President Trump’s visit to Iraq stirred up some discussion about the politicization of the military because some soldiers held up Trump flags and asked him to sign MAGA hats. Some pundits argued this was illegal, though the military has said it isn’t. The disagreement is often clouded by a discussion of justice, since much of it hinges on a catch-all paragraph about “the spirit and intent” of the regulation at issue.
This leads to a larger conversation about politics and the military. Should the military be apolitical, as the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, has said? If so, does this mean individual soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines must never reveal they have political opinions while in uniform?
Any discussion of an apolitical military involves two things: the military and its individual members. The military takes official positions on things, as reflected in military policy. These policies are often partisan in nature, decided by whatever party controls government at the time. A military that forgets this, and instead thinks it is governed by some sort of working out of history or a progressive sense of justice that it is capable of discerning without benefit of direction from the political class chosen by the sovereign people is one that no longer works for the people.
Individual soldiers can speak for the military as a whole and sometimes do, but this does not mean everything every soldier says represents the official position of the military. It is easy to see the difference between a soldier speaking at his house, wearing civilian clothes, and a spokesman standing in front of a military facility wearing a uniform. The challenge comes when outward signs such as uniforms or titles are involved, but the person is speaking as a person. It is easy to see how a soldier, speaking for himself but dressed in uniform, could be misunderstood as speaking for the military.
Some people want to believe that the only solution is to pretend soldiers have no personal opinions, as if soldiers stop being citizens when they put on the uniform. The other extreme is to say that a soldier’s words should only be taken as the official military position when expressly stated, no matter what he is wearing. Others say soldiers have minds of their own and are still citizens, so reasonable limitations can be put on their freedom of speech, but individual soldiers can, even in uniform, discuss their individual political views.
I fall in this last camp and believe the goal of an apolitical military full of politically disinterested members is unrealistic and dangerous. Like the progressive view of the apolitical administrator, the idea that soldiers somehow can be devoted to the Constitution while also having no understanding of it, opinion about it, or passion for it seems wrong. Just as there are no incorruptible government administrators, there are no apolitical soldiers. Likewise, an apolitical military is a mercenary military, and one not compatible with a free society.
Understanding the Difference
Making a distinction between “apolitical” and “nonpartisan” is helpful here. Many people use the word “political” to describe the ugly disagreements and maneuvering that occur in the course of politics. In this sense the word does means something like partisan. But understanding the difference between political and partisan is helpful in understanding the nature of citizen-soldiers.
Here is how I understand it: politics is possible when we agree on the purpose and form of government. Within politics, there are disagreements about policy that stem from the variety of interests involved. From this we get partisanship. Politics concerns that which unites us, partisanship that which divides us. The former has to do with the whole, the entire polis, while the latter has to do with the parts (from which the word partisan is derived). To be political is to know and care about the whole; to be a partisan is to be zealous in support of one part, or interest. Partisanship is not always bad, indeed it is to be expected, but at its worst partisanship means being part of a faction as Madison described in Federalist 10.
This is not a distinction without a difference, for being in the military is always political. The oath soldiers and officers swear is a political oath, and swearing it is a political act. Citizens should want members of their military to be political, since only an understanding of and love for a thing will make men defend it well. Citizens of a republic especially should want their fighting men to be political, since free government can only be maintained by soldiers who are citizens and citizens who are soldiers. If soldiers are not political in this higher sense, they are nothing more than mercenaries, and free societies have never been well maintained by mercenary armies.
That being said, in normal times, the military should be nonpartisan. Politics is only possible when various parts can disagree, debate, and come to an agreement through peaceful means. It is easy to see how having the power, or even the perception of the power, of the military, on one side or another of a disagreement, might stifle that arrangement.
The military exists to protect the whole body politic and it must remain outside of the parts to enable the proper mix of disagreement and unity. Even if politics breaks down, the military cannot do much without changing the the regime itself, for the province of the military is force. If politics has to do with agreement, then it cannot be maintained by force and still be called politics.
But members of the military, if they are to love their country and its constitution fiercely, inevitably will be somewhat partisan. How could they not be? Individual citizens connect to the regime as a whole through patriotism, but they are still individual citizens with particular interests. We hope our soldiers think and are passionate about their country, so how can we ask them to hide their views completely? Men are not robots nor angels. The law and how we consider soldiers showing political affiliation must take this into account.
A Hidden Danger
For the most part, the law does take this into account and the soldiers who asked Trump for autographs on MAGA items in Iraq followed the law. Despite the fact that they were wearing uniforms (which were required since they were in a war zone), none of them claimed to be representing the military as a whole.
That some soldiers showed exuberance or enthusiasm did not inhibit others from not doing so. That some cheer for the president does not mean the military as a whole supports Trump’s re-election. If this were true, then how could the military even clap when the president gives a speech?
If the concern is that one political party will think that members of the military are against them politically, I have some bad news: the military is made up of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. It will always be so, and pretending otherwise doesn’t help.
If anything, pretending the military does not have a diversity of views is more dangerous than showing that it does. For one, hiding the fact that there is a diversity of political opinions in the military is likely to convince some citizens that the military is against them. This can be disastrous in hyperpartisan times like ours. But worse, any powerful institution that is enabled with the power to police opinions will find either that no one will think at all, or that most people will start to think in the same approved way. The latter is more likely to happen than the former, since the majority party will be able to silence the minority. In essence, an attempt to get a non-partisan military will result in a hyper partisan military, the exact thing our politics forbids.
In a free society like ours, the military should remember that it is political and therefore the military must remain non-partisan. But members of the military, who are also citizens, should be political, and we should expect that they are somewhat partisan. Soldiers should take care not to speak for or be perceived as speaking for the military, but this does not mean we should pretend they have no personal opinions or political views. The opposite is true, and it is healthy for non-military citizens to see that their views are shared by some portion of the military. The laws and regulations on soldiers expressing their political views seem to support this, and commentators critical of recent events might do well to consider why they are written as they are.
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