It’s Time to Revise Guidance On Political Activities For Members of the U.S. Military


When the Department of Defense last updated its directive that regulates the political activities of servicemembers, the social media platforms TikTok, Instagram, and WhatsApp had not yet been created. Twitter was two years old, and Facebook had only been open to the public for 18 months. The current directive was published exactly two weeks after Super Tuesday in the 2008 presidential primaries, a time when political polarization was starting to gain more attention on the national landscape. As the Department of Defense wrestles with how to preserve the military’s nonpartisanship in what is clearly now an exceptional period of polarization, it relies on an outdated directive that fails to address the contemporary challenges the military services face regarding partisan political speech and behavior by those in uniform. 

It is critical that the Department of Defense develop and publish a significant revision to the outdated directive that currently guides the political activities of U.S. military members before the November 2024 presidential election. However, a new and updated directive is not enough. The U.S. military should also commit to training the force on both the content of the new directive and the reasons why norms and rules surrounding political activities are so important to the health of U.S. democratic norms.  

Military Personnel and Rules of Political Behavior

The military’s status as a trusted servant of the state certainly faces external pressures. The military’s nonpartisan ethic depends on a combination of healthy norms — informal practices that guide behavior in a profession — and applicable, enforceable rules for its members to abide by. In general, professions prefer to regulate their members’ behavior through norms, as rules typically outline the bare minimum requirements or standards of conduct. Norms speak to a deeper professional commitment, while rules often signify basic compliance. However, norms work best when backstopped by complementary rules. 



The contemporary rules for political behavior have their roots in the 1939 Hatch Act, which codified the limits of political activities for federal employees and remains in effect today. Of note, the Hatch Act applies to civilian Department of Defense employees but not to the uniformed members of the military. The nonpartisan ethic in the military was maintained in the early decades of the Cold War by the strength of norms — not a set of codified rules that all servicemembers had to follow. George C. Marshall represented the quintessential nonpartisan military officer in this era, carrying on a tradition established by William Tecumseh Sherman and other senior military leaders after the Civil War.

Three decades after the adoption of the Hatch Act, detailed guidance to members of the military finally emerged in 1969 with the issuance of the first version of Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, titled “Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces.” Minor revisions of the directive were issued in 1986, 1990, 2004, and 2008, notably all timed in election years. These minor updates over four decades did little to alter the substance of the document first signed at the height of the Vietnam War. If anything, the 1969 version of Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 is more direct and easier to digest than the current version. The 2008 directive is longer due to the inclusion of four modifications, and it is written in a multilayered subparagraph structure, a format with little consideration for the U.S. military members expected to read, digest, and ultimately follow the nuanced guidance. 

In broad terms, the directive details three things. The first is a list of definitions for a few basic terms (including the meanings of partisan and nonpartisan political activity, active duty, and civil office). Second, there is a short list of permitted political activities. And, third, there is a much longer list of political activities that are not permitted. Nowhere in the directive is even a brief explanation for why the nature of political activities by those who wear the cloth of the nation is important, or even why the nonpartisan ethic of the U.S. military exists in the first place. A policy document that focuses on such a critical and nuanced topic that fails to give this brief context is arguably deficient. The same policy document that also fails to provide updated guidance on something so ubiquitous in the current world of political activity as the use of social media is woefully inadequate.  

This points to the most glaring issue with adhering to a 2008 directive — its silence on social media during an age in which servicemembers tweet, post updates on Facebook, maintain LinkedIn profiles, upload videos to TikTok, and play online games. The Department of Defense’s formal ambiguity about social media behavior diminishes its ability to both educate the force and enforce a nonpartisan ethic. In the past three years, servicemembers have used social media to disparage politicians and elected leaders and trumpet their personal political opinions. Stronger, enforceable guidelines could have arguably deterred some of these behaviors or even prevented partisan comments on some anonymous accounts claiming military affiliation. Even general officers have been caught up in the uncertainty about how to use and interpret social media posts. As the United States enters another presidential election season, the pressures and temptations to use social media will only increase. 


What Changes Need to Be Made?

The Department of Defense should not let another election cycle pass without updating Department of Defense Directive 1344.10. It should do so by the end of this calendar year in order to sensitize servicemembers to key tenets of nonpartisanship before the 2024 election. Revisions to Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 should address the following gaps. 

First, the directive should open with a very brief section that provides context for members of the military on the importance of maintaining healthy norms of nonpartisanship. This introduction should touch on the reasons behind servicemembers properly exercising permitted political activities and the damage that can occur if activities that are not permitted are not avoided. While this sort of context is arguably not the norm for directives in the Department of Defense, it would serve to remind servicemembers that these rules establish a baseline level of compliance only in a very complex, nuanced topic. The commitment to professional norms, including the norm of nonpartisanship, requires servicemembers to reflect upon whether certain political activities are appropriate, even when they are allowable. This sort of brief introduction providing context would also serve to frame the associated training for members of the military that we outline below.

Second, Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 must be updated to address the particular harm associated with servicemembers’ unregulated partisan speech on social media. Each service maintains its own social media guide but refers to Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 when addressing political speech. However, the current version of Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 has no references to social media whatsoever, leaving unit commanders to interpret what constitutes partisan political activity on social media. In August 2022, the Department of Defense issued its first instruction on the use of social media, aimed at providing guidelines for the use of official social media accounts. Unfortunately, its discussion of political activity is cursory, including the obvious restriction that official social media accounts are prohibited from engaging in political activity and that Department of Defense personnel may not use their personal accounts for political purposes while on duty and while in the workplace. The instruction says little else on the matter and provides a link to the website for the Department of Defense Standards of Conduct Office, an ethics website with no straightforward guidance about political activity, while also failing to mention Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 at all.


