What Can Military and Civilian Leaders Do to Prevent the Military’s Politicization?

Risa Brooks

When Capt. Brett Crozier’s memo detailing the spread of COVID-19 on the USS Roosevelt leaked to the press on March 31, it painted a picture starkly at odds with the Trump administration’s claim that it was firmly in control of the pandemic. Crozier described a dire situation and called for the Navy to get the sailors off the ship. Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly — a civilian political appointee — questioned Crozier’s judgment, accused him (inaccurately) of recklessly copying his email to “20 or 30” recipients, and relieved him of command before an investigation by the military was complete.

According to his own account, Modly was worried about President Donald Trump’s reaction if he didn’t act quickly. The president “wants him [Crozier] fired,” Modly reportedly told a colleague. The acting secretary also feared for his job. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, Modly’s predecessor, had “lost his job because the Navy Department got crossways with the president,” and he “didn’t want that to happen again.” Modly lost his job anyway — he was forced to resign after telling sailors assembled on the Roosevelt’s flight deck that Crozier was “too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this.” Crozier, however, might yet get his command back. Navy leaders have recommended he be reinstated as the Roosevelt’s captain, although the Pentagon appears divided on this.



Crozier’s letter and the fallout raise many important questions about leadership and accountability in the Navy, tradeoffs between operational readiness and protecting sailors’ health, and the appropriateness of military dissent. This situation also, however, raises an important question about civil-military relations: What should military and civilian leaders do when political leaders politicize the military — when they exploit its resources and popularity or, as Modly apparently did, intervene in its affairs to advance partisan interests?

Neither military officers, nor their civilian leaders, have good answers to that question. The ways they have responded are inadequate and poorly suited to the magnitude of the challenge today. It’s time to come up with some new ways of keeping the military out of domestic politics — and domestic politics out of the military.

Civilians Politicize the Military

Civilian politicization of the military is a common occurrence in civil-military relations around the world. Scholars and analysts have long observed how civilian leaders intervene in the military and rely on its influence to secure their positions in office. That this might happen in the United States is less surprising when seen in this broader context.

Indeed, civilian leaders in the United States sometimes involve the military in domestic politics, although usually on a lesser scale. Politicians seek photo-ops with military brass or vaunt their past military service in political campaigns. They at times seek to exploit the military’s influence in American society by calling on military leaders to publicly speak out or resign in protest against an opponent’s policies. Candidates from both parties since the late 1980s have also sought out retired officer endorsements to enhance their standing with voters.

There are nonetheless limits to how much and in what manner civilian leaders in the United States usually treat the military as a partisan ally or prioritize their political self-interests in decisions about its affairs. They mostly respect the military’s nonpartisan ethic — an ethic supported by the constitution, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and Defense Department regulation, and sustained by informal norms and beliefs inculcated throughout an officer’s career.

This is why Modly’s actions are so exceptional. That an acting Navy secretary might intervene in the military’s affairs to safeguard the president’s popularity, or to protect his own position, is remarkable by contemporary standards. Similarly striking are the many ways in which Trump has upended civil-military conventions. Trump has made overtly partisan comments to military audiences and asked troops to lobby on behalf of his policy priorities. He has also intervened in military justice to pardon or restore the rank of military personnel accused of war crimes and then invited the men to attend campaign events. The president has also warned his opponents that the military might “get tough” on them, signaling to Americans that the military is his political ally.

Some might be tempted to dismiss the problem of civilian politicization as particular to Trump’s presidency, but it could be an enduring problem in the United States. Politicians have enormous incentives to exploit the military’s popularity and treat it as partisan ally. There is also growing evidence that some Americans do not mind if the military acts like their co-partisan. Add to this that some in the military are not especially wedded to the nonpartisan ethic, and the ingredients are present for politicians to increasingly and successfully politicize the military. All of this makes it more important that both military and civilian leaders figure out how to prevent that from happening.

Four Bad Options

So, how have military and civilian defense leaders dealt with the challenge of politicization so far? They have reacted in four ways, none of which is fully adequate to the challenge.

The first is to simply try and avoid the problem — keeping the military out of the spotlight to prevent it from becoming ensnared in partisan debates. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford seemed to have embraced this approach. They eliminated press briefings and public events, and generally sought to keep a low profile. While Defense Secretary Mark Esper has restored these briefings, he has also been careful to steer away from controversy. When asked about politically fraught issues, he has at times feigned ignorance, or cut off discussion while stating that the military is apolitical.

This approach comes at a cost. If Americans don’t know what the military is doing — especially in areas that demand careful debate — how can they engage with its activities overseas and hold it accountable for its policies and actions? Civil-military relations analysts often lament that Americans lack both interest and knowledge about military affairs. Sealing off the military from the public is not going to help that.

Equally importantly, the approach does not eliminate the politicization problem. Silence or avoidance can suggest complicity or agreement with politicians’ efforts to use the military as a political prop or employ its resources for partisan purposes. This was how some observers interpreted the Navy’s apparent compliance with White House requests to obscure the USS John McCain from view during Trump’s May 2019 Memorial Day visit to Yokosuka Naval Base. Another example occurred just days after Trump’s inauguration when he chose to sign a controversial “Muslim ban” in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes with military personnel assembled and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis standing behind him. Americans could easily have concluded that the military backed Trump’s policies on immigration — one of his signature campaign issues in 2016.

A second approach is to do what civilians ask and follow orders on the grounds that it’s not the military’s business to pay attention to partisan politics. No question, the military is supposed to obey the civilian leadership, and officers from early in their careers are taught to stay in their lane and out of domestic politics. But this approach doesn’t work well in a climate where some civilian leaders are not respecting the military’s nonpartisan stance. It leaves the military vulnerable to being used by politicians who seek to take advantage of this unquestioning obedience.

