U.S. Military & Partisan Politics (Part 1)

By | January 16, 2021

[January 16, 2021]  The idea, instilled in all incoming U.S. military officers, that we should stay out of politics has always puzzled me.  On the one hand, we are told that our behavior can have strategic effects, yet we keep our mouths shut about the political element of strategy.1

Like other publications,2 I was asked to comment on the January 6 events at our nation’s capital and the military’s relationship with ‘politics.’ Upfront, I’m going to admit that the subject is complex, and many smart-minded folks have attempted clarity to this subject. I’ve given it a lot of thought over the past few decades and shared my opinion with other U.S. military Flag Officers.

A mishmash of laws and regulations, historical norms, culture, and the relevant definition of ‘political’ makes discussion of the U.S. military and partisan politics challenging.  My go-to answer is to tell military leaders that it’s a good idea to avoid the subject and move on.  That, however, has never satisfied those I advise, nor did it sit well with me.

The idea that the U.S. military should stay out of partisan politics is problematic.  On the contrary, I always believed that what is in the discussion is more important.  In the last decade, my thinking on this subject was most influenced by professors Jovana Davidovic and Jens David Ohlin.  Earlier works by Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, and Ardant du Picq also shaped much of my baseline for how a professional military acts.

 The content of the discussion, rather than its relationship to politics, matters most.  For example, few believe that torture, genocide, targeting of civilians in war, or slavery are social goods but are more a reflection of humankind’s malevolence.  These are ideas that transcend political party.  Debate occurs on the subject more at the margins, and over definitions is what we hear about, not the main idea of right versus wrong.

In my four decades of military service, I heard many times that the military should stay out of partisan politics.  Of course, a partisan military can lead to significant social upheaval, as we have witnessed in Central and South America and Africa during the past several decades.  Yet, as I believed strongly, remaining neutral and keeping quiet can be foolish and wrong.  Not everything political is off-limits.

Recently, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley apologized for his photo op with President Trump at a church burned by anarchists.  In his apology, Gen. Milley said, “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” What he should have said something to the effect that “I believe racism is wrong and my presence there implied I think otherwise.”

Tomorrow, I will take up Part 2 of this two-part series on the U.S. military and partisan politics.  Specifically, my thinking on the current military code against political involvement will be discussed and the link to troop cohesion, morale, and building civil-military relations.

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  1. At the national level, “strategy” can be defined as the science and art of employing the diplomatic, intelligence, military, and economic (DIME) forces of a nation to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace and war.
  2. https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/partisan-politics/
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

17 thoughts on “U.S. Military & Partisan Politics (Part 1)

  1. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    On another note, I’m surprised Gen. Satterfield and his website have not been censored by the little commie-men of the media for his heresy! Just imagine that this narrative runs counter to the marching tune of leftist ideology.

    Reply
  2. Linux Man

    Might be that Gen. Mark Milley is a great combat soldier but he is certainly not cut out to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He proved it in his “apology.” Be a real soldier Milley; real soldiers don’t apologize for their actions that are right.

    Reply
    1. Max Foster

      Correct and this leds to several questions and points that should be made. Only one for me today ….. when the US military helps another country’s military like in Africa, the main focus should not be to build tactical warfighting capacity but to reduce corruption and the culture of corruption in that military. This is not trivial point. What should we also do within our own military to reduce corruption. Like the Superintendent of West Point who blatantly violated the cadet code and its historic use? Should we expel him from the US Army? Not likely. Senior officials need to understand the problem with corruption and how easy it is to instill itself in even the best organizations.

      Reply
      1. Jonnie the Bart

        Excellent points, Max but I don’t think under Pres-elect Joe Biden that will happen. In fact, I think he will unwittingly encourage more corruption in our military.

        Reply
      2. Dale Paul Fox

        That is a pretty scary scenario, Max. Oh, well said BTW. Under Democratic Party times in power, our militaries have seen both a reduction in resources, warfighting capacity, professionalism, and emphasize ethics less and less.

        Reply
        1. Dennis Mathes

          I’m not so sure about that Dale but I will take your word for it for now. Let’s ask Gen. Satterfield for further discussion and await his article tomorrow as the final part of this series.

          Reply
          1. Lynn Pitts

            No, I think Dale is right. Much of it is obvious, some less so. It is difficult to go back too far in the past to review it but under past-President Obama, the military was trending toward corruption. We saw this as more women and blacks, who were less qualified, were promoted over others clearly with more experience and greater leader skill sets. Then they publically championed the fact that this ‘proved’ the military was not sexist or racist. Dumb action, dumb leaders.

        2. Janna Faulkner

          I believe it and it will happen more now under Biden (fake president with a small “p”).

          Reply
      3. William “Will” Danner

        Well said Max. I always wait for your analysis first and then start thinking how I can better understand the issues.

        Reply
  3. Army Captain

    Yes, I too was always told to stay out of politics and that is still good advice. What Gen. Satterfield is advancing here is that there is a time and place for the military to be closely involved in politics. There are many examples like being part of the development of grand strategy. Thanks for a well-constructed article!

    Reply
    1. Tom Bushmaster

      At first, this seems counterintuitive and also counter American values. But I see a bit more clearly now. The trick (if we can call it that) is to involve the military in civil-military relations at the ‘right’ moment and ‘place.’ This should not be an easy one to judge.

      Reply
      1. Harry Donner

        Yep, and this is very very hard to make the right judgment on when and where. 😊

        Reply
    2. JT Patterson

      Thanks for the feedback Army Captain. I appreciate the reinforcement of Gen. Satterfield’s ideas when it comes to the military.

      Reply

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