Image courtesy of the Wall Street Journal. Image courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.

Pull Pin, Throw Grenade, Run Away: A provocative thought to kick off the weekend…

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

Should retired generals and admirals be allowed to “cash in” and keep their commissions?  I realize this is thin ice, but as a commissioned officer and member of the Profession of Arms, I think there’s something to talk about here.

Last week I picked up an errant copy of the the Wall Street Journal, and as I turned past the “Mansions” section (typically “flyover” territory for me in a newspaper) – I came across a story about the sale of General (Retired) Alexander Haig’s home in Palm Beach, Florida – for $8.75 million. [Note: he passed away in 2010]  That interested me, so I did some more digging, and found that his estate has another home up for sale for $5.5 million in McLean, Virginia (12,000 square feet).  Though Haig did write a couple of books, it appears that the majority of his post-retirement wealth came from service on corporate boards: Commodore International, Newsmax Media, and America Online.

This reminds me of the flap a few years ago over hundreds of retired generals and admirals being (highly) paid as “senior mentors” for various parts of the military establishment.  One example cited was General (Retired) Anthony Zinni’s corporate board work for Dyncorp which compensated him nearly a million dollars in 2008, while at the same time he was providing paid advice to a military command.  To provide context, General Zinni’s military retirement pay was about $129,000 in that same year.  Interestingly, the issue dried up overnight when a basic set of rules and monetary caps were put in place. Not to be cynical here, but it’s hard to miss the fact that this mentorship program essentially ceased when the pay was reduced and made transparent: not exactly selfless service for these generals and admirals.

I’m uncomfortable with the notion that senior members of the Profession of Arms, who have been granted access and privilege in order to perform service to the American public while on active duty, are then able to monetize this access in retirement to significant personal benefit.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making money, but when the money becomes a windfall and particularly when they continue to publicly represent the military profession – that’s where I have a problem.

I’d suggest a simple test for all retired officers (i.e. lieutenant colonels as well as lieutenant generals):

  • If post-retirement private sector work involves national security (i.e. defense contractor, public commentator), broadly construed…
  • And when income from that work exceeds double the amount of military retirement pay, then…
  • The individual should relinquish their commission, as private financial interests have clearly impaired their (mostly dormant) obligation to act on behalf of the nation’s interest.
  • Instead of “General (Retired)” or “General (Ret.)” as a honorific, such an individual might be listed as “General (Former)” or “General (Fmr.).”  This would enable the individual to maintain their title, while at the same time publicly announcing that the official commission is no longer held.
  • Note: this would have no impact on military retirement pay or financial benefits – only the commission as a symbol of the military profession.

We don’t allow active duty officers to profit from their access and privileges – to simultaneously represent private and public interests – why shouldn’t the self-policing Profession of Arms set some reasonable boundaries for retired members?