Will the Military Become Just Another Politicized Institution?

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“What do your colleagues think of the president?” It’s a question I hear a lot, not only from civilian friends in the United States, but on a regular basis over the last two years from allied officers at the German General Staff College. The truthful answer is that I don’t really know — politics has never been a watercooler topic in the U.S. military, to the point where I couldn’t tell which candidate any of my commanders voted for. The people I’ve worked with throughout my career focus on the profession of arms. When we do discuss politics, it is usually about the competing interests in Baghdad, or the dynamics of the Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan. Although every Army company has a voting assistance officer who keeps soldiers informed of upcoming elections and registration deadlines, our business is not domestic politics. As others have commented, this dynamic continues to hold true, even if imperfectly. Senior leaders made it clear that they foresee no role for the military in resolving any electoral dispute, reinforcing the apolitical nature of the U.S. military.

Jim Mattis and Kori Schake edited a 2016 book that obliquely addresses the characteristic removal of the military from partisan political issues, focused as it was on the relationship of Americans to the military instead of internal military dynamics. Their contributors used survey data from YouGov to demonstrate that the American bond to its military is in many ways paradoxical: Although most Americans have a low familiarity with their uniformed compatriots, they hold them in high esteem. Only the 4.8 percent of survey respondents who identified themselves as “very liberal” evinced much skepticism of the military as an institution, while all other political persuasions expressed a relatively high regard for it. Eighty-one percent of the general public is confident in the wartime performance of the American military. This position seems especially enviable given the low confidence Americans report in every other large national institution.



Despite this, I am concerned that the military is likely to suffer from the partisan discord dividing America. The relationship between civilian decision-makers and military professionals is one that other commentators address with more expertise. But in addition to more stress from the top down as political actors seek to use the military’s legitimacy for their own ends, the military’s deliberate eschewal of politics could begin to weaken. As individuals inside the institution become more politicized, the resulting stress may lead to a reduction in cohesion and effectiveness. If viewed by Americans as just one more partisan institution, the military would lose the trust of those (including those serving in uniform) who do not identify with the party they perceive the military supports. This would have profound implications for civil-military relations.

To forestall the possibility of increased partisanship in the armed forces, military leaders should make clear that there are limits to acceptable political disagreement in the military. A bright line, which should not unduly limit the rights of servicemembers, would be to say that the right to express political disagreement in the military always excludes the threat of extrajudicial violence against the state itself or fellow citizens. While this may seem obvious, recent polls show an acceptance of exactly such violence gaining ground in the United States. Disturbingly, the threat of violence is often justified as necessary to defend the Constitution, as when armed protesters closed the Michigan legislature. For members of the military to support such ideas is especially dangerous, since they are armed representatives of the state. Military regulations against supporting violent political ideologies are often unevenly enforced, as evidenced by concerns over white supremacists in the military ranks. The Uniform Code of Military Justice does not criminalize even violent political ideologies, but research demonstrates their importance to a radicalization process that can lead to violent action. To mitigate this risk, the military should take more forceful steps to define its relationship to the Constitution and society, leaving no room for capricious interpretations. Senior leaders will have to develop this guidance, but to be successful the policy will need junior leaders to understand, buy in to, and implement it.

The armed forces define their relationship to American society as one of service under the precepts outlined in the Constitution and U.S. law. But as students of American government like Walter Russell Mead describe, the precepts themselves have always been — and remain — a source of struggle between competing ideologies within the body politic. The acrimonious divide in U.S. society about what exactly the Constitution means shows how allowing too much leeway for personal interpretations can create a slippery slope. Until now, the military’s strong internal culture has overcome the challenge of toxic constitutional interpretations, but the risks of failing to meet this threat require more direct action. Therefore, senior officers should work with their enlisted advisers to provide clarity that smaller groups can execute.

Slippery Slopes

Recent events have made me question if the military’s deliberate distance from politics is still as strong as I thought. This summer, two renowned Army officers from the early days of the counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan published an open letter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs advising him of his “duty” to remove the president from office in the event of a disputed election result. Although their dangerous proposition was roundly condemned (including and especially by critics of the president), it speaks volumes that some of our deepest thinkers can spend decades in uniform and still advocate such a dangerous precedent. The right-wing extremists — two of whom served in the Marine Corps — plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan advocated similar fealty to the Constitution as a justification for extralegal action, with equally destructive outcomes. Instances like these give me cause for worry.

A friend who left active duty years ago continues to serve in his state’s National Guard. During the Black Lives Matter protests, his Guard unit became the object of competing claims between state and federal authorities, where the federal intent for employing the National Guard was much more aggressive than the state governor’s. That isn’t a surprise to anyone who read the news. What is surprising is how the internal divisions in his battalion were equally, if not more, concerning to him. Many of his soldiers are college students who joined to help pay for their education. Their sympathies were strongly in favor of the protesters. Another significant segment are police officers, who stood firmly on the other side of the debate. In fact, the relationship between American police and the military is a strong one: 19 percent of police officers are veterans. During the protests, his two biggest fears were a use of lethal force against a civilian, and the discord within his own ranks between liberal and conservative guardsmen. The Kent State massacre of 1970 is a potent reminder of what can go wrong when armed soldiers are put on the streets, but in any case, making the military play an overtly political role on home soil immerses servicemembers directly in domestic politics.

