Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our third annual student writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.
Now, we are pleased to present an essay selected for honorable mention by Thomas Krasnican from the University of Chicago.
March 18, 2026
There is so much I’ve wanted to tell you since your mother called to say you’d received your acceptance letter to the West Point Class of 2030. You’ll never know how proud your grandmother and I are of you for this great accomplishment. We often laugh about how you would march around our living room with your toy sword and my old cadet parade hat! You’ve always been our little soldier man.
Jimmy, I’m writing this letter because there are some things on my mind. I know I’m supposed to cheer you on as you follow in my footsteps. I know I’m supposed to say that joining the Long Gray Line as a member of the class of 2030 will be the great honor of your life, and that you’ll forever be able to hold your head a little higher than your fellow citizens and say, “I did my part.” But I can't. I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, during Vietnam. I still remember when U.S. Army soldiers were targets of public shame and suspicion. I was part of the generation of service members who came afterwards, who worked hard to restore the military’s reputation.
And, to my shame, I’m a member of the generation that used that hard-won respect as a cheap token, throwing it away in one political campaign after the next. Time and time again, retired, high-ranking officers, my peers, have gone before the public, draped in the dignity of our old offices, cloaked in the honor earned not only by our own service, but by the terrible sacrifices of the thousands of young men and women who served under us. We cashed in on their sacrifices to underwrite our partisan political impulses. As a result, I’ve watched the strong bipartisan public support for the military break down, and begin to wax and wane with the political tides of the moment. So, as you consider whether to go to West Point, I need to warn you: the days of military shame may be returning—and this time, we have only ourselves to blame.
I had a wonderful Army career. As you know, I graduated from West Point with the great Class of 1977 and commissioned as an infantry officer. We had transitioned to an all-volunteer force, which means we’d gotten rid of the draft. The military was just starting to regain society’s trust, but my friends and I weren’t thinking about that. I knew my mom and dad were proud of me, along with everyone back home.
I’ve already bored you to death with most of my war stories, but I’ll recap the highlights for dramatic effect—I led an infantry battalion into Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, and the Army sent me to complete my doctorate at Princeton and teach international relations at West Point. Then I got to serve a couple of tours in D.C., working with members of Congress and even the President a few times. Throughout my career, I had the opportunity to lead some of the bravest men and women I’ll ever meet. We felt we were making a difference and part of something bigger than ourselves.
In the fall of 2001, I took command at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. It was the best job I ever had. I’d been considering retirement afterwards, moving on to do something else while I still had some energy left. But 9/11 changed all that. That morning, I stood in the mess hall at Sam Houston with my soldiers, and we all knew we were going back to war. My brigade got one of the first deployments to Afghanistan, and then later I was part of the second wave in Iraq. Those were messy years. Sometimes we struggled to make sense of what we were doing, but we pushed through. I picked up one star, then two, and finally retired in 2010 so I could spend more time with you and your sisters. After some time off, I took a job at a national security think tank in D.C., the Center of National Strategic Studies, researching defense policy.
Even though it’s ancient history to you, you’ll remember that people felt pretty strongly about the presidential election of 2016. I did too, but what most troubled me wasn’t the candidates. What I’ll always remember from that election is how surprised I was to see my fellow retired flag officers, General John Allen and Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, make endorsements and give partisan speeches at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.[1,2] Their actions troubled me deeply. As a retired general myself, I understood that I should not weigh in on politics, even though it is actually perfectly legal as a private citizen. I always believed that unless I myself actually ran for office, getting political would hurt the military’s non-partisan reputation. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Two former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey and Admiral Mike Mullen, spoke out as well, saying that these endorsements were dangerous and corrosive.[3,4]
Around this time, it seemed the military started becoming more and more politicized. When I say “politicized,” I mean a couple different things. On one hand, elected officials started using the military as a way to help legitimize their partisan political goals. Some scholars argued this is what President Trump did when he deployed active-duty troops to the southern border right before the 2018 elections and signed his immigration ban in the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon. On the other hand, retirees began getting more political, using the credibility they’d earned through their years of non-partisan military service to advance partisan views. Even though I criticized Allen and Flynn, my own hands weren’t always clean. Once, I signed a letter going around protesting the administration’s cuts to State Department funding. I went on TV a few times as a military commentator to discuss political topics, and the producers would display my name with “Major General” in front of it. Looking back, I believe I made some mistakes. But after a long career where thousands of people depended on me every day, it felt good to have my opinion sought out once in a while.
