US troops are the political football politicians love to spike

The debate continues.
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Guam National Guardsmen with Rep. Michael San Nicolas.

A recent video showing a member of Congress visiting a fellow lawmaker with National Guard soldiers in tow has thrown more fuel on the fiery debate over using troops as political props.

A video posted online on Monday showed Rep. Michael San Nicolas (D-Guam) and members of the Guam National Guard walking to the office of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who recently referred to Guam as a “foreign land,” according to The Hill.

“I’m a regular, normal person,” Greene, a noted conspiracy theorist, said at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month. “And I wanted to take my regular, normal person, normal, everyday American values, which is: We love our country. We believe our hard-earned tax dollars should just go for America, not for what, China, Russia, the Middle East, Guam — whatever, wherever.” 

In response to Greene’s comments, San Nicolas told the Guam Daily Post that he would be delivering “delicious Chamorro Chip Cookies as part of our ongoing outreach to new members to introduce them to our wonderful island of Guam,” which has been a U.S. territory since 1898. A former chairman of the Republican Party of Guam, Phil Flores, told the Daily Post that he called Greene’s office “to educate her.” 

“I said Guam is a part of America,” Flores said. “We have been for 122 years.” 

The video of San Nicolas and National Guard members marching to Greene’s office immediately received criticism from some online as being inappropriate and a political use of U.S. service members. A similar issue also came up last August when two soldiers appeared in a video at the Democratic National Convention, leading the Army to announce an investigation, saying that wearing “a uniform to a partisan political event like this is prohibited.” 

The video posted on Monday was not as formal of an event as the video from last year, however, and it’s unclear if the guardsmen involved in the video volunteered, or were ‘voluntold,’ and whether they may face any disciplinary action for their involvement. 

Maj. Gen. Esther J.C. Aguigui, the adjutant general of the Guam National Guard, said in a statement that she appreciated San Nicolas’ “efforts to represent our culture of Inafa’ Maolek, or bringing harmony, practiced here in Guam,” and thanked Greene “for ultimately helping raise awareness of Guamanians as citizens of the United States.” 

“As a non-partisan entity, the Guam National Guard is here to continue this legacy of supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States and the freedoms it provides,” Aguigui said. “We will continue to be always ready and always there, to serve our great nation and contribute to a fair, prosperous, compassionate, and safe Guam.”

The video emerged amid a renewed debate over the military’s perceived involvement in politics in the wake of comments made by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson about pregnant women in the military. Military leaders criticized Carlson by name after he said on his show last week that pregnant women serving in the military, and the military’s new hair and grooming standards, made “a mockery of the U.S. military.” 

Related: ‘We aren’t going away’ — What Tucker Carlson doesn’t get about women in the military

The comments brought on a wave of criticism from leaders across the Pentagon, particularly among Army leaders who are increasingly active on Twitter, many of whom called Carlson out for being “divisive” and made statements of support for women in the force. Carlson’s comments came at a time when the Army has been pushing to make diversity and inclusion a priority within the ranks. 

While some saw those remarks as tantamount to the military taking a “political” stance, service members have defended the comments as sticking up for their sisters in arms, and maintained that it’s not “political” to say that women are valuable and needed members of the U.S. military.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby addressed the criticism of military leaders’ who pushed back on Carlson’s remarks, saying Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “doesn’t have concerns” about leaders “expressing their revulsion to these ridiculous comments.” 

“What we absolutely won’t do is take personnel advice from a talk show host or the Chinese military,” Kirby said. “Now maybe those folks feel like they have something to prove; that’s on them.  We know we’re the greatest military in the world today, and even for all the things we need to improve, we know exactly why that’s so.”

Uniformed service members’ involvement — or perceived involvement — in political events has long been a point of contention, and one that makes headlines every few years, if not multiple times each year. Members of the military are not authorized to campaign for candidates, attend partisan events in uniform, or “post or make direct links to a political party, partisan political candidate, campaign, group, or cause because such activity is the equivalent of distributing literature on behalf of those entities or individuals,” a Pentagon spokeswoman told Task & Purpose in 2018

Nevertheless, the issue has come up again, and again, and again. 

Former president Donald Trump used photos and video of service members on multiple occasions to further his political message, especially as he criticized the National Football League for players’ decision to kneel during the national anthem. In 2019, the Navy punished a group of sailors who wore patches that said, “Make Aircrew Great Again” during a speech from Trump on the USS Wasp. And last year, two Marines found themselves in the hot seat after appearing in a video during the Republican National Convention, in which they opened the doors for Trump as he entered a room.

The Marine Corps later said in a statement that the Marines were at their assigned place of duty at the time of the video. “Their official duty is to assist the President in office; those duties include opening doors for the President,” the statement said.

The issue doesn’t fall along strict party lines: In Aug. 2019, an Army National Guard major was scrutinized after she appeared in uniform at an event for then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, telling him that she prayed he would be the next president. 

And while some maintain that service members should stay strictly out of politics at all times, others have said it’s not possible, and never has been. 

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rachel VanLandingham previously told Task & Purpose that those who encourage service members to be strictly apolitical “fundamentally misunderstand what our founding fathers embedded into the Constitution.” 

“We the people have the right to know how those in uniform think.” 

Related: Just how ‘Political’ can — and should — service members get?

Featured photo: Guam National Guardsmen with Rep. Michael San Nicolas. (Screenshot of video)