News Analysis

Just How ‘Political’ Can — And Should — Service Members Get?

It's a debate that never seems to end.
Jeff Schogol Avatar

There’s an old saying about opinions. This family-friendly reporter cannot repeat it, but the punchline is, “Everyone has got one.”

That’s especially true when it comes to politics. Partisanship and political rancor in the United States are now as ubiquitous as propaganda in North Korea. You can never tune them out; you can only try to turn down the volume.

Given the political climate, it may be tempting for service members to join the national food fight. But it’s worth remembering that the U.S. military prides itself on the appearance of being fiercely apolitical. (Years ago, your naïve correspondent learned that merely asking troops jokingly if they were in favor a military coup was considered suborning treason, something courts-martial generally frown upon.)

Service members are barred from taking part in a variety of political activities to avoid creating the appearance that, in doing so, they are espousing the Defense Department’s official position, said Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman. For example, troops cannot campaign for candidates, attend partisan events in uniform, or suggest that other service members follow a political party or candidate on social media, she said.

Active duty service members “may not 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,” Gleason said.

Barracks lawyers may be crying foul right now, so Task & Purpose turned to a real lawyer to find out if troops can face administrative or disciplinary action for being overtly political.

“An American can tweet ‘The president is a f***** idiot’ and not go to jail,” wrote retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rachel VanLandingham in a recent article. “Yet if a U.S. soldier does the same, they are committing a federal crime.”

The Uniform Code of Military Justice gives commanders “huge leeway” to punish subordinates for what they say and tweet on vague legal pretenses, such as Article 134’s service-discrediting” clause clause, said VanLandingham, a former military attorney who now teaches at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.

“Military members are not required to be apolitical — far from it,” VanLandingham told T&P.; “Those who encourage such an apolitical stance fundamentally misunderstand what our founding fathers embedded into the Constitution. We the people have the right to know how those in uniform think. If service members’ speech reflects poorly on the military, so be it.”

However, it may set a bad example when military leaders — both retired and active-duty — express their political opinions, whether openly to the news media or anonymously on social media, said retired Army Col. Steven Leonard, a former military strategist who tweets as @DoctrineMan .

“In the end, I think we’ve lost our way in the apolitical sphere in which we are supposed to conduct ourselves,” Leonard told T&P.; “Do retired leaders have an obligation to temper their commentary so as to not influence those who currently serve? Do active leaders have a duty to remain true to their apolitical obligations, regardless of their opinions?”

Social media, he added, “breaks a lot of boundaries that were once sacrosanct — and it provides platforms where troops can see their leaders in action, whether those leaders realize it or not.”

Former Army Staff Sgt. A.J. Merrifield, author of the “Bob on the FOB” comics, said he worries that the American public is losing its faith that the military will always remain above the political fray.

The investigations of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server and alleged Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election are both rife with allegations of partisanship, eroding the public’s trust into the FBI and intelligence community, Merrifield said.

“The massive divisions that are currently splitting so many communities cannot be allowed to fester within the military community for so many reasons, but not least of which because we cannot afford to allow our political disagreements to endanger the lives of our service members,” he told T&P.;

But the military itself is not immune from partisanship, said former Marine Sgt. Matthew Moores, better known as @IAmTheWarax on Twitter. Moores said he could remember several times when officers or senior enlisted leaders tried to foist their political opinions on subordinates.

“That opinion is being amplified by the force of their rank and their position within the organization,” he told T&P.; “I can think of an example where there was a staff NCO and he bought into all the Jade Helm stuff. So he’s talking about how the president is going impose martial law. People are going to have to choose: ‘Are you going to be loyal to the federal government or you going to be loyal to the president and his private army?’ I think people were buying into it more than they would have if it was just a group of people who were co-workers.”

With the news media obsessing over the latest machinations in Washington, it is difficult for service members to avoid being sucked into the current hyper-partisan environment, said Maximilian Uriarte, a Marine veteran and author of the “Terminal Lance” comic strip.

Still, Uriarte keeps his comics politically neutral because he chronicles the life and times of lance corporals, not what people are tweeting about President Trump, he said.

“When I was in Bridgeport [California] in February, I had a Marine come up to me in the field and ask if anything important had happened in the world over the last week because they had been stuck on the mountain with no phone reception for the last 10 days,” Uriarte recalled. “I told him: Not unless you give a s**t about political garbage.”

Uriarte says the Marine replied: “Nah, not really.”

Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 12 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P;, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.