During the 2020 election, you were twelve, so I’m not sure how much you remember. President Trump and the Democratic nominee, Senator Bernie Sanders, each gathered hundreds of endorsements from retired generals and admirals. Several retired officers spoke at the conventions that summer, and a retired Navy one-star admiral recorded a TV ad for the President in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. I still remember the script: “Millions have paid the ultimate price, protecting the values our flag represents. But now Bernie Sanders, an East Coast liberal backed by Colin Kaepernick, Nancy Pelosi, and Hollywood wants to dishonor their sacrifice by turning our great America into a socialist nation. This election day, don’t take a knee. Stand with our President.” My West Point friends and I were pretty offended by the ad, to say the least. We’d stood with grieving families and buried young soldiers in that plot of land. But outside military circles, no one discussed it much. That button-pushing kind of rhetoric had become so normal, similar ads had already been used in some of the 2018 congressional elections, and people were distracted by so many other controversial things. When the President won re-election, he appointed a few of the generals who endorsed him to prestigious positions. The one-star admiral from the Arlington ad ended up in charge of the Department of Homeland Security. For the next few years, the trends we were studying at the Center continued to worsen.
Then, the 2024 election took place. I won’t summarize the whole election here, because you remember it just as well as I do. But there’s one story I want to you to hear from my perspective.
I guess it started early in the campaign at a televised town hall with the eventual Democratic nominee, then-Senator Aida Garcia-Lopez from New York. She was talking about her proposal for dealing with climate change, and Anderson Cooper asked how she intended to pay for her plans. Garcia-Lopez gave a lengthy answer, but the part everyone remembers is when she said, “...and if we have to cut the wasteful $10 trillion military budget in half to do it, then that’s what we’ll do!” The crowd cheered. This raised eyebrows within the military, and caused some ridicule too, because everyone knows the military budget is nowhere near $10 trillion. The senator clarified later that it was a “morality” issue and not a “facts” issue.
Another candidate, Congressman Rick Caldwell from California, was in New Hampshire a few months later speaking about his federal gun control legislation, which involved confiscating all semi-automatic rifles. Someone asked him if he would consider using the military to help enforce the plan, and Caldwell said, “Yes, absolutely. We would probably send in the Marines, like Eisenhower when he desegregated the schools, because this is the civil rights issue of our time.” There was lots of panic in military circles about this proposal, but the general public didn’t really get it. Caldwell ended up as the Vice Presidential nominee.
Apparently one of the people most disturbed by these remarks was Hank Frederick, who at the time was an active-duty three-star Marine Corps general serving as the Deputy Commandant for Plans, Policies, and Operations. I met him overseas a few times, and he had quite the reputation even while I was still in. During my career, a lot of people called me a hero just because they knew I was in the Army. This guy, Frederick, was a real-life hero. He was commissioned in 1988 and was a captain during the Persian Gulf War. His company saw some of the most intense action, and he ended up earning the Navy Cross for valor. For the rest of his time in the Marine Corps, Frederick had a loyal following. He was a young brigade commander in the initial invasion of Iraq, and then spent a couple of tours working in headquarters. Friends told me he was a really thoughtful leader; he read a lot of books, studied philosophy, that kind of stuff. He would sleep out in the field among the corporals and privates, and stand holiday duty in place of some of his junior officers. Everyone who served with him adored him.
Anyway, the summer of 2024 rolled around, and I heard active-duty Lt. Gen. Frederick, United States Marine Corps, was planning to publicly endorse the Republican nominee, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. I couldn’t believe it. This was obviously a premeditated, blatant violation of several different general orders and regulations, which you’ll learn about if you do wind up at West Point. When you’re active duty, your political activity is strictly regulated—you can’t do anything giving the appearance that the military is endorsing a partisan viewpoint.