Culture and Education

The military’s culture of service, focused as it is on safeguarding the Constitution and American liberty, is often parroted by armed groups like the supporters of Cliven Bundy. For me the key difference is that soldiers feel a responsibility for the country as a whole, not just our preferred tribe. Sadly, the past year has left many military professionals I work with shaking their heads at the nation’s descent into vitriol instead of coherent public health measures. The feeling that the country is failing to rise to the challenge is deeply dispiriting. Watching the ever-coarsening public debate is why I’ve come to believe educating the joint force is imperative to preserve its effectiveness. The military’s subordination to civilian leadership originates in Articles I and II of the Constitution, which give the executive and legislative branches oversight and control. As Gen. Mark Milley recently reiterated, in the U.S. military “we are sworn to obey the lawful orders of our civilian leadership.” During the Black Lives Matter protests, numerous service chiefs highlighted the oath that military personnel swear to defend the Constitution rather than any specific individual. However, the Constitution is a written as well as a living document, and it can lend its imprimatur to many actions or interpretations. For example, the far-right “Three Percenter” militias, which active-duty servicemembers tend to mock for looking like overweight paintball enthusiasts with AR-15s, believe they’re upholding the Constitution when they claim to defend Americans from government tyranny. The nation’s courts, legislatures, and public squares are often the scene for serious disputes over the Constitution’s meaning. Without effective civic education, our society leaves itself open to continued pernicious interpretations of the republic’s founding fundamentals, interpretations that can extend toward sanctioning violence.

Providing Clarity

Therefore, the military should update its doctrine to provide a foundation for educating servicemembers on a more comprehensive understanding of what an oath to the Constitution means. A good starting point is Army Doctrine Publication 1, which states, “We maintain the trust of the American people who rely on the Armed Forces to protect and defend the Constitution and to guarantee their freedom, security, and interests.” Going forward, the references to the Constitution should also make clear that the threat of violence against the state itself or fellow citizens is not permissible. It would in fact threaten both freedom and security. For members of the military to join or support groups that place themselves against the state is not in keeping with the charge to defend the Constitution.

This suggestion would not change how the military responds to civilian leadership. The law of armed conflict remains binding, and orders from superiors are presumed to be lawful if they have a valid military purpose and are a clear, specific, narrowly drawn mandate. Of course, there is no single interpretation of a symbol like the Constitution, nor would imposing one be feasible or advisable. But the military should draw explicit left and right limits on what is in bounds and what lies beyond the pale. The need is not for a political statement, but a civic one.

Senior officers would be decisive in influencing this broadened awareness. They play critical roles in the military, both in directing operations throughout the world and in making the strategic decisions that shape the services for future conflict. But besides the occasional town hall, they have limited interaction with the rank and file. Therefore, the onus for implementing the change lies with the junior commissioned and noncommissioned officers who spend their working days in the units of action that make the military work.

Holding the Line

A disputed understanding of what America should be as a country is not the military’s problem to solve. The armed forces are not a lodestar shining the way for society writ large, despite their consistently high approval rating. They are a reflection of that society. Without action, the cracks in our body politic will eventually spread to the military.

The tensions described here are not unique to American society. Civil affairs soldiers focus on the human domain of an operating environment, as opposed to the physical terrain or enemy-based focus familiar to conventional combat units. The ability to understand indigenous populations and institutions, and the threads weaving them into a pattern of conflict, is critical in the messy wars the United States finds itself in today. The competition between various groups helps explain why developing and maintaining an effective military in a socially or politically divided country is no easy task, and why these same actors attempt to control the armed forces to gain a distinct advantage. Most of America’s successes building a capable partner force in the recent past — Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, Afghanistan’s commandos, and the Syrian Democratic Forces — are qualified and limited. A strong, cohesive military is possible if the country’s political and social institutions are weak, but countries like Pakistan then suffer from the military defending its parochial interests.

Then-Defense Secretary Mattis’ exhortation to “hold the line” may be necessary and judicious for the near term, but the military cannot stand apart forever. What it can do is help leaders educate their troops and emphasize the letter, intent, and spirit of their oath to serve the Constitution. This directs junior leaders to take more of an interest in how the men and women they lead view their role as citizens in uniform. It helps that the military continues to hold its members accountable for breaches of the apolitical norm, such as during August’s Democratic National Convention or Milley’s apology following the Lafayette Square protests in June.

Following the inauguration in January, the divide in and beyond Washington will remain. As the Department of Defense continues to focus on great-power competition, it should also devote more than cursory attention to civic education in the ranks. The Roman Republic had similar tensions within its political system, as the plebeians and the aristocracy sought to advance their own interests. The struggle for dominance led to the consulship of Gaius Marius, several civil wars, and Sulla’s dictatorship. Centuries later and closer to home, Abraham Lincoln referenced the Bible when campaigning for the Senate in 1858: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The point remains as valid now as it was then.



Maj. Walter Haynes is a company commander in the 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion. The views expressed here are the author’s, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Staff Sgt. James L. Miller)