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For top military officials, silence is the order of the day

John Kelly, a retired general, served as President Trump's chief of staff from July 2017 through 2018. He has not criticized the president publicly.
John Kelly, a retired general, served as President Trump's chief of staff from July 2017 through 2018. He has not criticized the president publicly.Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/The Washington Post

When President Trump reportedly belittled American war dead as “losers” and “suckers,” they said nothing. When he alleged that the Pentagon seeks perpetual war to benefit US defense contractors, they did not confront him.

Rarely in American history has the president been more critical of his military leadership, yet the nation’s active-duty commanders have refused to challenge him publicly, even as many Americans clamor for them to do so. Instead, they have remained silent, adhering to an unwritten code to keep their policy and political opinions to themselves.

“Speaking out is a personal decision, and I prefer to keep my damn mouth shut. That came from the guys I grew up under,” said Peter Aylward, a retired Army major general and Melrose native who served 35 years in the military.

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“When you take the uniform off, you don’t want to put the folks coming up behind you in jeopardy at all, and make the civilian leadership feel those officers are being politicized,” Aylward said. “I wouldn’t comment publicly on what’s going on right now.”

That mindset was echoed recently by former Marine general Joseph Dunford, who retired in September as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he served as the president’s top military adviser.

Dunford, who was raised in South Boston and Quincy, said in an interview with the Globe that he intends to “behave in public the same way I did while on active duty. ... I feel I should not engage in any partisan politics.”

But these are unusual times, and although active-duty and most former generals are unwilling to circumvent the code, a few of their retired counterparts are breaking ranks and speaking out.

Perhaps the most remarkable example came in June from former Marine general James Mattis, who resigned as defense secretary in 2018 after clashing with Trump over a major withdrawal of US troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

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Writing in The Atlantic after authorities forcibly dispersed protesters in Washington, Mattis said that "never did I dream that troops ... would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo-op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”

Although Mattis, whom Trump has called “the world’s most overrated general,” spoke out forcibly, former Marine general John Kelly, who served as the president’s chief of staff from July 2017 through 2018, has not criticized the president publicly.

That silence is all the more pronounced considering a recent report by The Atlantic on Trump and Kelly’s visit in 2017 to the grave of the general’s son, a Marine lieutenant killed in Afghanistan in 2010. According to an anonymous source, Trump asked the former four-star general, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”

Former Army brigadier general Jack Hammond, executive director of a Boston-based program to help veterans heal from the “invisible wounds” of war, said those comments are “despicable” if reported accurately.

Hammond said that some of Trump’s past comments on military figures — including Mattis, other generals, and the late Senator John McCain — resemble what The Atlantic reported. “It certainly gives it credibility,” he said of the article.

During the last presidential campaign, Trump denigrated McCain, a Navy pilot held prisoner and tortured during the Vietnam War, for being captured.

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Despite their personal feelings, military officers are taught not to criticize civilian leadership, Hammond stressed.

“The trust we have from the American people is to be an apolitical organization," said Hammond, who leads the Home Base program. “For the country to work, it’s a delicate balance. To effectively serve the president, he or she has to have confidence in the military that they will follow his orders.”

“It has to be fairly egregious" for any high-ranking officer to speak out, he said, “because there’s no coming back. It has to be significant to the point that you understand you will no longer function for this boss.”

Although military critiques of the president have been muted, a recent poll by Military Times found that half of active-duty service members view Trump unfavorably, compared with 38 percent who have a favorable view.

Last week, the parents of a Bedford man killed in Iraq called on Kelly to end his silence in the wake of Trump’s reported comments about military “losers” and “suckers.”

Gold Star parents Alma, left, and Brian Hart embraced after Alma addressed President Trump's comments on the military at a press conference on Sept. 10.
Gold Star parents Alma, left, and Brian Hart embraced after Alma addressed President Trump's comments on the military at a press conference on Sept. 10.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“General Kelly, an honorable man, believes it is inappropriate for a retired general to speak out against a sitting president in the midst of an election. We need him to tell us what he knows about this matter as a former White House chief of staff, an entirely political position,” said Alma Hart, the mother of Army Private John Hart, who died in an ambush in 2003.

“He knows who knows the facts,” Hart said of Kelly. “We need to understand President Trump’s true character before this election. If Trump doesn’t respect our military personnel and our wounded veterans, how can we trust him with the health and welfare of ordinary citizens?”

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Trump strongly denied The Atlantic report, calling it “a disgraceful situation” by a “terrible magazine.”

“I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes,” Trump told reporters. “There is nobody that respects them more."

Representative Seth Moulton, a Salem Democrat who served four tours in Iraq as a Marine officer, said that hearing publicly from one or more of The Atlantic’s anonymous sources “would be helpful.”

“This is a highly dangerous moment in our country,” Moulton said. "These are not normal circumstances.”

Moulton joined the Harts, as well as Joseph and Laurie Desiato, the parents of slain Marine Lance Corporal Travis Desiato, another Iraq casualty from Bedford, at a news conference denouncing Trump’s reported comments.

The Desiatos said The Atlantic’s sources have the right to remain unidentified.

“I think there are reasons, and I think there were honorable reasons," Joseph Desiato said of remaining anonymous. "It’s not up to us to question their honor.”

Meanwhile, Moulton said he hears regularly from junior military officers “having discussions about what it means to disobey an unlawful order, because they might have to do it under this president.”

“I’ve only been in office five years," Moulton added. "But I’ve never received more messages sent to me by junior members of our military and intelligence community who are fearful for the safety of our country because of what’s going on in the White House and this administration.”

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Alma Hart, the Gold Star mother, urged military leaders to join the national conversation about who is fit to be president.

“Election by an informed public is all that protects us from tyranny when the other checks and balances fail," Hart said. “They’ve got to step up."


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.