I got in touch with a friend who knew Hank, and got his phone number. I’ve never told anyone this story, but I actually called Hank at home. Told him, “Hello General, it’s me. We met a few times at Al Asad after the invasion in 2003. I heard you’re thinking about doing some crazy stuff.” And Hank told me, ”That’s right, sir, I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’ve decided it’s my duty to speak out. The Democrats’ rhetoric has crossed a line,” he said, and he needs to be able to look himself in the mirror.
I stayed on the phone, trying to talk him out of it. I told him how outrageous it was, how his career was over. But he said he had to attend to some urgent business and hung up the phone.
So that July, Lt. Gen. Frederick gave his speech at the Republican National Convention in uniform, and recorded a Pompeo for President TV ad, also in uniform. My former colleagues and I were absolutely dumbfounded. Nothing like this had ever happened before. It was totally unthinkable. My face is heating up as I type this, thinking about how helpless and angry I felt when your grandmother and I watched that surreal speech on TV.
All the military websites lit up with editorials condemning Frederick’s “inappropriate,” “unprecedented” and “dangerous” actions. A few op-eds even made it into the Washington Post and New York Times. Tom Nichols wrote in The Atlantic that “since the Civil War, our republic has never seen a more precarious state of affairs.” But unlike the Civil War, most citizens in the republic didn’t really notice anything wrong. “What’s the big deal—haven’t generals and admirals been giving political endorsements for years?” I heard one CNN pundit ask during a daytime panel discussion a few days later.
The morning after his convention speech, Frederick went on Good Morning America, again in uniform, to share his thoughts with George Stephanopoulos. He said he did not intend to stay involved in politics, and “coming off the bench was a one-time thing.” He said there was a high probability of a major “civil-military crisis” if Senator Garcia-Lopez and Congressman Caldwell were elected because of the damage her budget proposal would do to military readiness and the likelihood Marines would be ordered to carry out unconstitutional orders. He wrapped it up by saying that “no one has the right to sit on the sidelines and critique” his actions unless they’ve also served in combat. It occurred to me that his reasoning was essentially identical to what retired General Allen said after he endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
As expected, the Department of Defense opened an investigation into Frederick’s motives, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps urged him to retire immediately. When Frederick resisted, the Commandant fired him without waiting for the results of the investigation. This was the right thing to do. But then Fox & Friends did a segment about how “unhinged liberals in the Pentagon had ended a war hero’s career just for speaking his conscience,” and a group called Defend Our Defenders started raising money for Frederick’s legal fees. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a Marine veteran named Senator Dan Hoolihan, issued a statement: “While I do not condone General Frederick’s problematic endorsement, the Democrats’ unpatriotic anti-military rhetoric is what should really be investigated. We have full confidence that the Department of Defense will handle this internal matter appropriately.” Outgoing President Trump tweeted his support, saying “How do you fire and then prosecute a highly respected/successful Marine General when all he did was give a Great Speech? Crazy!” Amid the media frenzy, the Pentagon dropped the investigation.
I followed these events like the world was ending. But when I discussed the incident with some people at church, no one else seemed too bothered. Our friend Bill (the deacon you met, he always asks about you), said to me, “The thing is, you might not have known this, but generals and admirals have always been involved in politics. What about Ulysses S. Grant, Colin Powell, and Mike Flynn?” To my surprise, I did not slap Bill, but then I had to explain the difference between active-duty and retired. After a while he got it, but I wondered how many others out there couldn’t see the distinction.
As for the 2024 election, it turns out Lt. Gen. Frederick’s endorsement didn’t have the intended effect, because as you know Senator Garcia-Lopez won. Democrats took the House and Senate too. Then the night before the new President’s inauguration, 482 mid-level officers signed a joint letter circulated by one of Lt. Gen. Frederick’s former aides. Explaining that they “cannot in good conscience serve under President Garcia-Lopez because of her past comments,” and because they were “concerned for the future of the military,” they decided to resign their commissions. Hundreds more officers called their detailers to let them know they planned to get out when their current contracts were finished, and I heard from an old Pentagon colleague that reenlistment rates went down last year by almost 30%. All five branches of the military missed their recruiting quotas last year, even though the President lowered them upon taking office.
