Protecting A Key Military Strength
The U.S. military possesses an unparalleled political might, matched only by its desperate need to remain apolitical.
"War is a mere continuation of politics by other means." - Carl von Clausewitz
The U.S. military is a long-standing institution with a unique set of beliefs, social values, and standards. It's shocking how quickly these values take hold and forge an influential subculture among even recruits. Many of these values don't have much direct relevance to the civilian population, such as an all-too-common love of vice and gallows humor. Others are far more important, and few more than the military's overarching desire to remain apolitical and non-partisan. To any given civilian, this might not seem like an important issue. After all, our freedom of speech guarantees that nobody will have their speech - especially political speech - curbed by their government, right? Fortunately, this isn't true for those currently serving the U.S. military.
Restrictions on Liberty
Some well-meaning civilian friends have asked for me to officially comment or participate in partisan rallies, speeches, or positions. Each time, I must respectfully decline. To be clear, I'm intensely interested in politics and have some deep-seated views on various matters. What I do not have is a public position on which party can do it best. I purposefully to not publicly endorse a particular candidate or disclose who I voted for. This isn't to say that I don't donate funds, consider putting a sign in my yard, or mar my bumper with a sticker, but I never conflate these things with my position as a member of the Department of Defense. Even when writing this blog, if you scroll all the way to the bottom, you'll see the classic disclaimer, "These are my views and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Department of Defense or its components."
It's incredibly important to draw a clear distinction between myself as an individual, drawing on the valuable experiences I've gained from my profession and my official role and duties within the Department of Defense. One of the common aphorisms of the U.S. military is that you may "do whatever your rank can handle." Most of the time, this means that the higher your rank, the more infractions you might be able to get away with.* In the case of our restrictions on political speech, the opposite is true. A junior-ranking member might be ignored but for the brash indiscretion of youth.
On the other hand, a more senior-ranking member presents a potential political threat to both those they lead and those they follow. As personnel rise through the ranks, they usually learn this over time through mentorship - or find their career stunted and sidelined. After all, if one cannot practice good judgment on what they say to their friends on social media, how can we trust them to keep faith with those they hope to lead? This is why you, dear reader, may find some of your military friends bending the rules a bit (particularly on social media), but rarely once they have attained a suitably high enough rank.
All services have established firm guidelines on how members may conduct themselves in public. Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 lays out numerous rules on how a service member may participate**. Permitted activities include:
Registering to vote, voting, and expressing personal views (with amplifying guidance to be careful on social media, as the lines can quickly blur).
Promote and encourage others to vote, as long as you don't use your official authority to push a particular candidate.
Join and participate in partisan (or non-partisan) political groups, as long as you're not in uniform.
Attend political fund-raising activities, rallies, meetings, conventions, etc. Again, still not in uniform and explicitly as a mere spectator.
Participating as an election official (though there are several strings attached to this).
Signing petitions for legislative action or to place a candidate's name on the ballot.
Write a letter to an editor for publication, provided you keep your military affiliation out of it or offer an appropriate disclaimer.
Donate funds, display bumper stickers, and wear political buttons or t-shirts when not in uniform.
Prohibited activities include:
Attending political fund-raising activities, rallies, meetings, conventions, etc. as anything but a mere spectator.
Active solicitation of votes for any issue, candidate, or party.
Publication of any partisan articles, posts, letters, endorsements, etc. outside of the "letter to an editor" spelled out above.
Serve any role in a partisan political organization other than a mere member.
Speak before a partisan political gathering.
Participate in any broadcasted political discussion as an advocate for a political candidate, party, or cause.
Conduct a partisan political survey.
Perform clerical or other duties for a partisan committee for a candidate during the campaign, on Election Day, or to close out a campaign.
Participate in a partisan political parade.
Perform any political fund-raising in federal offices, including military installations.
Display any political banners, signs, or posters on a private vehicle (as opposed to a mere bumper sticker as listed above).
Display any political signs, flags, posters, etc. on base housing (even if it's privatized).
Participate in any partisan movements to transport voters to the polls.
Sell tickets for partisan fundraisers.
Attend any political event in an explicitly official capacity.
Solicit campaign funds from any other service members or federal employees for a political objective or cause.
... and pretty much anything remotely political while in uniform.
