Politicians from both sides of the aisle have abused their relationship with the military—Admiral William Crowe raised eyebrows for his support of candidate Bill Clinton, and candidate George W. Bush found a useful link to military voters in Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell. The military must stop playing political games and do its duty regardless of which political party gives the orders.
The horrific terrorist attacks of 11 September justifiably obscured the other historic national story of the still-new millenium: the staggeringly close presidential election of 2000. Americans have rallied around the Commander-in-Chief during this time of crisis, and the controversy surrounding the electoral ballot accounting in Florida seems destined to be a curious footnote. But it was only a little more than a year ago that a frenzied debate, at times bordering on hysteria, gripped the country—with the military in the eye of the storm. In a bizarre confluence of timing, deadlines, and postal procedures, the identity of the new President of the United States at one point seemed to rest in the hands of a few hundred military members, as the world awaited the results of the tallying of their overseas absentee ballots. A fundamental leadership challenge central to the definition of who we are and what we stand for as United States military officers was highlighted, but not born, during this controversy: keeping the U.S. military politically neutral.
As a junior lieutenant new to my assignment as flag aide to the Deputy Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, I accompanied the admiral downstairs to the entryway of the Naval Headquarters building in London to greet the arriving U.S. congressional delegation. As their chauffeur assisted them from their vehicle, I recognized the members from the briefing materials: the staunch antiwar advocate with his ponytail dangling down his back and the controversial freshman, soon to be a household name for her attempt to host a fund raiser at the Playboy Mansion. While my officer-candidate training was unequivocal about the proper protocol, I still will never forget the sense of having the oxygen sucked out of me when I watched the admiral, a heavily decorated aviator and icon in our community, stand ramrod straight and render a perfect salute to our guests. The admiral's etiquette was not only proper but required. His salute symbolized a core tenet of U.S. government: the armed forces serve the elected civilian leadership. The salute acknowledged that relationship and its inherent implication—the military will execute all lawful orders and direction issued by such legitimate authority, regardless of the partisan, ideological, or political affiliation of such officials.
Historically, this relationship has manifested itself in strict political neutrality among the officer corps. Young naval officers were instructed that, along with topics such as religion and the various attributes of fellow officers' spouses, politics was a taboo subject for wardroom and workplace conversation. This strict line of demarcation was respected across the services. Retired Air Force General Merrill McPeak, Chief of Staff of the Air Force from 1990 to 1994, said "I think for years there was a kind of a wall, a separation in this country. The professional military were proud, made a point of pride about avoiding politics."1 Formal guidelines delineate such boundaries. Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 prohibits such partisan political activities as soliciting votes for a particular candidate or political issue, and soliciting campaign contributions from other members of the military or civilian employees. Further, Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) forbids military officers from using "contemptuous words against the President, Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any state," with violations potentially resulting in dismissal from the military and one year's imprisonment.2 There even exists a particularly draconian school of thought that military members, to preserve this strict neutrality and maintain a measure of distance beyond reproach from any perceived partisanship, should refrain even from voting.3
On the other hand, Clausewitz pointed out that war is a "political act,"4 suggesting that at some level the war fighter is inseparable from the policymaker. Many observers have detected a troubling trend in recent years away from the vaunted historical neutrality. (It is worth noting that General McPeak went on to endorse then-candidate Bush in 2000.) The presidential election controversy might be the most widely reported incident in this trend, but it is not the first or most unsettling chapter in what may be a dangerous backing away from the long-held military "point of pride about avoiding politics."
In preparing for the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995, then-Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA) dispatched top aides and lawmakers to the Army for sessions in military strategy. After the Republicans gained control of the lower chamber, Mr. Gingrich became Speaker of the House, and he began having freshmen Republicans helicoptered to the Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) in Fort Monroe, Virginia. Nearly ten hours of audiotapes highlight the speaker theorizing about his partisan "revolution" with active-duty military officers at TRADOC. Seeing himself as "the Duke of Wellington," Gingrich spoke of wanting to bring other Republican members of the House up to the level of "captains" in their understanding of military strategy and tactics. Ultimately, a mid-level officer expressed concern about the nature of the link between the military and a political party, concluding in a memorandum that the entire operation should be kept "as low key" as possible. A general wrote Mr. Gingrich a letter suggesting that the support given Congress should be made "more" bipartisan. Now the Pentagon's Office of Inspection General says the Army improperly provided the services without charging the politicians. Critics have called this apparent political collaboration a textbook violation of DoD Directive 1344.10.5
The era of the Clinton administration witnessed several "uprisings" that certainly met the technical criteria for Article 88 violations. Many observers have written that President Clinton entered office mistrusted by the military because of his draft record. But it was his 1993 proposed relaxation of the ban on gay and lesbian service that unleashed a torrent of disapproval among the ranks. Aided by a then-blossoming technology called e-mail which was quickly becoming a fixture in American homes (as well as ships and submarines), servicemembers roared their disapproval of the Commander-in-Chief in long chain e-mails that quickly blanketed the fleet. The mood among sections of the military brass became so hostile that, in a stunning statement, a sitting U.S. senator, Jesse Helms (R-NC), publicly warned President Clinton that he would be in physical danger if he visited such military bases as Fort Bragg.
The officer corps was even more incensed during the Lewinsky affair, since it followed the sacking of Navy and Marine Corps officers for alleged sexual assaults during a convention of the Tailhook Association, as well as the forced retirement of several senior generals charged with sexual harassment. Both Navy Times and Army Times published letters from active-duty officers denouncing Clinton as a "criminal," while other officers openly circulated petitions supporting the impeachment and removal of their nominal leader.
In the summer of 2000, the Pentagon agreed to send more than 30 displays of military hardware—including some of its most high-tech weapons, such as the Marine Corps V-22 and Army unmanned drones—to be on exhibit at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, directly across the street from the Republican National Convention.6 Critics viewed the Defense Department as allowing the GOP to use the military hardware as political props. Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon insisted that the displays were being sent as part of an effort to "educate elected officials on the military's capabilities and their equipment." Bacon said the equipment was not part of the convention itself. (He did not specifically address the question of why a display could not be set up right on Capitol Hill in Washington for lawmakers who want to be educated about the military.) The decision to participate came at a time when military spokespersons had decried a funding shortage. The displays cost thousands of dollars and required nearly 200 military personnel to travel to the site.
At the peak of the controversy surrounding the Florida recount, at least two major U.S. military units felt compelled to issue their personnel official warnings reminding them that it is a crime for officers to publicly express contempt for civilian political authorities. The official notices were sent out by the Air Force's Air Combat Command and the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, which together comprise 156,000 soldiers and civilians at 32 bases, after press reports quoted military officers denouncing the Democratic Party and Vice President Al Gore over challenges to military absentee ballots cast in Florida.7 Brigadier General Jack Rives, the top legal officer at the Air Combat Command, sent a message to officers telling them that "this is not the time to send e-mails or otherwise get involved in an improper or unprofessional manner with the continuing controversy over the presidential election." Colonel James Rosenblatt, the staff judge advocate for the Training and Doctrine Command, sent an e-mail reminding the command's generals and lawyers of the content of Article 88. He also urged local commanders to conduct educational sessions for their subordinates "on the question of civilian control of the military." Rosenblatt told The Washington Post it was the first time in his 28 years of military service that he had felt it necessary to issue such a cautionary message.
So why should this stream of events be troubling to military leaders of all ranks? After all, every American, civilian or military, is entitled to his respective opinion. And if the recent Pew Institute poll stating that two-thirds of the U.S. armed services claim Republican loyalty has any accuracy, isn't it only natural and inevitable that the military be associated with the GOP?8 Our Royal Navy ancestors, the source for so many of our naval traditions, actually had active-duty officers who held voting positions in Parliament.9 Few citizens are affected in a more visceral way by the decisions of our elected policymakers than those who serve in uniform: closing/realigning bases, reducing force levels, canceling weapons systems, and most significant, whether to wage war. Many have argued that the failure of military leaders to pose objections to the civilian leadership during the Vietnam conflict was an abdication of their professional responsibilities, and ultimately might have cost the lives of untold numbers of their brothers-in-arms. (This argument has never been more compelling than now, when the percentage of elected officials who have served in uniform is at a historic low.) What is wrong with aligning ourselves with a partisan identity that arguably has been more responsive to our needs?
If our military surrenders its political neutrality, we risk compromising our public credibility and our mission cohesiveness, two attributes that could be difficult to recover.
The first trait we damage is our credibility. President Dwight D. Eisenhower foresaw this potential more than 40 years ago when he warned of the buildup of a "military-industrial complex." If the armed services are perceived as being inappropriately in one partisan camp, what credibility can our senior officers hope to carry when they are summoned to testify on Capitol Hill in front of members of another camp? Abandoning our role as silent servants of the elected representatives in favor of an overtly partisan ideological stance will taint the testimony of every flag officer, as observers will wonder if testimony is given objectively, or with an eye toward benefiting the favored party. Over a range of issues, the armed services will be vulnerable to questions regarding their stewardship of the taxpayers' resources, and whether we've joined with "the politicians" in a "conspiracy against the electorate."10
The second fundamental underpinning of our armed services jeopardized by overt partisanship is mission focus. With few exceptions in our nation's history, when the legitimately elected representatives of the citizenry have issued orders, our men and women in uniform have saluted and executed those orders, regardless of their partisan stripe. Allowing our military to be colored by an ideological tint would undermine morale and create divisiveness. In a culture where the chain of command lies at the heart of all decision making, the potential for undue influence over a subordinate's political choices cannot be ignored. The endorsement of a candidate by a senior officer, whether explicit or tacit, sends a powerful message to junior personnel, many far from home and experiencing their initial voting opportunity. (Some have even decried public endorsements by retired officers as inappropriate. It was former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral William Crowe who broke historical precedent by endorsing candidate Clinton in 1991, an endorsement made particularly eyebrow-raising when it apparently was reciprocated by President Clinton with his nomination to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James. A decade later, candidate George W. Bush made campaign stops attacking military readiness flanked by four-star icons Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell.) More ominously, the socioeconomic demographics often associated with U.S. party politics might drive wedges between rungs of the chain of command, with fissures ripped open between disparate geographic, religious, and ethnic groups, and widen the chasm between officer and enlisted. Now, during the opening salvos of what promises to be a long war against terrorism, our nation's armed forces cannot risk allowing bubbling dissension within our ranks to distract our focus from that mission.
So what can be done to arrest this troubling trend? Navy leaders of all ranks must step forward and remind shipmates of our obligations as U.S. service members in this regard. Indoctrination into a command should include training on the requirements of DoD Directive 1344.10, as well as the prohibitions set forth in Article 88 of the UCMJ. Make clear that like other banned subjects, political screeds are inappropriate over military computer networks. The military environment has led the way in evolving at different times to end tolerance of a drug culture, overt racism, and sexual harassment. Demand from your peers a workplace environment in which there is no possibility that your subordinates could sense personal pressure to adopt a certain political bent. By all means, every U.S. citizen should follow the issues of the moment, register to vote, and actively take part in the miracle of democracy that is America. But when we cross the bow, step on the flight line, or enter the base gate, remember that we are professional members of the armed services, entrusted by our fellow countrymen to follow the direction of their popularly elected representatives.
Year after year, polls show that our armed services are among the most highly admired professions in all of society. By not compromising our credibility, we have earned the trust of the American people, who not only have bestowed on us the resources to do our job, but also have lent us their sons and daughters. By keeping our focus on our mission, regardless of which party is directing it, we fulfill that trust. Let us not lose that which makes us so special.
Lieutenant Garcia is a graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles, Harvard Law School, and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He served as a White House Fellow from 1999-2000. A naval aviator, he is the assistant operations officer on board the USS Constellation (CV-64).
1. "This Week in Washington," September 2000, interviewed by Gwen Ifill, Public Broadcasting Station. back to article
2. Army Reservist Second Lieutenant Henry Howe was sentenced to one year in confinement and dismissal from the service during the Vietnam War for participating in an antiwar protest demonstration in which he carried a placard calling President Lyndon Johnson a fascist. back to article
3. Wendell W. Cultice, Youth's Battle for the Ballot: A History of Voting Age in America (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1992). back to article
4. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (New York: Viking Press, 1983). back to article
5. Associated Press, "Gingrich Sought Military's Help," 13 August 1998. back to article
6. ABC News Online, 27 July 2000. back to article
7. Washington Post, 10 November 2000. back to article
8. "This Week in Washington," September 2000, Public Broadcasting Station. back to article
9. Samuel P. Huntington, Changing Patterns of Military Politics (New York, Free Press of Glencoe, 1962). back to article
10. Farewell Speech, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 1961. back to article