President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, stand for "Taps" during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in 2018.

President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, stand for "Taps" during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in 2018. Evan Vucci/AP

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The Slow-Boil Revolt: Retired Senior Military Officers Face a Dilemma

They're growing more concerned that the Trump administration doesn’t want their advice, and struggling with how much they can say publicly.

Here is the unenviable calculation retired senior military officials must make in this politically unprecedented moment: Say nothing as norms shatter around you, and you’re implicitly enabling a president who some of your former colleagues believe is threatening national security. Speak up, and you risk destroying the balance of power that protects American democracy.  

“For the U.S. military, being apolitical is a critical element of civilian control of the military—an absolute in a democracy,” the retired four-star general Joseph Dunford told us in his first extensive comments since leaving active duty. “The alternative is a military dictatorship.”

Dunford, who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until this fall, suggests a choice that is uncomplicated. But he did feel compelled to speak out last month, when he publicly defended Alexander Vindman, the White House Ukraine specialist and a witness in the impeachment inquiry, after attacks on Vindman’s character and loyalty in the right-wing media, later echoed by the president himself. He still maintains that he will not directly comment on politics—even as other retired senior military officers have taken the rare step of weighing in on policy matters, including in some cases calling for the president’s impeachment.