Third, the military can formally comply with civilian demands, but subvert them bureaucratically. Philip Carter has used the term respectful disobedience to describe this sort of push-back; Peter Feaver calls it shirking. Some observers, for example, detected this dynamic in civilian and military leaders’ reticence to hold Trump’s military parade in 2018. This solution might seem like a necessary expedient to prevent politicization, but it is also flawed. Having executive departments undermine political leaders’ initiatives is not a healthy way to run a government. It enables a broader shift whereby military leaders might act autonomously on policy or national security matters. The approach also suffers from the same drawbacks as silent obedience, doing nothing to address public perceptions that the military is acquiescing in its politicization.

The fourth option is to go public and raise the alarm if a political leader intervenes in the military in inappropriate ways, or if Pentagon decisions are being driven by partisan considerations. Retired officers might write editorials or otherwise speak out on behalf of their active-duty counterparts when they fear the military is being politicized. Prominent former military leaders have done precisely this when publicly criticizing Modly’s actions in the USS Roosevelt affair. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen put it, Modly “has become a vehicle for the president. He basically has completely undermined, throughout the T.R. situation, the uniformed leadership of the Navy and the military leadership in general.” One can debate whether dissent by retired officers is consistent with sound civil-military practices. Regardless, it can be counterproductive to solving the politicization problem. In today’s highly polarized politics, criticism of a politician’s decisions by military leaders (retired or not) is likely to be fodder for partisan debate. Rather than keeping the military out of politics, it might drag it in.

What Should Be Done?

These inadequate options point to the need for new approaches, the responsibility for which must fall equally on military and civilian shoulders. The military cannot resist its politicization alone when so much of the challenge is rooted in civilian actions. Neither can the military remain ignorant of the ways its own actions feed into its politicization. There are three ways forward.

First, the military needs to do more to resist civilian leaders’ efforts to involve it in partisan politics. Beyond just intimating disagreement, this might require military leaders to voice unequivocal opposition in private consultations if politicians push them to act contrary to the military’s nonpartisan ethic. Military leaders may need to act decisively to avoid being props in partisan settings. This includes declining to stand passively behind a political leader when he or she is making vitriolic statements about political opponents, or speaking about inflammatory domestic political issues. In March 2019 Australia’s Defense Chief Gen. Angus Campbell showed how this might be done when he “pulled off a precision extraction of the military’s top brass” in a press conference led by Defense Minister Christopher Pyne. Gen. Campbell politely asked the minister if he might remove military leaders when the topic turned to domestic politics. Pyne agreed and the officers withdrew from the briefing.

At other times, keeping the military from being drawn into partisan debate might involve reiterating core organizational values and distancing the military from efforts to portray it as endorsing a particular viewpoint. This, no doubt, requires considerable care to avoid the kind of counterproductive outcomes of retired officer criticism. Positive examples include the service chiefs’ condemnation of the Charlottesville white nationalist rally in August 2017, or the Coast Guard commandant’s criticism of the partial government shutdown in January 2019 on the grounds that the lack of pay was harming service members. Publicly affirming organizational values before controversy strikes is also a way of girding against future affronts to those principles.

In addition, military leaders can stay true to their organizational routines and rules regardless of the domestic political fall-out. In the Crozier case, this means the top military leadership should make a final decision about whether to restore the captain’s command based on the facts of the case in light of the Navy’s recommendation, and not based on how the decision might play out in partisan politics. If the civilian leadership orders contradictory outcomes, military leaders might signal compliance, but not endorsement. Although tricky, military leaders might publicly state that they are following those orders, without also embellishing their comments to suggest agreement with measures that compromise the military’s nonpartisan ethos or contravene its organizational processes. Importantly — and essential for the measures to work as intended — these practices need to be applied across the board, whatever the partisan leanings of the politician in question.

Second, politicians and civilian defense leaders need to do their part to defend the nonpartisan ethic and repair fraying civil-military norms. Defense leaders past and present must abide by these norms and urge their colleagues to follow suit. Members of Congress can model good behavior by reminding Americans that the military is a nonpartisan actor, and by not treating it that way themselves. When appropriate they can include in their speeches or interviews references to the military’s nonpartisan stance and affirm its purpose and importance. They should also admonish those who violate the norms, especially when they are undertaken by members of their own party. In the event a politician does compromise the military’s nonpartisan ethic, civilian defense and political leaders should speak-out and not the leave the military to navigate the situation on its own.

It might also be appropriate for Congress and civilian defense officials to consider changing laws or Defense Department regulations to make it harder for politicians to use military resources or uniformed personnel in particular partisan settings or contexts, such as during political campaigns. Other measures might involve further limiting how non-active service members, such as those in the reserves and National Guard, can use photographs in uniform and their ranks and titles in campaign advertisements.

Finally, there is a role for the general public — both in its education and its own approach to the military. Scholars and analysts can help Americans understand the country’s civil-military relations through their research and writing. In their reporting on civil-military controversies, journalists can remind readers of the military’s nonpartisan tradition. Military leaders can also help in that effort. Former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen and Gen. Martin Dempsey in particular worked hard to educate the public about the importance of the military maintaining a nonpartisan ethic. American citizens need to understand that involving the military in domestic politics is bad for the country, even when a politician they support is behind the effort.



Risa Brooks is Alice Chalmers Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University and a non-resident senior associate in the International Security Program at CSIS. Her most recent scholarly article on civil-military relations, “Paradoxes of Professionalism: Rethinking Civil-Military Relations in the United States,” appears in the spring 2020 issue of the journal International Security.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Sgt. Dana Clarke)