Servicemembers and public debates: Ideas for navigating today’s rocky political environment

This week I attended a terrific conference sponsored by the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy entitled “Blurred Lines: Civil-Military Relations and Modern War.”  One of the issues my panel aimed to address was how (or even whether) active-duty officers can contribute to debates about controversial issues in an era of hyper-partisanship and political sensitivity.  Allow me to share some thoughts about how that might be done effectively in a public context.

Some background: in preparing for the conference I reviewed an article I wrote in 1996 entitled Melancholy Reunion: A Report from the Future on the Collapse of Civil-Military Relations in the United StatesIn it, I proposed something I called the “New American Model of Civil-Military Relations.”  The “New American Model” was intended to provide “practical, specific guidance whenever possible” as to how to build and maintain successful civil-military relations. These are recommendations that I would still make today.

The Model asserts that the military needs to be focused on external threats as opposed to domestic issues, but also contends that:

The centerpiece of the New American Model is the principle that effective civilian control of a large, professional military in a democracy requires pervasive transparency—especially during peacetime.  Necessary oversight can occur only when the military’s thoughts and actions are made plain to the society it serves.  The model has faith in the people’s wisdom and, therefore, completely rejects the idea that “military and national security issues are just too complex [for the general public], and can be understood only by a select few.”

Consequently, the Model requires candor from military professionals, and offers some guidelines:

The model recognizes that the most difficult issue is determining when candor should be expressed publicly.  Several key factors are involved: 

Candor can never be used to defy or subvert direct orders. Obedience to lawful orders must be instantaneous. Parenthetically, unlawful orders must be ruthlessly exposed. 

Candor can never be an excuse for disrespectful behavior. 

Candor must never be used to replace the strength of an idea with the power of an of­ficer’s rank or position. 

There is a fundamental and critical difference between candidly expressing one’s views and using government resources to try to implement them. The order to implement a decision must be properly authorized in accordance with approved policy. Thus, public candor is often best expressed prior to a decision being made. 

All this having been said, the model starts with a strong presumption that civil-military relations are best served by transparency, and that frequently means public candor.  Against this backdrop, the model urges consideration of two inverse relationships for weighing the appropriateness of public candor in a given situation. 

The first is largely common sense. It generally holds that an inverse relationship exists between the presumption that public discourse is appropriate on the one hand and the rank and position of the speaker on the other.  Thus, fewer restrictions should be placed on the First Amendment activities of junior personnel.  Conversely, a four-star commander is obliged to be more circumspect.  These relationships go back to the fundamental tenet of the New American Model: military officers must not employ the power of their rank or position to lend undeserved strength to their views. 

The second holds that an inverse relationship usually exists between the presumption that public candor is appropriate and the proximity to and effect on ongoing operations, especially those involving combat.  This would mean, for instance, that public criticism of a battle plan immediately before its execution would be inappropriate. 

Of course, the two relationships can overlap.  Senior field commanders, for example, must not debate the orders of their commander in chief during combat—the very reason that General MacArthur ran afoul of President Truman. 

As a further illustration, consider the case of an Army colonel who was disciplined during the early stages of the Bosnia deployment of 1995—a noncombat situation—for allowing a reporter to quote him concerning his views that Croatians were racist and that the deployment’s political objectives could not be achieved within the one-year time frame set by the Clinton administration.  Applying the New American Model to that incident, the colonel’s public remark about the Croatians was inappropriate, given the time and place it was made.  His views on the one-year time frame, however, were appropriate because they represent the kind of candid judgment the American public needs from its military leaders. 

Accordingly, the New American Model does not maintain that the military should be public cheerleaders for the politics of the president or the president’s party. This notion is wholly distinct from the question of following lawful orders.  With respect to such orders, obedience must be, as already noted, instantaneous and complete.  That clearly understood, we must appreciate the Constitution’s contemplation that civilian control be a shared responsibility of the executive and legislative branches.  The loyalty the armed forces owe their commander in chief does not extend to using the military’s prestige—not to mention its physical power—to support any political party. 

Of course, uniformed writers and speakers need to comply with, among other things, Department of Defense (DoD) Instruction 5230.29 (“Security and Policy Review of DoD Information for Public Release”) as implemented by their respective service.  Care needs to be taken to include the required DoD disclaimer in most publications and speeches.

Given the ability of adversaries to gather and “crunch” big data today, it isn’t surprising that the military is much more sensitive about information security than they were back in 1996.  For example, the Air Force recently “froze” its public outreach efforts until “new training [can be accomplished] on how to avoid divulging sensitive information before being allowed to interact with the press.”  Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas, director of public affairs, said the training could be completed “in the coming weeks.”  Defense News reported that:

Brig Gen. Thomas

“In today’s challenging information environment marked by great power competition, we will continue to be as transparent with the American public as possible while protecting sensitive information on our operations and capabilities,” Thomas told Defense News. “We owe both to the public, and it is vitally important for the public to understand what we are doing on their behalf and with their tax dollars.”

Frankly, I would expect that the new processes might make it more difficult but hardly impossible to get material cleared. The Air Force and, really, all the services recognize the value of communicating with the public.

That said, social media is as – or more – important than other means of communication, but may be the hardest to navigate.  Accordingly, DoD’s social media policies and standards of conduct rules need to be carefully reviewed, along with their service-specific analogs (see e.g., here).

Timing matters in our hyper-polarized political environment, particularly since almost everything these days has a political dimension.  For this reason, it is usually best for military commentators to limit their speaking and writing to matters well within their expertise.  The election season is an especially tricky period where even the best-intended commentary can raise questions.

Consider that a seasoned senior commander earned himself troubling headlines about ‘blasting’ a candidate during the last Presidential campaign.  The general denounced “carpet bombing,” apparently unaware of the law and practice regarding the tactic.   Much the same can be said about the complex circumstances where otherwise protected civilians may become subject to the law of belligerent reprisal.  In bitterly contested elections, partisans are all too willing to take the comments of a serving officer out of context and use them to bludgeon an opponent.

Why?  Despite a lot of press criticism, the military still enjoys very strong support among the American people.  For example, a 2016 Pew Research Center Poll rated the military the highest among those groups in which they had a “great deal” of confidence that they would “act in the best interests of the public.”  A Harris Poll that same year rated being a military officer as among the “most prestigious” professions in America.  In mid-2017, Gallup reported:

Americans have given the military the highest confidence rating of any institution in American society for nearly two decades. Asked to explain these positive views, Americans cite their perceptions of the professional and competent way in which the military has executed its responsibilities, followed by a focus on the importance of what the military does for the country.

At the end of 2017, Gallup also found that the military officers rated second only to nurses among the professions in terms of “honesty and ethical standards.”  Earlier this month, Lawfare’s polling project concerning “public confidence in government institutions on national security matters” found that “[o]nce again, the military enjoys the highest level of public confidence of any government institution.

It isn’t difficult to understand why politicians of every stripe want to associate themselves with the military.  Consequently, those still serving need to be cautious about how, when, where, and in what ways they express their opinions, as otherwise they may appear to politically biased.  Servicemembers can never forget that public esteem is extremely helpful to the military, particular as it seeks to persuade America’s best and brightest to join the ranks.  But that esteem could prove fragile if the public comes to see the military as just another partisan institution.

Being cautious, of course, is not the same as being silent.  America – indeed, any democracy – needs to understand its military.  But for a variety of reasons, many Americans don’t know much about the armed forces, even as they evince effusive respect and esteem for those who serve.  Who better than someone in uniform to educate them?  In a democracy, it is import for the citizenry to know what their military is thinking, so long as it can be done in professional, apolitical way.

The value of public discussion goes beyond the very important task of educating the body politic.  My war college classmate (and former NATO commander) Admiral Jim Stavridis wrote an essay in Proceedings that challenged those military to:

ADM Stavridis’ memoir is one of his many publications

[D]are to read and develop your understanding.  Carve out the time to think and form new ideas.  Dare to speak out and challenge assumptions and accepted wisdom if your view differs from them.  Have the courage to write, publish, and be heard.  Launch your ideas and be an integral part of the conversation.  Why?  Because it makes our nation and our profession stronger.  In the end, no one of us is as smart as all of us thinking together.”

I enthusiastically second his call, much because he adds another important element to the rationale: robust discussion and debate strengthen national security by producing better military decisions.  Victor Davis Hanson has pointed out that democratic societies are such “ferocious warmakers” much because freedom “creates a different type of freethinking individual, one who looks to himself and his immediate group of comrades for solutions rather than the rigid orders of distant priests, strongmen, or divinely-appointed kings.”  Sharing and debating ideas through speaking and writing feeds the creativity that will produce success in the battlespaces of the 21st century and elsewhere.

As servicemembers and other military leaders get involved in the conversation, guidelines like those in the New Model as well as contemporary DoD criteria can help ensure that they are in the conversation and don’t become the conversation.  In that way, their ideas can more effectively navigate the reefs and shoals of today’s rocky political environment.

As we like to say on Lawfire, check the facts, assess the law, and decide for yourself.

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