- You have no idea how the average American lives
Pop quiz: without asking your spouse (or aide), what’s the price of milk at your local grocery store? Do you know the answer, or did you make an educated guess based off the last time you were in the Commissary fifteen years ago? You might harrumph and ask why something like that matters, which is exactly the point. If you’re a 4-star, you’re pulling $15,000 a month. If you’re a combatant commander or a service chief, you’re pulling $21,000 a month. The average American family makes $51,000 a year. Oh, and you get a free house on post? And you’re fully covered for health and dental? And your office has a travel budget? How nice that must be.
The United States military is the last great bastion of socialism in American. You’re protected from the kind of economic shocks that have devastated your civilian peers in the past decade. Chances are that you’ve never in your life had to worry about making your rent or mortgage payments, or considered opting out of insurance coverage, or had to skip meals to make ends meet. You’ve clearly never been fired or had your firm down-sized, or had your job outsourced to a foreign contractor. Your kids probably never had any trouble getting a decent primary education. When you retire, your pension will be more than most people in this country make in a year.
Since 9/11 Americans have paid more attention to defense and foreign policy, and rightly so. But most voters still choose based on social and economic issues. You’ve been cut off from mainstream American society for your entire career, so what makes you feel in any way qualified to speak for people who live a life you’ve never experienced?
- You’ll damage civil-military relations
Americans have a profound respect for our armed forces precisely because they are divorced from politics. Injecting partisanship into the relationship between American people and the American military will only make both sides distrust one another. Politicians feel comfortable interacting with the top brass because they know that no matter what you may think of them, at the end of the day you will salute and follow orders. If they begin to suspect that you’re only biding your time until you can pin a flag on your lapel and try to crucify them in the polls, chances are that they aren’t going to take your advice and expertise at face value.
Likewise, the military is the most trusted public institution in America today, having recovered from its abysmal reputation at the end of Vietnam. Yet the leaders of the military don’t reflect current American demographics. Because it takes 30+ years to grow a senior leader, the military today is a better reflection of what Reagan’s America looked like than the one we live in today. Generals are, in the aggregate, more white, more male, more conservative, and a hell of a lot richer than the rest of our country. When you retire and bloviate on Fox News or MSNBC about politics, you only draw attention to this fact. The last thing you want to do to the institution you’ve spent your lifetime serving is to have the people you’ve defended start to second-guess you.
Enjoy retirement. There are plenty of think-tanks that need a token retired general, plenty of hedge funds that need security managers, and plenty of state schools looking to book graduate speakers with some degree of name recognition. Don’t embarrass yourself by playing a game that you are going to lose. Because you will lose, badly. We as a military and a country will also be the worse off for it. Long ago we had this idea of the selfless servant, the quiet professional. Maybe it’s high time that we decided to be a little quieter and a lot more professional.