I recently had a discussion about the role of military officers in policy matters. I admit that despite being a former Marine officer I'm a bit of a has-been (or never-was) on this topic but here is a summary of my thoughts anyway...
It seems to me that most people weigh in on this as a matter of convenience. Too bad. Demonstrates an unfortunate ignorance about the separation between the civilian authority and the military that is a necessary part of the American form of democracy.
When people oppose uniformed officers in the policy limelight, some may say "nobody was so indignant during Vietnam when Westmoreland was around." You know who was indignant when officers in the '60s publicly supported candidates, the war in Vietnam, etc? Lots of people....and rightly so. And the people that oppose it now are right as well - doesn't matter that the officers are opposing the war instead of supporting it.
This whole constitutional democracy thing doesn't work out very well if the rules get to change on a case-by-case basis and to our individual advantage. You can have freedom of speech...only if you say what I like. The military should be subordinate to the civilian authority...unless they are supporting my policies over my political opponent and then they should be media darlings. Now, what kind of mess does that get us?
Once a person hangs up the uniform and puts on a suit, they rightfully regain the same rights as the rest of us to say pretty much as we please - even if foolish or ill-informed. Until then, it is best for the Republic if they should stay out of the foreign policy business.
Trainor and Zinni are both civilians now. They can say whatever they like. I happen to think lots of both but even if I didn't they still should be able to say pretty much whatever they think. I think Oliver North is a bit of a nut but he can have his radio show and join the rest of the media circus if he likes.
Not the same with the active duty officers. I know better than some but not as well as others, that it is a raw deal when troops on the ground get put in a bad spot by their civilian masters. But the country gets into a worse spot with the military as even more of a fourth arm of the government than it is already.
People with a profound commitment to public debate on policy should stay out of the military and follow some other path in life. People in the military who oppose the policies of the civilian authority should get out at the first opportunity. Otherwise, advise the civilian authority as best you can on matters of facts and tactics, do the best you can to ensure the welfare of your unit, but stay off the op-ed page of the Washington Post.
My final, and biggest, objection to uniformed officers as agents of policy (any more than is the necessity of modern military assignments like "nation building") is a bit more pragmatic than political theory about the impacts on the balance of political authority in America in that it interferes with the mission and the primary objectives of military leadership. I was taught at Quantico that the objectives of military leadership are "accomplish the mission" and "welfare of the troops" - there is no 3rd objective.
So, when a battalion commander makes a stink in front of a CNN camera because he doesn't have enough body armor or bullets - the only appropriate response is emphatic support for that leader and their unit. If that is awkward for the political administration - tough.
But it is a bit frightening to imagine that commander's comments if their aspirations are more than tactical - an officer making the Sunday morning talk show rounds, going on the speaking circuit, visiting with elected members on their campaign trails, etc. has gone down the path that seduces them with political ambition away from their military duties. This, and the danger it poses to both the mission and the troops, is grave offense to all of us.