The case for rethinking the politicization of the military

The military is a political creature — it’s time for it to consider what that means in a more practical...

Editor's Note: This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Every smart defense strategist learns early in their career the wise words of Carl von Clausewitz, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” And yet, military leaders are constantly fearful that they will be labeled with that scarlet word, “political.” To some degree, this fear is well-founded; it is also profoundly problematic. The terms “political,” “apolitical,” and “politicization” are applied and misapplied across a wide range of issues, and understanding the military’s relationship to politics deserves serious reconsideration.

Claiming that the military is, or should be, apolitical is both confusing and counterproductive. The military itself is, of course, an intensely political institution. Military leaders need to be able to engage on political issues with their troops and with the public, and they shouldn’t shy away from a topic simply for fear of being labeled “political.” Instead, they should actively tackle what it means to do so in an appropriate and responsible manner.

In practice, that looks like retiring the military’s ambiguous “apolitical norm” and replacing it with new practical rules of thumb about what topics are off-limits for those in uniform. We don’t want a military that is “apolitical”; we instead want a military that avoids partisanship, institutional endorsements, and electoral influence. Those topics should stay off limits, but politics are too critical to be entirely ignored by the military. The military is a political creature — it’s time for it to consider what that means in a more practical and appropriate manner.

The US military isn’t apolitical and it shouldn’t try to be

On June 6, New Jersey Congressman Tom Malinowski posted a picture of a young man at a rally in a Marine Corps uniform. The image shot around the internet, particularly among military accounts, garnering dramatically different responses. Some praised the Marine, asserting that he was standing up for human dignity, while others roundly criticized him for violating the military’s “apolitical” norm by protesting in the garb of the institution he ostensibly represents.

Standing up for the values of the military is critical and the affirmation of the oath on the Marine’s sign — “I swore an oath to defend the people” — is not a political act in and of itself. Wearing his uniform while doing so at a rally, however, demonstrates the tension between holding up that apolitical mantle while maintaining one’s role as an engaged citizen. And according to the Defense Department’s instruction on political activities, it is not permitted to do so in uniform. But there is a bigger problem: whether or not his actions are political is simply the wrong question to ask.

That’s because the military is not apolitical. It never has been, and it should not try to be. The military is an instrument of policy, and there are always tensions between our security and our values; politics is the process we use to choose between competing tradeoffs that can advance our values and our interests, or both. Use of that term “apolitical” not only makes it harder for military officers to fulfill their responsibilities and maintain the trust of the American people, but confuses service members and the public alike when they see military leaders saying or doing things that have clear political consequences.

The military’s political nature

Military actions always happen in a political context, and military advice – intentionally or not – always has political implications. A senior military leader can claim she is giving “apolitical” advice when she asks Congress to appropriate certain funds to the procurement of a given weapon system, but before deciding whether to grant her request, legislators have to consider whether doing so would come at a cost to other military or non-military programs, how it might help or hurt employment in their district, the potential environmental impacts of the program, or whether they might need to raise taxes to pay for the system, among a host of other factors. Officers can claim their advice is “apolitical,” but it is simply not true.

As scholar Risa Brooks has argued, lip service to an apolitical norm also can blind officers to their own biases or hinder them from understanding the political implications of their actions or advice, ultimately enabling the types of behaviors the norm was intended to prevent. Similarly, fears of becoming a meme or political poster child also can cause military officers to refrain from talking about important issues in public or with their personnel. Their silence itself can sometimes be interpreted as a political message.

Related: America’s senior military officers should retire from becoming America’s TV talking heads

Indeed, following the death of George Floyd, it took nearly a week before any of the service chiefs released statements to their service members about the killing or the unrest that had consumed the nation — although for at least a few of them, that silence was almost surely informed by heavy pressure from Secretary of Defense Esper to refrain from commenting on these issues at that moment. In fact, it wasn’t until after Kaleth O. Wright – in his own words “a black man who happens to be Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force” – posted a powerful Twitter thread on June 1stthat they did so. Since then, a flood of senior military officers have released statements and videos to their units, affirming the core values of the military, condemning racism, and promoting diversity and inclusion both in the military and in society — issues that, we hasten to add, should not be seen as political and instead rather as the ultimate comparative advantage of a capable U.S. military and society.

Better rules of thumb for political activity

Given the military’s inherent political nature, the Defense Department issued two regulations to try and outline parameters for individual service member involvement in political activities. The regulations, issued in 2005 and 2008 list dozens of both authorized and prohibited activities that, taken with several other relevant statutes and at least one executive order, apply in various contexts. Together, they prohibit members of the military from attending events like speeches, rallies, marches, debates, or any public demonstration while wearing their uniform, unless they receive approval by one of only a handful of generals or admirals listed in the document. This step is to ensure that individual military personnel do not give the appearance that the military institution supports the person, group, or cause at hand, while still allowing military personnel to represent their personal opinions as active and interested citizens. The regulations also mandate that members of the military must remain non-partisan and refrain from using their official position or authority to influence a campaign or election.

If the “apolitical norm” is confusing, how can we expect service members or political leaders to make sense of what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t? And why should we be surprised when service members are confused about whether the Marine at the rally or their own senior leaders are engaging in political activity?

Fortunately, the main provisions in these documents boil down to three rules of thumb, which we suggest can be communicated in one hokey acronym: avoid giving or taking a piece of the military’s PIE. In other words: avoid Partisan behavior; avoid Institutional endorsement; and avoid Electoral influence.

First, avoiding partisan behavior seems straightforward, but it can be difficult in practice in a nation that is polarized along partisan lines. Still, those in uniform – and senior leaders, in particular – most avoid creating the impression they are aligned with a political party. They must be aware of their own biases and of the perceptions they may convey.

Second, the military has been the nation’s most-admired institution for decades now, and everyone knows it. This fact creates strong incentives for individuals, groups, candidates, or causes to try to create the impression that the military supports them. Aligning themselves with those in uniform can seem an easy way to legitimize themselves or their goals or to shield them from opposition. But those in the military must avoid situations where their presence, especially in uniform, creates the impression that the military is granting its institutional endorsement.

And third, those in uniform should not use their official position or authority to interfere in – or to try to influence – elections. Even in cases where party is not the central fault line in a campaign, it is dangerous for democracy when those in uniform try to position themselves as the arbiter of political legitimacy. This has happened in places like Egypt — with dangerous, authoritarian results.

None of these rules of thumb keep service members from expressing their own political opinions or exercising their individual rights, but they should reshape how they exercise those rights and draw a boundary between their personal behavior and their professional behavior. As individual responsibility and rank increase, the lines between personal and professional may become harder – or impossible – to draw. Indeed, the more senior you become, the less you can ever truly speak for yourself and the more you have no choice but to speak for the institution.

Political pressures on the military have always existed, and it is hard for service members, and their leaders, to avoid giving away a piece of the military’s PIE, when political leaders, candidates, and groups are always trying to take a piece of the military’s PIE. As a powerful instrument of statecraft, political leaders of both parties have tried to wield the military or use it to garner greater domestic support by wrapping themselves in the veil of military prestige. On June 1st, for example, President Trump asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley to join him in his combat uniform for a photo op on his walk across Lafayette Square to Saint John’s Church. In a powerful commencement speech to the National Defense University, Milley apologized for participating and stated, “I should not have been there.” Others may want the military to take political positions to harm their opponents or to weaken the commander-in-chief, such as when Sen. John McCain tried to pressure Gen. Martin Dempsey to state that President Barack Obama’s Syria policy was not in the national security interest of the United States during his 2013 re-confirmation hearing. Growing political polarization and increased confidence in the military has only exacerbated these pressures, but this temptation has existed since time immemorial.

Nevertheless, its character in recent years has broadened and deepened. Under President Trump, the military has experienced heavy external political pressure, like the President signing a temporary travel ban on Muslim-majority countries inside the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes; regaling troops at CENTCOM and SOCOM about how much political support he commanded in the election because of them; urging sailors to lobby members of Congress on the defense budget; and his granting of clemency to convicted war criminals and then bringing them onstage during a political fundraiser. The military has also experienced heavy internal political pressure, such as when service members decided to cover up the USS John McCain out of fear that the president would be perturbed to see a ship named after his nemesis or when troops brought red MAGA hats and a Trump campaign banner to his visit at Ramstein Air Base.

Ideally, the Secretary of Defense and other senior civilian defense leaders should do their utmost to minimize these pressures on the military. It is incumbent on them to insulate the military from politicization to the extent possible. Likewise, senior military leaders should acknowledge to their troops that these pressures exist in the national security ecosystem. The challenge for them to consider is how and in what ways they can foment a command climate that does so in a professional and appropriate manner. Military officers, at all levels, need to be more comfortable talking about politics the right way instead of avoiding the topic altogether.

What military leaders can — and should — do now

Rather than let Clausewitz spin in his grave, military leaders at varying levels can take three key steps to help educate their troops and alleviate concerns of partisanship across the ranks, particularly at this delicate moment.

First, they should reaffirm their commitment to avoid giving anyone a piece of the military’s PIE: avoid partisanship; avoid institutional endorsement; and avoid elections. This acronym is admittedly hokey, but it needs to be memorable to supplant use of the ubiquitous and ultimately confusing “apolitical norm.” Focusing on these three elements will result in a richer discussion and clearer rules of thumb for troops and the public than simply tossing about glib warnings on politicization. And using them will help military leaders — and the troops they lead — draw clearer lines around inappropriate behavior.

Second, they should acknowledge that although the military is inherently political as a tool of statecraft, the use of the military as a symbol to legitimize political decisions can have harmful effects on the public’s trust in the military and in the military’s ability to provide expert advice. By reminding themselves and their subordinates that the military’s high domestic support can plummet — with catastrophic consequences — service members may internalize why a cautious approach is the right one.

Third, they should not become too cautious, avoiding all talk of these hard issues out of fear of stumbling or saying the wrong thing. Instead, they should foster critical conversations on topics like the perniciousness of political activity on social media, in line with Heidi Urben’s scholarship which finds that it is common for active-duty members of the military to make highly inappropriate statements on social media — even directed against elected leaders. They should debate thorny case studies in professional military education programs and senior leader sessions, such as partisan endorsements, what appears to be increased wariness on exercising the right to vote among military leaders, and both positive and negative examples of stepping over what often feels like an invisible line.

Our efforts to further refine and develop the notion of politicization in the military represent a step forward in an urgent conversation. The military is far too important in American society for it to be apolitical.