Maj. Smith Goes to Washington: In Defense of Citizen-Soldiers in Congress


The 115th U.S. Congress includes a small group who also serve in the National Guard or reserves. Lest you consider lauding these individuals as servants of two foundational institutions — our military and our democracy — a recent op-ed in The Washington Post by Maj. ML Cavanaugh strongly urges you to reconsider:

Allowing representatives of the legislative branch of government to act as officers in the coequal executive branch impedes their ability to make independent strategic judgments about war, violates the spirit of Defense Department guidelines and flouts the nonpartisan traditions of the military profession.

His argument was reasoned, articulate, and perhaps persuasive. It was also wrong.

I should tell you before I go on that I know Maj. Cavanaugh well. He’s a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, where I work. Indeed, he was one of the people whose ideas led to the creation of our organization. I’ve edited much of his writing and we’re even editing a forthcoming book together. I know few people who are more deeply committed to the profession of arms, or who more consistently put pen to paper entirely in good faith and without a political agenda.

That said, his op-ed puts forward a suboptimal solution to a misdiagnosed problem.

Perhaps the most compelling argument Maj. Cavanaugh makes, at least at first blush, is that members of Congress serving in the military’s reserve components might violate Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution: the so-called “Incompatibility Clause.” As he points out, the military’s highest court invoked the clause in a 2006 reversal of a lower military court’s ruling because Sen. Lindsey Graham had served as one of the lower court’s judges. The reality, however, is murkier. The reversal ruling explicitly said that the court was not determining whether Graham or any member of Congress could simultaneously serve as a military reservist, but rather turned on whether acting specifically as a military judge violated the Incompatibility Clause. That’s a big difference. Furthermore, the section immediately preceding Article I gives Congress — not the courts — the authority to determine the qualification of its members. And Congress, in Title 5 of the U.S. Code, has stipulated that a reservist “who is not on active duty or who is on active duty for training” does not by definition violate the Incompatibility Clause.

To be sure Maj. Cavanaugh acknowledges that reservists in Congress do not violate the letter of the law, but rather “the spirit of Defense Department guidelines.” Those guidelines, laid out in the department’s Directive 1344.10, specify proper and improper political activities for members of the military,

in keeping with the traditional concept that [military] members on active duty should not engage in partisan political activity, and that members not on active duty should avoid inferences that their political activities imply or appear to imply official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement.

That distinction is important. If you’re on active duty, you clearly have to wait to run for Congress. If you’re a reservist or guardsman, you’re free to run, as long as you don’t campaign as the military’s chosen candidate.

Maj. Cavanaugh is correct in concluding that the military acknowledges a vested interest in protecting against too much partisanship. But he is incorrect in arguing that reserve component service by a member of Congress crosses this line. There is a spectrum, and the military seeks to find the point at which limiting partisanship and encouraging servicemembers “to carry out the obligations of citizenship” is appropriately balanced. Neither the law nor Defense Department guidelines place reserve military service by members of Congress on the wrong side of this point. Maj. Cavanaugh places the point further toward one end of the spectrum. That is a legitimate opinion to hold, but it simply isn’t supported by Congress, Defense Department guidelines, or the courts.

Whether the problem to be solved is ensuring the separation of powers between branches of government or guaranteeing that partisan politics and military service are not mixed, disallowing members of Congress from also serving in the reserve component is a solution. But the better solution is also simpler and more appropriate: Expect and require these individuals to know when they are in each role and to act accordingly. In other words, expect and require our military professionals to be professionals.

I mentioned above that I have worked closely with Maj. Cavanaugh at the Modern War Institute and on a variety of other projects. In fact, a number of my colleagues are serving in uniform. In my capacity as the institute’s editorial director, we interact as peers. But I’m also an Army Reserve captain. And for those of higher rank, when I’m on orders, performing my duties as an officer, first names get dropped in favor of ranks and last names. Waves or head nods are substituted by salutes. This is normal and expected. It is the standard. It is why, because I write this in part from my perspective as a reservist and with that affiliation in my bio, I refer to him as Maj. Cavanaugh throughout. On our weekly conference call about our book, he’ll be “Matt.”

This is also not a rare scenario for reservists to find themselves in. I know an Army Reserve battalion operations officer (a major) who works as a police officer in his civilian job. His supervisor at the department is a company commander in his unit (a captain). Their relationships in these settings are reversed, and yet they are expected to work effectively and appropriately in each. They do so because it is what is expected of them as professionals.

“Let’s face it,” Maj. Cavanaugh writes, “no one is going to treat members of Congress like others in uniformed service.” Why not? Of course, this situation presents a unique dynamic. But we don’t — and shouldn’t — change the rules simply because the difficulties of upholding standards of professionalism seem too great. It might pose similar challenges to have a former NFL star or a Medal of Honor recipient in a unit’s formation. But Pat Tillman enlisted in the Army in 2002, and the Army and the Navy each have a serving member who was awarded the nation’s highest award for valor. We rightly expect those individuals, others in their units, and their commanders to uphold standards of professionalism and not allow their awards or accolades to degrade military order, discipline, or a unit’s mission effectiveness.

Arguing that a member of Congress, unlike a star athlete or a Medal of Honor recipient, would damage a reserve unit’s military professionalism echoes fraternization-based arguments against women serving in ground combat units — a position I know very well that Maj. Cavanaugh does not hold. In fact, were he in command of a unit where such concerns were voiced, I suspect he would tell his soldiers what I would: Be a professional and do your job. In either case, those concerns do not suggest that the trigger for unprofessional behavior should be removed, but rather that standards should be enforced. Period.

Finally, Maj. Cavanaugh questions the ability of members of Congress “to make independent strategic judgments about war” if they are also reservists. It’s “nearly impossible,” he argues, for them to “serve with fidelity to the Constitution” as Democratic or Republican members of Congress. Here again, this assumes an inevitable failure to uphold standards of professionalism — in this case, those unique to the citizen-soldiers of the reserve component. But if they do fail — if they publish an op-ed that cites their military position without a required disclaimer, or they don’t meet the required annual service requirements to qualify for a “good year”—relevant measures can and should be taken. As appropriate, missteps can leave them subject to censure by their peers in Congress or earn them a reprimand from their superiors in the military.

The rules that undergird the profession of arms are already in place. Removing the possibility of failure undermines these rules. Taken to its extreme, the logic of this argument even limits the extent to which the military in fact remains a profession at all, by delinking free choice from professionalism and military standards. Furthermore, codifying a wedge between our military and our democracy, instead of vigorously upholding standards of professionalism, risks exacerbating the civil-military gap that already exists in the United States.

The issue boils down entirely to one of upholding standards. That means it is incumbent on these individuals to know when they are acting in which capacity — which, in itself, is a fairly straightforward, albeit much more public, task that every citizen-soldier undertakes.

Reading Maj. Cavanaugh’s op-ed, a line from Band of Brothers kept popping into my head. It’s from a scene in which Doc Roe chides an officer for not knowing how much morphine he gave a wounded soldier. “You are officers, you are grownups — you oughtta know.”

We expect our military professionals—whether officers or enlisted, but especially as grownups and as professionals—to know how to uphold military standards. And that, not removing the very need to know how to do so, is the essence of the profession of arms.


John Amble is Editorial Director at the Modern War Institute at West Point and a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve. The views here do not represent those of the U.S. Army Reserve, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government. 

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