Opinion: Confidence in the military erodes as culture wars rage

From accusations of woke-ism to military leaders being too political, confidence in the military is eroding — and that's not good for anyone
iraq inherent resolve us army
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gary Brooks, assigned to Task Force Reaper, CJTF - Operation Inherent Resolve, provides overwatch during a training exercise at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Dec. 22, 2022. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Julio Hernandez

Confidence in the military has eroded after taking hits from both the political left and right for being too politicized.

Perhaps no one is more symbolic of this than Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. He was appointed by President Trump in 2019 and came under fire from liberals soon after. Most famously, in 2020, he was criticized for accompanying Trump through a Lafayette Square recently cleared of Black Lives Matter protestors for a photo at nearby St. John’s Church. But it only took a few months after that for Milley to make himself a scapegoat of the right ever since he took a firm stand against coups and detailed his personal reading list to senators.

Milley is a 64-year-old man who has served in the military for 42 years. It’s safe to say his political views never changed much in the course of his chairmanship, yet both the left and right have come after him. The military as a whole finds itself in the same dilemma. 

U.S. Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks to international reporters during a visit to Latvia on March 5, 2022. U.S. Army photo illustration by Maj. Robert Fellingham.

The Ronald Reagan Institute recently published a study about the attitudes of American people toward the US military, which has long been one of the most highly regarded institutions in the US. This study shows a calamitous decline in confidence. Less than half, 48% of recipients, have “a great deal of confidence” in the military. That’s down from 70% five years ago. Lest one blame that on the current administration, confidence in the military is actually up a tick from 2021. Before that, it was in free fall. 

Tied for first place in factors decreasing confidence was “Military leadership becoming overly politicized.” Right behind that was, ”… ’woke’ practices undermining military effectiveness.” With polarization increasing in American politics and civil unrest a growing problem, civilian authorities have to be confident the military will both obey lawful orders impartially and also not become a political actor itself. In a democracy, violation of either of those norms is the road to ruin.

This is one of those situations where perception is nearly as important as reality. Even if the military as an institution is apolitical, if civilian leaders don’t trust it due to their own misconceptions or for political expedience, it will not be employed effectively. 

That’s why many countries throughout history and even today have multiple militaries, with one more closely associated with the national leader, as insurance against coups. Examples are the Roman Praetorian Guard and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Having another military to defend against your military is no way to run a railroad.

As the Reagan Institute study makes clear, the legitimacy of the military is in doubt more than at any time in living memory. A big part of the change is that now both the left and right take issue with the military. If parties are taken as proxies for “left” and “right,” the two sides are almost the same. 47 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans had a “great deal of confidence” in the military.

In the years following Vietnam, it was almost taken as a given that the political left was the side that took issue with the military. The anti-war “hippie” is an enduring fixture in popular culture.

In recent years, though, it’s been the political right with trust issues. Just in the past year, Republican confidence in the military decreased by 7 percent. In particular, the main problem they see in the military is “wokeness.” 47 percent of Republicans gave wokeness as a reason for greatly decreasing their confidence in the military.

Right-wing commentators like Tucker Carlson say, “…we realized if the woke generals treat us like they’ve treated the Taliban, we’ll be fine.” Republican politicians like Tommy Tuberville say, “…the president sought to cut defense spending, his administration injected a leftist socialist agenda into our ranks.” Former President Trump says, “You see these generals lately on television? They are woke…Our military will be incapable of fighting and incapable of taking orders.”

This right-wing criticism differs from that of earlier left-wing criticism because it’s much more about what the military is, vice what it does. In years past, the left criticized the military for alleged war crimes during the Vietnam War or detainee torture in Iraq. Those are largely discrete acts that can be proved or disproved. To the extent they’re proven, misdeeds can be punished or corrective action taken.

Capt. Chris “Chowdah” Hill, commanding officer of the USS Arlington (LPD 24), answers questions during training on extremism within the ranks, March 9, 2021. Arlington is underway in the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John D. Bellino/Released.

The wokeness complaint, though, is almost impossible to address, because it’s a condition vice an action. Prominent conservatives then find evidence of this underlying condition. Recently, Donald Trump Jr. and others have touted a figure of “6 million man-hours” devoted to wokeness training in the military. That sounds like a lot, but 5.4 million of those were the roughly two hours per member spent on counter-extremism training. 

The assertion is that servicemembers could be using that time learning how to fight wars, implying if those two hours were given back to the units, they’d be spent practicing eye gouges or fast-roping out of helicopters. I know from experience that I spent way over two hours a year in the military being told to wear sunscreen and hydrate before every Memorial Day. It’s almost certain that even if the training schedule was adjusted to the specifications demanded, the military would still be considered too woke. When someone wants to find an issue, they’ll find an issue — even giving female troops uniforms that fit is considered “woke.”

What can change this? The first solution is not up to the military. Politicians and commentators need to rebuild earlier norms about discussing the military. This doesn’t mean not criticizing the military. It means keeping criticism as apolitical as possible. If someone has a problem with the content of unit training, then address the inefficient use of training instead of making accusations with politically charged catchphrases like “wokism.” Just like any relationship, addressing the problem behavior vice making an insult is essential to preserving civility. “I think you should mow the lawn instead of sleeping in today” is far more useful than “You’re a lazy bum.” 

But the military also needs to improve its communication skills. The military’s communication, both inside and outside the military, is often clumsy and not suited for today’s media environment. It is so out of touch that it alienates both left and right — witness it being simultaneously hammered from the left for not talking enough about sexual assault and from the right for talking about it too much. 

The key is to consistently address issues in terms of combat effectiveness, e.g. “We can’t fight effectively if a quarter of our personnel fears being assaulted by their own side.” Consistency and brevity in messaging are essential in a heavily-edited, internet-based media environment. Lengthy explanations will never be aired or shared and go straight into the collective memory hole.

The 82nd Airborne Division’s Color Guard and All-American Chorus perform before the Carolina Panthers vs. Atlanta Falcons game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Nov 10, 2022. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Emely Opio-Wright.

Lastly, our country’s “every servicemember is a hero” culture means that every veteran involved in politics, from private to general, on both left and right, highlights that service. While a politician’s resume is important, the prominence of military experience disproportionate to its relevance politicizes the military more every time it’s done. 

From former senior officers publishing political open letters to campaigning solely on their military experience to famous generals appearing at conspiracy theorist events, it’s all bad for the perception of the military as an apolitical institution. Former military, especially general officers and flag officers, need to be careful when leveraging their experience politically. Statutory prohibitions against running for office for some number of years should be considered, especially for senior officers.

Whatever our other differences, everyone should realize that weakening the military via ongoing culture wars to further a political feud is not in the best interest of the country. If our politicians and pundits don’t get their acts together, they, like the famous apocryphal commander in Vietnam, might “destroy the village in order to save it.”

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