Some old warriors don’t deserve a spot in Valhalla.
As America gathers itself after the painful process of post-presidential accountability, the American military must also reckon with the post-service misdeeds of retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn. When it does, it will find Flynn a cancer that must be cut out and separated, known as a “general” no more.
This isn’t about politics but about America’s military profession. This isn’t about party but about country.
How has Flynn dishonored the military profession and America? Let’s count the ways.
Flynn broke our trust by lying to law enforcement and the nation’s leadership, and then promulgated other lies that harmed the country. Flynn broke our unity by dividing the American people and forces from within. Flynn broke our faith by serving a foreign government without reporting their payments. Flynn broke our principles by inciting insurrection against the democracy he’s sworn to defend. Flynn broke our oath by swearing allegiance to a group of conspiracy theorists. Flynn’s pushed down every pillar in the temple of trust the military’s worked so hard to build, like some kind of malevolent Samson.
Flynn shields himself with the apathy of others, while he leverages his former generalship as a megaphone to attack our country. Flynn once led America’s armies against insurgencies. He now leads his own insurgency against America.
Retired military officers hold commissions and receive pay and benefits from the government. In 2019, the Supreme Court upheld the Defense Department’s authority to prosecute retired service members under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The military must prosecute Flynn under UCMJ for “conduct unbecoming an officer.” He has broken from everything the military profession holds dear.
It’s far from clear whether the pardon granted to Flynn by the previous administration protects him against the entirety of his military misconduct. If there’s even one possible legal line of prosecution, the military justice system must hold Flynn accountable for his transgressions.
The US Army swiftly forced out a second lieutenant not three years ago for “conduct unbecoming an officer” over several pro-communist social media posts. That was a kid who served for a few years. Flynn’s spent the bulk of his life in the US military. He should know better than to raise an army of “digital soldiers,” undermine American elections, and call for martial law without a shred of justification.
If UCMJ fails, or gets bogged down due to political considerations—there’s another, older way to deal with Flynn. One that doesn’t rely on law or politics, but the ethics of the military profession itself.
In the military, there’s always been an informal way to censure those who turn rabid. Vikings banished those who broke their laws by branding them “sko’garmáor” (“man of the forest”). Americans, even from our earliest days, practiced something similar. When Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold sold out America to the enemy, the military withdrew Arnold’s honorifics as a sign of disfavor. They scratched his name off plaques and memorials, which can still be seen on a visit to West Point. As the museum curator there put it, Arnold “dishonored his own name, so they removed it.” Flynn fits in the same category. He cannot be a “general” anymore.
Formal or informal, the military must hold Flynn accountable for its own good.
Flynn “speaks” for the military profession. YouGov polling lists him #973 on their most-famous-in-America list (it’s noteworthy that he’s wearing his old military uniform in his YouGov picture). That’s higher than Alex Rodriguez (#976 on a recent search), Madeline Albright (#979), and the recently deceased actor Christopher Plummer (#977). The closest living retired general, David Petraeus, is far back from Flynn at #1709.
In 2019, a poll found that only 31 percent of Americans could correctly identify James Mattis’s status as a retired general. In 2020, YouGov found 77 percent of those surveyed had heard of Michael Flynn. These are crude measures—an apple to a kumquat, to be sure—but they point to one ugly fact. Flynn’s malicious megaphone is loud and has “US MILITARY” written all over it.
It’s not only harm today, but threat tomorrow, that should worry the military profession.
Flynn himself would know that military planners think about threats in two ways—most likely and most dangerous. Flynn’s most likely threat is that he continues to rage and hawk t-shirts to ever-smaller audiences until it’s just him and his kid in their own private echo chamber. In that case, ignoring him might actually work. The most dangerous possibility is that his most loyal and senseless followers graduate from “digital soldier” status to actual insurgents and terrorists. He may yet raise a real army to fight his old one.
This is the nightmare scenario, the one far too many Americans already worry about. While the US military still enjoys the trust of the American people, they’re now asking whether military personnel had an outsize role in the recent attack on the US Capitol. The insurrectionists included veterans of all services, even some active duty in attendance to lend moral support, which forced the FBI to double-check the loyalties of the National Guard troops sent to protect the Inauguration.
Even Flynn’s peers keep telling him to knock it off. Retired general Tony Thomas most recently intervened to remind Flynn that his actions are “undercutting the extraordinary trust and confidence America has in their military. Stop!”
An old bit of military wisdom is that if you see something wrong and walk on by without correcting it, then you’ve created a new standard. If America’s military walks past this behavior, then this is now the acceptable standard. What comes next?
“All professions police their own ranks,” the scholar Peter Feaver pointed out at Duke University’s annual Law, Ethics, and National Security Conference this past weekend. Feaver then scrambled to add, at least, “healthy professions do.”
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*Afterthought: (Karl Ove Knausgaard, Paris Review): “History always lies, it turns what was inconsistent, all over the place, perhaps even meaningless, into something consistent, systematic, and meaningful.”
*Editor’s Note: While this might normally be a “Sidebar” subject, it leads directly into next week’s larger discussion on the value of strategic amputation. Hope you come back for the second round!
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All the very best & see you next week, Matt