I also hear from civilian friends in government that the President’s political advisers have become very involved in the selection process for generals and admirals. When I was nominated for each one of my stars back in the 2000s, the Armed Services committee staffs checked out my service record to ensure there was nothing scandalous, and I was confirmed by the Senate by a voice vote on a slate with a few dozen other flag officers. Last year, the new CENTCOM and SOUTHCOM commanders were confirmed in party-line votes after being grilled in confirmation hearings about their beliefs on everything from gay marriage to healthcare policy. I suppose the President and her team don’t want a repeat of the Frederick affair.
Finally, I just read the results of the latest Gallup poll on “Confidence in Institutions.” For most of my career, around 70-80% of Americans had a “great deal” or “quite a lot of confidence” in the military. Starting in 2019, that number steadily started dropping, and last year it fell almost 30%. Now, only 23% of Americans say they trust the military, which is lower than the Supreme Court and only barely higher than Congress. Many of the more conservative respondents said they were angry about how the military had been “taken over by liberals,” and the more liberal respondents generally expressed frustration with the military’s ineffectiveness at carrying out President Garcia-Lopez’s climate change policies.
All of this is to say that I’m afraid that the Army you’re planning to enter will be very different than the one I served for 33 years. My service made me who I am today, and I know yours will shape you. You’ll make incredible friends, learn teamwork and leadership skills, and see the world. At the same time, I worry you may not find your service as rewarding as I found mine. Because of the norms that have been shattered, you may sometimes find yourself serving the interests of one party instead of the whole country. Because of the problems we’re having with recruitment and retention, the active-duty force is undermanned, more poorly trained, and noticeably less professional than it was when I served. Those weaknesses scare me to death, especially in light of strategic tensions with China and Iran. I never thought I would say this about the American armed forces, but I don’t know how much longer we can count on having “the greatest military on earth.” You must keep that between the two of us.
Maybe I’ve said too much—I don’t mean to scare you. I’m sorry. Maybe, hopefully, you can make a difference if you go to West Point. I know some soldiers would be fortunate to have you as a platoon leader someday, Jimmy. I felt I had to share my concerns with you as you make your choice. I’m proud of you no matter what.
Best of luck,
Thomas Krasnican is an ensign in the U.S. Navy and a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Thomas graduated from the Naval Academy in 2018, and is also the director of “Thank You For Your Service,” a podcast on American civil-military relations. After completion of graduate studies, he will train as a nuclear submarine officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Navy, or the Department of Defense.
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Header Image: Tommy Gilligan (USMA)
 Democratic National Convention (2016). General John Allen at DNC 2016 [YouTube] Retrieved April 22, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gC_9lULJnCg
 Republican National Convention (2016). Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn [YouTube] Retrieved April 22, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otmZBNC9giw
 Martin Dempsey, “Military leaders do not belong at political conventions,” The Washington Post, July 30, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/military-leaders-do-not-belong-at-political-conventions/2016/07/30/
 U.S. Naval Institute (2017). Morning Keynote Address: ADM Michael G. Mullen, USN (Ret.) [YouTube] Retrieved April 24, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GDwGKEfwh0
 Kori Schake, interview with the author and Nicholas Paraiso, Thank You For Your Service: A Hard Look at Civil-Military Affairs, podcast audio, November 9, 2018, https://www.spreaker.com/user/ucppp/dr-kori-schake
 NRCC IE (2018). MN-01: “Knee” [YouTube] Retrieved April 22, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3NwFtPy-P4
 Department of Defense, Directive Number 1344.10. February 19, 2008. Accessed April 22, 2019 at https://www.esd.whs.mil/Portals/54/Documents/DD/issuances/dodd/134410p.pdf
 John Allen, interview with George Stephanopoulos, Good Morning America, TV transcript, July 31, 2016, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/week-transcript-donald-trump-vice-president-joe-biden/story?id=41020870
 Gallup, Inc. Confidence in Institutions (2018). Accessed April 24, 2019 at https://news.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx