[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.
- 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.