U.S. Military & Partisan Politics (Part 2)

By | January 17, 2021

[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:

  1. Partisanship.
  2. Institutional endorsements.
  3. 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.

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  1. A good summary by a lawyer can be found here: https://www.court-martial.com/ucmj-and-politics.html
  2. https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/partisan-politics/
  3. https://taskandpurpose.com/opinion/us-military-politics-politicization/
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.

16 thoughts on “U.S. Military & Partisan Politics (Part 2)

  1. Dale Paul Fox

    Never, ever avoid talking about the difference in right and wrong. Sometimes we need to debate the issues; fumble around looking for an answer; struggling for the truth; and making the discussions civil, logical, and practical. This is how we get to a better understanding of ourselves and our fellow workers and family. Not doing so is the epitome of self-censorship.

    Reply
    1. Max Foster

      … and this is why we need a military that can relate to the civil part of our society. Without a military that is “plugged into” us – the American peoples – then we can be easily threatened from within. The greatest danger facing America today is itself (those that fail to keep our military informed and strive to silence those they don’t beleive in.).

      Reply
  2. Serrano Bain

    Good article. I don’t have faith in either the intellect or leadership abilities of Gen. Milley.

    Reply
    1. Reggie Wallace

      I’m also a patriot but I don’t think Gen. Milley is.
      🇺🇸

      Reply
  3. Dennis Mathes

    Finding a solution to “Regulations governing military speech on political issues rely too heavily on broad standards within an unclear context.,” is not going to be easy. But as someone wrote earlier, it appears only the military is taking on the problem.

    Reply
  4. Jonnie the Bart

    Right! A pure apolitical approach instills a problematic thinking process as military leaders climb the ladder of responsibility. That is why, IMO, that Gen. Milley did not release his “apology” correctly. Better put this way in Gen. Satterfield’s article. However, I think the apology should NOT have been an apology but either say nothing or explain military values of that situation.

    Reply
      1. Eric Coda

        This is where the problem is… if you are told all your career that something is important and there are ‘regulations’ that enshrine the thinking, then you will not likely change much when you become a senior leader and when it IS necessary to make that transition.

        Reply
  5. Len Jakosky

    This is indeed a difficult subject and for me as well. I spent time in the military and in the news media (print). I found that most new media folks are liberals with “ideas” that they learned from liberal professors. They were taught not to trust the military. This creates an expected tension between the military and civil parts of our society. The basis of this is not action on the ground but an unfounded ideological bias.

    Reply
  6. Army Captain

    Nice finish to your ideas on the civil-military relationship that has always been fragile at best.

    Reply
    1. Tom Bushmaster

      Yes, I agree. I liked the idea that there are many people who are regularly reviewing this relationship and making legit arguments on how to make it better. However, to me, it seems that it is always the military that is doing its best to improve the relationship while the ‘civil’ side sits back and just waits. This does not say good things about the civil side (read that as political).

      Reply
      1. Forrest Gump

        I mostly agree Tom but I think the “civil” part of the equation is more than political. The biggest problem has always been with the news media, not so much the political. Just a thought on the subject. The media has always had a big problem with the military,,, well, at least since the Vietnam War anyway.

        Reply
    2. Georgie B.

      Yes, good comments. I would like to see more on this topic sometime in the future.

      Reply

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