Third, Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 should be updated to require servicemembers to post a disclaimer on all of their personal social media accounts that their views do not reflect those of the U.S. military or Department of Defense. The department should also consider a prohibition on active-duty servicemembers liking, sharing, retweeting, or posting partisan content on their personal social media accounts. By its very nature, social media is today’s public town square, where content has a written, lasting record and exponential reach. Posting on social media is an inherently public act. Therefore, partisan commentary on social media should be prohibited in the same way the current version of the directive precludes servicemembers from speaking before a partisan political gathering or participating in partisan discussion on the radio, television, or other program. 

Posting on social media is not akin to writing an op-ed, which is an allowable form of non–social media expression under the current guidelines. An op-ed must meet certain publication and editorial standards, and military organizations often require servicemembers to submit them for a public affairs and operational security review prior to publication, even when they include the department’s standard disclaimer. Tweets or posts face no such scrutiny or review and can be unlimited in their volume. We realize that this injunction against all partisan related social media activity will strike some as too strong, but given the public nature of this form of political expression, it is necessary for reinforcing the military’s nonpartisan ethic.

Fourth, the directive should expand the section that refers to Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which prohibits officers from using contemptuous words against certain elected and appointed officials. Survey research has shown that a sizable portion of active-duty officers have observed their peers make rude and disdainful comments about the president and other elected officials on social media — during both the Obama and Trump administrations — so the directive should make it clear that Article 88 applies to social media as well. Not only should Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 list which officials are protected by Article 88, but it should also include the reminder that enlisted servicemembers who use contemptuous words against elected and appointed officials can be punished under Article 134 as a violation of good order and discipline.

Fifth, any new revision to the current directives must be accompanied by purposeful training and education efforts across the military, both at the unit level and across professional military education to better sensitize servicemembers to the importance of nonpartisanship and reversing the perception that the U.S. military has become politicized. One of us has authored a guide on how to teach and instill the nonpartisan ethic at the unit level, which includes guided discussion questions, prompts, and recommended readings that can be adopted by unit commanders at the lieutenant colonel and colonel levels. Absent such a framework, discussions at the small unit level on how the military should avoid politicization run the risk of uneven implementation, as some critics characterized the Department of Defense’s extremism stand-down in 2021.

Finally, the department should better enforce the provisions already contained in Department of Defense Directive 1344.10. Retired servicemembers and currently serving members of the Reserves and National Guard running for elected office have come under increased criticism for appearing to violate the directive in their campaign advertisements. Some have failed to include a disclaimer that use of military photographs does not imply endorsement by the U.S. military or Defense Department, while other ads appear to misrepresent the candidate’s military service and imply official endorsement. While many ads do contain disclaimers, several push the envelope on the prohibition that photographs of them in uniform cannot be the “primary graphic representation” in an advertisement. While the department lacks jurisdiction over veterans, it should not hesitate to take action to curb ads that violate the spirit and intent of Department of Defense Directive 1344.10.

The Risks of Inaction

Certainly, there are some incentives against updating Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 by the end of the calendar year. Some critics might label this as an attempt by the current administration to infringe upon servicemembers’ right to free speech or argue that placing increased restrictions on servicemembers’ political activities is a partisan act in and of itself. While it is true that these new changes to the regulations may limit and revise servicemembers’ speech on social media, it is equally true that servicemembers have already given up specific rights to partisan speech in the public domain that no one disputes based on existing regulations.  The basis of these suggested revisions is simply to clearly outline how existing norms and rules apply to social media — an area currently unregulated to the detriment of the nonpartisan military ethic. 

Similarly, the secretary of defense may wish to tread carefully and avoid such perceptions, given the already strained relationship with some in Congress. However, revisions to Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 do not favor one party over the other and should be something both parties can rally around. Regardless of one’s political predispositions, providing the military services greater clarity on what constitutes prohibited partisan activity is a prudent step toward thwarting politicization. 

Additionally, some will be concerned that any social media regulations will be outdated before they are officially approved. If, for example, the regulations stipulated specific guidance about using Facebook’s “like” feature, a reader may interpret the absence of guidance relating to yet-to-be-developed tools as license for their use. In addition, it is not clear how evolving technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Metaverse will impact social and political experience. These concerns should provide useful cautions about an update to Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 that focuses too closely on the specific features or any technology. Likewise, these concerns should only serve to further encourage the Department of Defense to include a short introduction in the revised directive that provides context and at least some thoughtful discussion about the importance of both rules and norms in the maintenance of the nonpartisan ethic that is currently under attack. 

While concerns about taking action immediately and before the next election cycle are understandable, the risks of inaction are too great to dismiss. The words to all members of the military from then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen at the time of the 2008 presidential election cycle when the directive was last updated resonate even more today:  As the Nation prepares to elect a new President, we would all do well to remember the promises we made: to obey civilian authority, to support and defend the Constitution, and to do our duty at all times. Keeping our politics private is a good first step. The only things we should be wearing on our sleeves are our military insignia.



John Childress is an active-duty U.S. Army Colonel currently assigned as the House Affairs Director on the staff of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs. Dr. Dave Richardson is an active-duty U.S. Navy Captain currently assigned as the chair of the Political Science Department at the U.S. Naval Academy. Dr. Heidi Urben is professor of the practice and director of external education and outreach in the security studies program at Georgetown University and a retired U.S. Army Colonel. The views here are those of the authors and do not represent the Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, or U.S. Naval Academy. 

Image: Army photo by Capt. Mike Manougian