No, the Military Dragged Itself in to Politics
play political games, get political prizes
Every few years another article comes up concerned about the politicization of the military. Throughout human history this has been a “concern” – and rightfully so. In the founding of our own republic this was a top concern to the point we are not really supposed to have a standing army (though we do), we put a civilian at the head of it, and … well, here’s the applicable part;
Article I, Section 8, Clause 12(AKA “The Army Clause”: “The Congress shall have Power To . . . raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years,”
Our standing Army is still too large, but that is a topic for another day.
It is welcome and good that we have these conversations with each other on a regular basis, as no good comes to any republic when the military leadership decides they can do a better job than civilians.
When one of our favorite thinkers weighs in on the topic, Kori Schake, it deserves a good read over at War on the Rocks. (NB: on the same topic and also at WOTR, a 2020 article by David Barno and Nora Bensahel is also worth a read). There are some gaps in her discussion that I’ll get in to in a bit, but let’s look at her solid opening;
American respect for its military is plummeting. It has dropped by 30 points in the past five years in surveys conducted by the Reagan Foundation. In their recently released poll, less than half of respondents have a great deal of trust and confidence in America’s military. Unless both civilian and military leaders take corrective actions to repair the breach, this will impede recruiting, diminish unit cohesion, and damage the bond between the military and the public it serves.
As concerning as the drop itself is the reason. 62 percent of respondents said they were losing trust and confidence because the military leadership is becoming overly politicized. Nor is the attitude partisan: 60 percent of Democrats gave that answer, as did 60 percent of Independents and 65 percent of Republicans. Only 35 percent of respondents expressed confidence in the military’s ability to act in a professional and nonpolitical manner.
Even though the American public has greater trust in their military than most nations have in theirs – and there is a lot of institutional capital there to burn through – the drop along all political persuasions is significant. As reported by Gallup, they are returning to levels not seen in over 35 years as it recovered from the decade after the fall of Saigon.
Note the most dramatic fall is from what traditionally been the “pro military” side of the spectrum. That is where the story is.
Military leaders should stick to the core functions of the profession and master saying “that’s a more appropriate question for the secretary of defense.” Politicians should stop hiding behind uniforms when enacting unpopular policies, and expend their efforts on passing relevant legislation in areas urgently in need of attention.
Yes, they should. However, in the last few years we have seen the most senior uniformed members of the military from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, USA and the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gidlay, USN happily jump forward to weigh hip deep in to the most divisive domestic political cultural war topics – specifically racial essentialism.
While Schake does mention this later in the article obliquely, it is important to understand when in front of the people’s elected representatives, Milley expended substantial institutional and personal capital arguing about how critical it was to his job to understand, “white rage.”
Gilday on multiple occasions promoted and defended the cancerous racial essentialism of Ibram X. Kendi. Taking that example from his boss, the Chief of Naval Personnel let one of the worst kept secrets out and, well, let’s let him speak for himself and the institution he serves.
“I think we should consider reinstating photos in selection boards,” Nowell said Tuesday at The Navy League’s 2021 Sea-Air-Space Exposition. “We look at, for instance, the one-star board over the last five years, and we can show you where, as you look at diversity, it went down with photos removed.”
Telling a large portion of the people who would serve that you will not only judge them first by the color of their skin, but then determine – in the zero sum game that is promotions – what their career progression would be by the same – how does that make the military as an institution look good or have a promising future?
We have to understand that too much of our defense nomenklatura have become “of” DC, and not just stationed “in” DC – absorbing all that comes from that isolated and unbalanced intellectual environment. Outside the beltway, racial essentialism is seen for what it actually is – racism – something that is rightfully disgusting to Americans of all stripes. Part of the military’s problem is classic elite capture by an unaware and pliable leadership.
Military leaders worry about veteran political activism reflecting on the active-duty force. But they don’t believe public concerns about politicization of the military are affecting the force. Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, recently said that “I don’t see and hear a conversation or an impact of woke-ism in the rank and file, at all.” The Army’s head of recruiting believes the concerns are having no effect on Americans’ willingness to serve.
That is the least shocking news in the article and does not speak well to the Army's head of recruiting or General Berger’s breadth and depth of independent reading or their social circle. They should talk to members of Congress about the communications they receive from serving members on the topic.
If Berger had not heard anything, it is because it is clear to everyone who works for him that he does not want to hear it. Anyone who has been a staff officer on a major staff knows that dynamic.
I have active duty officers and enlisted reach out to little ‘ole me almost daily on what some now call “woke-ism.” A plurality of each emphasized how closed the discussion space is. You are told and you nod and comply. There is no conversation. There are no alternative perspectives. There is diktat.
A few years ago I even had a serving 4-star via a rather strange cloak-and-dagger operation have an intermediary he discovered knew me IRL deliver to me, by hand, a written on dead tree outline of his concerns – what I had right, what I was a bit off frequency on, and what I was missing on this very topic. The request was to "not stop."
“No effect?” Sorry, that simply is not true. The parents who are rebelling against “woke-ism” in their local school boards over the last few years will look to a military supporting “white rage” research and Kendism with a not sympathetic eye with their children’s future.
The crossover is there and if senior leaders would wander out of their bubble, they would hear it.
It is much more than that. The American public see senior leadership who refuse to defend their own institution. Our military reflects its nation, so of course will have many of the same ills. There are the usual suspects who will use any topic to bash the military they will never like and will attempt to paint the military with a very thick and broad brush – often using questionable metrics to describe a military full of racists, sexists, and rapists – and when confronted our senior leaders either remain silent or accept the worst descriptions of the personnel they lead.
Service members see that. Family members see that.
They also see a senior uniformed leadership who will discipline enlisted personnel, company grade and field grade officers with aplomb, but do nothing but defend, excuse, or even look the other way from abject failures from fellow General and Flag Officers (GOFO).
The greatest national humiliation of our nation since the fall of South Vietnam was only 15-months ago, and yet who has taken responsibility or been held accountable? It was at best a negotiated surrender and retreat under fire – and yet in front of the people’s elected representatives we made excuses, fudged, or made the farcical claim that Kabul was a successful Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) (see 2:38).
The whole disaster was treated like the weather. No one was to blame. It just “happened.”
Nothing hurts confidence more than failure ... compounded by refusal to accept responsibility for it.
In what really should be a separate article and given more space, Schake mentions a problem that has gotten much worse the last decade;
But there have been a number of developments over the past several decades that have contributed to the perception of the military’s politicization. Veterans’ endorsement of presidential candidates has been an escalating arms race since retired Marine Commandant Paul X. Kelly endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980. Presidential campaigns now routinely roll out lists of hundreds of retired flag officers and include uniformed military in campaign ads. The Bush administration left it to the military to persuade Congress to support the Iraq surge. In 2016, retired Gen. John Allen spoke at the Democratic National Convention to endorse the Democratic candidate while, in a more egregious move, retired Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn led chants of “lock her up” at the Republican National Convention.
Little correction here, Kelley (with an e) endorsed Bush41 in ‘88, not Reagan in ‘80, but he isn’t really “Patient Zero” in the modern iteration of retired GOFO injecting themselves in to national politics for fun and clout. Kelley did not get any “reward” for the endorsement. When Bush41 became CINC, Kelley worked as a lobbyist and the Chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission.
The real “Patient Zero” was Admiral William J. Crowe, USN. Unlike Kelley whose terminal position was Commandant of the Marine Corps, Crowe was the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was appointed by Clinton to the Ambassadorship to the United Kingdom the year after he took power.
Crowe’s relief as CJCS was General Colin Powell, USA who served until 1993. As most recall, he was considered a possible Presidential candidate in 1996, was Secretary of State for Bush43 and became a high profile supporter of President Obama.
So, there’s a template for you – and more have followed.
Kelley, Crowe, and Powell’s political actions are not seen as exceptionally poor, they were rather tastefully done – but that flavor has changed significantly, especially the last decade.
While Flynn's behavior mentioned by Schake did not help the military’s reputation on the left side of the political spectrum, retired USAF General Mike Hayden continues to be one of the most red in tooth and claw left wing partisans in the public space to the right side, including heading the now disgraced list of 51 intelligence professionals who tried to cover-up the release of the content of Hunter Biden’s laptop after years of almost Hale-Bopp conspiracy beliefs about Russia. His over the top partisanship soured many on the right against what they saw as a growing DC GOFO leftism that advanced with each year.
Popping up on a regular basis about whatever was "the latest thing" was the comically vicious presence of retired Army Lieutenant General Mark (full semi-auto) Hertling. Both Hayden and Hertling continue to lead with their status as a general officer - retired or not.
That makes an impact.
In this stew of the last decade you could not turn your head without the gratuitous use of a person's status as GOFOs to promote the most contentious domestic political issues. A textbook example would be retired Army Generals David Petraeus, Stanley McCrystal, and Martin Dempsey, along with retired Admiral William McRaven, USN diving into, of all things, domestic gun control.
You also have people like retired Vice Admiral Mike Franken, USN, who ran for Senate in Iowa. Just look at his campaign page. His first three pics are of him with a “Navy” hat, him in choker whites, then a DDG. He does have a disclaimer at the bottom,
“Vice Admiral Franken (Ret) is a former member of the U.S. Navy. Use of his military rank, job titles, and photographs in uniform does not imply endorsement from the Department of Defense.“
That’s nice, but everyone who voted against him was, at least subconsciously, voting against a man in uniform. Again, in a 50/50 nation whose founding documents are suspicious (rightfully) of senior military leaders, it's not a good look.
As a guy whose “Mark Twain” is “CDR Salamander” & dabbles in politics more than I should – I’m not against mentioning your military rank after you retire … but a middling field grade officer is not a GOFO and if done deftly isn't a problem at all.
None of those GOFO mentioned above have been very deft in their high profile partisanship. That makes an impact, and no one is forcing them to do it.
Indeed, if anything, we have fewer politicians with military backgrounds than before, covered again in WOTR, this time by our friend Claude Berube;
Retired military getting in to politics is just part of our republic. Retired GOFO, due to their unique position in our culture, have a special responsibility retired E5 and O5 do not. We cannot/should not outlaw it ... but likewise, neither should they be treated with deference or kid gloves.
Welcome to the rice fields, sir.
So, where does it go outside the lines?
Well, we’ve been living in a master class of wrongness as of late;
…the serving chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff marched with the president in battle dress through a public square that had been forcibly cleared during the 2020 social justice protests. Gen. Mark Milley admirably apologized, but the image is likely to be what most in the public remember long after. Milley has leaned into other political controversies too: offering his view of critical race theory during Congressional hearings and backgrounding virtually every journalist’s account of the Trump administration in order to cast himself as the savior of the republic.
As I mentioned earlier this year, the rapid fall in the reputation of our military has accelerated under Milley’s watch under two administrations. While it is comfortable for some on both sides of the political spectrum to try directly or indirectly make this a political issue – indeed this entire article is about politics – at its core it is a problem with our uniformed leadership and their view of themselves and their position.
It did not start with Milley – but he piled worse on top of bad.
Milley clumsily engaging on political topics has made it fair game for Congress to press him and other military leaders — including every flag officer that is put forward for three-star promotion — on political issues.
As Congress should. Milley has been the most overtly political CJCS since the equally misaligned-with-mission Admiral Mike Mullen, USN. If the uniformed senior leadership is going to be political, then the actual political bodies in our nation will react to them like antibodies to a foreign object. This is good, and healthy - and well deserved. If the institutional military does not like it, then they need to promote different people or better police their own.
If they need help, call the Australian military for some peer guidance.
The overwhelming majority of the military — including and especially its leadership — are pleading to be left out of the febrile partisan politics of the moment. For the good of the country, politicians should heed that plea.
I disagree strongly here. Nope. No one gets out easy like that. The uniformed military leadership does not get to dive in to politics and make excuses for politicians on one side of the spectrum, and then get upset when the other side of the political spectrum calls them in to account.
If you play stupid games, you get stupid prizes. The military suffers as a whole, yes, because these leaders decided to spend the institutional capital of their services in support of domestic political fights or their personal political futures.
There is serious work to be done to defend America. Politicizing the military will make it weaker — not stronger.
Yes there is, and it starts with having GOFO depoliticize themselves. That won’t happen if their actions are allowed to go unchallenged.
Milley, Gilday and others are already political. Reset with new leaders who understand that they need to take us in a healthier direction, and the rest will follow.
If not, then either the Executive Branch or the Legislative Branch should bring them to heel.
If they do that, then the Judicial Branch won’t have to step in at the last minute - no one wants that.