Additionally, commissioned officers are expressly forbidden from using "contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Commonwealth, or possession in which the member is on duty or present," according to Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (or UCMJ). Based on that statement, you'd think enlisted members get a pass, but unlike commissioned officers who expressly swear an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic," enlisted members are further required to "obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over [them]." While they cannot be held explicitly to Article 88, Article 92 (Failure to Obey an Order or Regulation) broadly suffices to hold a member to their oath.
These restrictions even impact a service member's ability to participate in expressly political activities for a currently-serving politician if those activities are outside of their official duties and in their capacity as a declared candidate. This gets a lot harder to discern these days, as politicians are officially beginning their campaigns exceptionally early in their terms. It can also be challenging when events were meant to be official, but the speech veers into partisan campaign territory. For this reason, even if it's permitted, many service members will avoid attending official speaking engagements as a matter of principle.
Freedom of speech is one that I hold dear, but it's incredibly important to our nation's political stability to deliberately restrict that freedom for those whose primary job is to defend it.
Coming back to the Clausewitz quote above, it's essential to understand that uniformed service members represent and perform an expressly political function. They exert the political will of the government and its people in situations where dialog has broken down, and force must be applied. Thus, the military and war are just one part of a continuum of politics that includes diplomatic, informational, and economic levers of power (some will also include financial, intelligence, and law enforcement in this list, but I see those as mere extensions of the others).
Our country revolted against the British (in part) for the numerous abuses it committed with uniformed troops on home soil outside of declared warfare. The fear that a government may willfully and unjustly turn its military against its people is carefully guarded against and forms the underlying rationale for no less than (arguably) seven of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution (a.k.a. the Bill of Rights).
When service members shift back from wartime to peacetime in the continuum of politics, they and their uniforms still represent a visible political tool meant to serve the will of the people and its government. They are not meant to have their own political will as an organization, for that's a dangerous path that can lead to a coup and a military dictatorship. Subversion to civil authority that answers to its people is a norm that the military must maintain. Defying even the appearance of it creates a potential conflict of interest.
Recent news has many current and former high-ranking uniformed officials making public statements against the use of military forces on U.S. soil. These statements are carefully crafted reinforcements of current policy that are designed to reassure the public of their legal restrictions and ensure that service members feel empowered to question potentially unlawful orders. While that's important, one can also note their attempt at maintaining an impartial tone and eschewing the naming of any specific politician or party. Observe that retired senior officers are only slightly less guarded in their statements, even though the UCMJ no longer binds them. You can see that even past retirement, a military professional's belief in the importance of remaining apolitical appears to carry on by sheer force of habit.
Imagine for a moment that these rules and restrictions on our military did not exist. Imagine that the commissioned officers all decided that they were Democrats while the enlisted all agreed that they were Republicans. That would create immediate and disastrous internal strife. Going a step further, how effective would the military be if its top leaders identified themselves with an (R) or (D) next to their ranks just like members of Congress? These are unelected positions that are filled by Presidential nomination and subject to Senate confirmation. Unlike other similar positions, their rank and posts will remain regardless of what party controls the Office of the President or the Senate. I daresay that if they clearly stated a political affiliation, their rank and positions would change dramatically every four to eight years and leave our ability to properly conduct war in a state of near-constant crisis. Our civilian oversight must be able to trust in the U.S. military's ability to perform its duties to the utmost of their ability regardless of the party in power.
Today's post primarily means to be informative. To the civilians who read this, may it serve as a useful primer for why those in the military may remain silent on critical political issues that you hold dear. For military readers, it hopefully reinforces values that you should already prize. For both, it should illustrate how vital it is to our country and its security that the military - as a fundamentally political tool - remain non-partisan. Carefully withholding one's personal political views from the public and correcting those who fail is crucial to maintaining the dignity, honor, and effectiveness of the profession of arms.
* To be clear, this statement only applies to the sorts of minor infractions that junior service members worry each other over, whose most severe punishment is verbal counseling (colloquially known as an ass-chewing). This includes things like having your hair a bit too long, parking in the Colonel's spot, or not rendering a proper greeting/salute. Nobody, regardless of rank, should be less able to get away with a criminal infraction.
** These rules are neither exhaustive nor authoritative. In some cases, I have restated and paraphrased them to make them easier to understand. When in doubt, please consult with DoD Directive 1344.10, your specific service guidance, or your local Judge Advocate General (JAG).