Donald Trump’s fondness for all-things-gold has been exhaustively depicted. But since his election, his fondness for brass, namely top military brass, has attracted considerable attention as well, not to mention concern. The president-elect has surrounded himself with four-star generals and other high-ranking retired military officers, some of whom he has tapped for top spots. They include retired Marine General John F. Kelly, selected to run the Department of Homeland Security; retired Army Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, the choice for National Security Adviser; and retired Marine General James Mattis, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense.
In one assessment of Trump’s predilection for generals, the Washington Post noted that retired generals are not considered by many Americans to be part of the “swamp” that candidate Trump repeatedly insisted he wanted to drain. That is likely because they (and Trump) are not aware of how neck-deep in the muck the generals truly are. Trump should take a look at the evolving culture of retired generals, which has created its own rarefied swamp of conflicts. Of those three generals mentioned above, only General Kelly is apparently unencumbered by conflicts. (He retired only last year.)
When Trump attended a military academy back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, high-ranking officers actually retired to the greener pastures of, say, a golf course. Now, most leave service when they are still relatively young. (After all, the 60-year-old of today is not the 60-year-old of Trump’s formative years.) Some want to make top dollar after years of government pay; others want to stay “relevant.” All this has ushered in a cultural shift. Reflecting on his own experience, Senator Jack Reed, a West Point graduate, remarked in 2010 to the Boston Globe, “When I was an officer in the 1970s, most general officers went off to some sunny place and retired. . . . Now the definition of success . . . is to move on and become successful in the business world.”
So what do the retired generals do? Now, many of them, if not a majority, take jobs with defense contractors or set up their own one-man consulting firms (sometimes in a partnership with other retired peers). The 2010 Globe report found that from “2004 through 2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives.” Ten years earlier, that figure was less than 50 percent. In fact, over several decades, these retired senior officers went mostly from actual retirement—that is, they stopped working when they retired from military service—to mostly continued “service.”
I was able to analyze these patterns up close thanks to generous access from the Boston Globe to its database, which my Mapping Shadow Influence Project has doubled in size. Using the Globe’s data and ours, the Mapping Influence project (literally) connects the dots between hundreds of retired generals and the defense contracting firms with which they have financial ties. One can see, in multidimensional detail, how connected these peers grow over time, not just to their clients, but also to each other. That is why scrutiny in Trump’s hiring decisions, at the top on down, is paramount.
At the same time that these retired senior officers own or consult with defense companies, some also serve on government advisory boards despite the fact that their business clients could potentially benefit from the information and access these boards afford. Some of these officers additionally appear regularly in the media to buff their brand, with rarely any disclosure of who currently pays them. Some affiliate with think tanks or universities to add gravitas and even, at times, to help launder their images. The savviest of them do all of these things.
Given the ethos of honor within the military, these players may genuinely believe they can police their own conflicts and seemed shocked even to be asked hard questions about them. Perhaps even more disturbing is that the public tends to trust them. For several decades, polls have shown robust confidence in the military, one of only a few institutions in American civic life that can boast that. This means less pressure on the Trump administration to subject the generals to the kind of scrutiny given to, say, the former Goldman Sachs banker who has been picked for Treasury Secretary.
Such lack of scrutiny would be a mistake. Even though only two of the three generals I named at the outset have thorny conflicts in their post-retirement careers, all of them will have to staff large and vitally important departments. All will surely be tempted to lean on their peer group for expertise, and the conflicts among their peers are vast and intertwined, as seen clearly in our Mapping Influence project.
This is a distinctly American story about power and influence, but as a social anthropologist who trained in eastern Europe during the years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, I learned there that are other potent ways to convey a problem that go beyond data analysis. It was often satire that spoke truth to power in ways that a far-less-than-free press could not. In that spirit, I offer my bit of pomp and parody as we enter into several days’ worth of inaugural grandeur and protest. Call it my own battle hymn of the retired generals.