Why Do Retired (and Now Active Duty) Generals and Admirals Behave the Way They Do?

July 2, 2021 Updated: July 4, 2021


The spectacle of retired General Officers (GOs) and Admirals (Flag Officers – FOs) criticizing (far more often than not in one direction) political developments is becoming a regular staple of American discourse. The traditional line of separation between Service and politics while in uniform is fraying drastically.

Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni from the 1990s was perhaps one of the prototypical soft “political” GO/FOs. He seemed omni-present during the Clinton years and after retiring, became involved in a number of official/semi-official appointments, even for President George W. Bush, but there did always seem to be a party leaning on Zinni’s part.

This repeatable process of rolling out GO/FOs was refined by the Democrats during the mid-term election for President George W. Bush in 2004. In some ways it was characterized as the “Angry Generals” who were always angry. They were angry about President Bush, they were angry about Iraq, they said they were angry about being lied to (although many had fully been involved in the intelligence and planning for the Iraq Invasion), and so on.

This included retired Generals such as Major General Paul Eaton and General Wesley Clark, who are very politically active. Eaton has become a staple of CNN and is closely aligned with VoteVets.org and the Lincoln Project. (For full disclosure I also worked for him when I was in Iraq.)


Pressure to conform to the beliefs of the Peacetime GO/FO Club: At one time, GO/FOs were the keepers of all that was good and right in America. They were never perfect and always had human faults, but there was a clear Judeo-Christian heritage and value system. That is no longer true.

In many ways it was Admiral Mullen under President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates who breached the firewall by allowing any behavior to become normalized. This is not meant to judge any lifestyle in anyway—it is simply an observance of his actions. I have noticed a commensurate politicization of the Military Chaplain system. In some ways they have become the “Commissars” of American military units.

Mullen did not defend the military institution from politicization, he made it clear he would conform the military institution to the social engineering policies and attitudes of an Administration. From this point on, Admiral Mullen established a significant precedent for the uniformed military, service for a GO/FO was about conformance, not performance.

Part of this conformance was parroting common public talking points to align with one party and criticize the other in a coordinated fashion. And furthermore, the process of selection, inclusion, and retention into the GO/FO Club became ideological—not merit based. Although there has been Vietnam and the long war years of the War on Terror—we have not seen survival of the military and the country at stake since the Second World War. A seminal difference.

Peacetime GO/FOs are not the same as wartime/war winning GO/FOs. In World War II and even Korea, many GO/FOs were fired, relieved, replaced, or retired before we established our war-winning generals. The modern Peacetime GO/FO Club would not accept Gen. Patton from WWII or Gen. Grant from the Civil War into their midst. Peacetime GO/FOs are naturally very inclined toward big government, the deep state, and conformance to a common narrative. Why would they want to kill off the culture that created them?

When I attended Army War College and the new post Senior Service College of Joint Professional Military Education, the preparatory schools and pre-requisites for consideration for promotion into the GO/FO ranks—the indoctrination toward progressive thought patterns was very noticeable—and any different thinking was routinely called out and declared “closed-minded.”

At Army War College I was admonished and had a paper rejected because of my reference to the immoral nature of the one-child policy in China and forced abortion. I was directed to remove this reference.

Post-Service search for significance and continuation of their status: Many GO/FO’s spend their retired time searching for significance by extending their status into new and higher levels of service. Retired pay may be reasonable, but it’s not enough to support a continuation of what they had without significant supplemental income. Many set up “consulting” Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) that in some ways communicate underemployment and an availability for more gainful employment.

Pressure to be relevant: A number of GO/FOs who try to stay competitive, go overboard to make sure they are seen, heard, and receive attention. They know they have to compete with their peers and want to make sure they are noticed—kind of like when they were in the military.

The Holy Grail of Board Positions: Corporate board positions are the crown jewel of what many GO/FOs are looking for. Being seen and being relevant can help them attain these positions. And many of these corporate boards trend toward allegiance to big government and cancel culture.

