[January 17, 2021] Military officers are educated throughout their career that the military should stay out of partisan politics. Yesterday, in part 2 of this two-part series (link here), I argued there is a contradiction between this idea and the fact that what we do can be politically important. Thus, not everything political is off limits.
The U.S. military has codified a politically neutral position in its Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)1 and in other regulations such as DoD Directive 1344.10. However, political neutrality regulations do not prohibit political engagement altogether. Members can vote, give contributions to political groups, attend political meetings, sign petitions, etc.
A politically neutral military is necessary for the common defense for a number of reasons.2
- To prevent politics from dividing troops from within and separating the military from the society it is organized to protect.
- Divisions within the military threaten its effectiveness and ability to unite behind a common cause.
- Helps leaders maintain authority.
- Ensures civilian trust and confidence in the military.
In theory, these regulations for political neutrality promotes troop cohesion and morale, helps maintain civilian trust in the military, and supports the nation’s security policies. The question for me is whether following these regulations effectively advances these aims. I argue that there are times it does not.
When military personnel speak up publically on political issues, they frequently do their best to avoid the appearance of commenting on partisan politics. Nevertheless, what they say can avoid the question of what is right or wrong. There is nothing wrong with any military service member publically and categorically condemning genocide, torture, and racism. The problem is that by standing up for fundamental values and human rights can appear to advance a partisan agenda.2
Regulations governing military speech on political issues rely too heavily on broad standards within an unclear context. This requires senior military officials to make repeated judgment calls in a hot political environment. What is said today might be just fine but said at another place and time can be damning. By doing so, it does infringe upon the freedom of expression that all our military services say they support.
Therefore, in my opinion, regulations (or statutory laws, for that matter) that require an entirely apolitical military are not useful. Jim Golby and Mara Karlin propose that instead of a blanket “military is apolitical” approach, three rules could be adopted.3 The military should avoid:
- Institutional endorsements.
- Electoral influence.
Political neutrality regulations must have limits. It may be hard, but domestic issues that undermine troop morale and cohesion and civil-military relations are appropriate topics for public statements, regardless of the appearance of partisanship. Racial injustice, torture, genocide, and targeting civilians are just a few of those topics.
- A good summary by a lawyer can be found here: https://www.court-martial.com/ucmj-and-politics.html