, who, unlike generations past, now vote in overwhelming numbers, is clear: It's OK to think partisan. In fact, survey data released last year by our Triangle Institute for Security Studies revealed that officers have become more self-identified with political parties than either the elite or, in our poll, the general public, and are eight-to-one Republican.
Endorsement by a large group of distinguished soldiers sends broader messages to the American people and the political leadership. To the public, a politically conscious military appears to be just one more pressure group acting to advance its views and interests.
For politicians, partisanship undermines trust in the uniformed leadership and calls into question its loyalty and discretion.
The answer might be to vet all candidates for the top military jobs for pliability or equally bad party or political views, rather than for excellence, achievement, character and candor. The result could be weak military advice, declining effectiveness and accelerating politicization. When the Clinton White House, seeking a top appointee, called a senior flag officer on active duty twice to ask his party affiliation, he refused to answer, believing it none of their business. Better to have responded, "As an American general, I have no political affiliation."
Finally, the slide toward partisanship signifies a serious erosion of military professionalism. Since Vietnam, many officers have conflated the role of advice with advocacy, not just in private but publicly, and not only for service or professional needs but for policy outcomes to their liking. Partisanship suggests this generation may not be content merely to advise the government.
Officers are heard today complaining that this intervention or that "isn't worth it." When asked about the military's role in decision-making on American intervention, 50 percent or more of the officers believed their leaders should "insist" on setting the rules for engagement, ensuring clear goals, developing an exit strategy or deciding what kind of units to use. "Insist" implies "or else." Or else what?
It will be up to the next generation of civilian and military leadership to reassert military professionalism, if it wishes to preserve the special relationship of trust and confidence between the military establishment and the American people.
Kohn, a former chief of Air Force history for the U.S. Air Force, teaches military history and chairs the Curriculum in Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina.