Not a campaign prop: avoiding politicizing the military in a hyper-partisan election season

As readers may recall, we’ve talked a number of times about civil-military relations, and the importance of keeping the military nonpartisan (see e.g., here, here, and here).  Alex Ward, a reporter for Vox, asked me about the brief appearance of some uniformed troops at the nominating conventions of both parties, and the risk of politicization of the armed forces.  His excellent article (“US troops aim to stay out of partisan events. Both parties used them as convention props”) included a few of my remarks, but for your consideration, here’s the full, lightly-edited text of what I gave him:

It’s vitally important for any democracy for its military establishment to be nonpartisan in fact and appearance.  I believe that the perception of nonpartisanship is a key reason polls pretty consistently show the military as the most trusted institution in American society. 

With all the polarization these days, Americans across the political spectrum need to know that their military is staying out of the partisan bickering.  Especially given the current disruptions, I think the public really wants – and needs – to have confidence in the stability and impartiality of their armed forces. 

Beyond the philosophical imperatives for a nonpartisan military, there are also the very practical concerns: in order to ensure the nation’s security in a threat-filled world, America needs to draw from the best across society, so it’s essential that it be perceived as a place where merit, not political affiliation, is what’s wanted and respected.  We have to avoid even the suggestion that there is some sort of political litmus test for military service

Of course, people in the military have political views just like everyone else, but it’s critical that those preferences not be manifested in official behavior or reasonably perceived to have been.  This is why it is so important during the election season that military members not to be seen in uniform at partisan political events, absent an explicit, apolitical, military reason for being there. 

Bona fide reasons could include providing essential security or communications services for a senior civilian official who is otherwise properly engaged in political activity, but in no way should such incidental presence be leveraged for partisan purposes.  The military must not be used as a partisan prop. 

I expect we’ll hear the words of retired or former military personnel weaponized by both campaigns in the coming months.  This can be concerning, as it could indicate an unhealthy politicization of the armed forces, particularly if they suggest they are representing the views of those still serving. 

Personally, however, I have more faith in the American people than it seems some others do, as I believe that most can distinguish between those still serving, and those who no longer are.  My sense is that the public respects military service, is interested in the perspective of former and retired members, but does not lemming-like adopt their political views or endorsements. 

Still, I would urge the public and the media to give the partisan views of former military members the same kind of scrutiny they would give to anyone who chooses to be in the political arena.  Just because they served in the military doesn’t mean their opinions are sacrosanct.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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