The Double Crown of Think Tank Seats: This is an equivalent crown jewel to a board position. A seat at the Atlantic Council or the Center for Strategic and International Studies or even Harvard’s Belfer Center along with a prestigious board position is considered the Mt. Olympus of post military service. One great concern through, these think tanks have become significantly aligned with foreign money.

Political Appointments: Another way to continue service and visibility are Presidential appointments. The GO/FOs are often preening for these appointments. Often they mean a cut in pay—but great visibility.

Declining Brand Image: The GO/FOs realize their vaunted reputations fade fast. This pushes them to extremes of behavior. One legendary General that I worked for has a consulting group, but books sales can only support the family business so much so other creative arrangements must be made to maintain visibility and create revenue streams.

Top Secret Clearances: One of the unspoken perks desired and sought after are the retention of clearances. Clearance slots are expensive and complicated—but can be charged back through overhead charges to the Government.

Over the Guardrail

General Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ran right up to the guardrail and possibly leaned over the guard rail with his comments on June 23, 2021 in front of a House Committee on Armed Services.

After months of rightly steering clear of election matters, about which the U.S. Military has no role, General Milley expressed great concern over White Rage, “I want to understand white rage. And I’m white.”

By merely using the talking point of Black Lives Matters and Antifa, Milley took sides on a domestic matter. This was a crossing of the Rubicon in the role of the Military in civil society in America. I don’t believe there’s any such precedent for the senior military to break from focusing on foreign threats such as China, Russia, or Iran and looking back over their shoulder into a volatile and opinionated subject area in the domestic arena.

Is this faux intellectualism? Patton was an avid reader of historical readings, often of the opposition.

But Patton showed results by winning wars. What is Milley’s track record in winning wars and building deterrence capacity? I don’t believe he’s won a war and the Pentagon is wobbly on building deterrence capacity and has instead focused on a McCarthy like witch hunt for the boogeyman of White Extremists, which likely do exist, but in extremely small numbers.

The leader of this effort is Bishop Garrison, a veteran himself, but with a public track record of hyper overuse of the racism charge and advocacy of critical race theory ideology. He is leading the effort to revise Department of Defense Instruction 1325.06, the key guidance to Department of Defense (DOD) on internal dissent and political activism by DOD personnel. I’ve been through several similar, senior level reviews. His ability to steer the outcome toward his personal ideology is of great concern.

Another case study on the impact of critical race theory zealotry in DOD culture is reflected in a War on the Rocks article by an Active-Duty Colonel. Any modicum of Twitter analysis reflects her focus on painting any alternative viewpoint to President Biden’s agenda as white extremism.

She is the product of the evolving culture of the Department of Defense and General Milley is ultimately responsible for this disturbing distraction from the core mission of DOD. These are not good indicators of the direction of the DOD

General Milley’s comments give great pause for reflection. Yes, there are issues with justice and injustice in American society, however the core mission of the military is to defend America and deter aggressors such as China, Russian, and Iran.

Delving into domestic and societal issues is questionable at best and is a significant inhibitor to generating deterrent capability to ensure the possibility of large-scale conflict between America and aggressive totalitarian states is minimized. There are other leaders and processes to take care of real and perceived injustices in our incredible republic.

Retired Col. John Mills is a national security professional with service in five eras: Cold War, Peace Dividend, War on Terror, World in Chaos, and now, Great Power Competition. He is the former director of cybersecurity policy, strategy, and international affairs at the Department of Defense. On Gab: @ColonelRETJohn. On Telegram: Daily Missive

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

John Mills
John Mills
Col. (Ret.) John Mills is a national security professional with service in five eras: Cold War, Peace Dividend, War on Terror, World in Chaos, and now—Great Power Competition. He is the former director of cybersecurity policy, strategy, and international affairs at the Department of Defense.