The public forum has seen a flurry of debate about the politicization of America’s military. While this is an important issue to discuss, my suspicion is that not much of it is informed by the nuances of what “apolitical” means.
When people think of what constitutes an apolitical military, they often think in terms of the “Huntington Bargain.” That bargain, derived from a 1957 study by Samuel Huntington, refers to the hypothetical exchange between civil authorities and the military whereby the military promises to submit to civil control, stay out of domestic politics and maintain discipline within the profession in exchange for the civil authority’s promise to provide a degree of autonomy to the profession of arms. A more complete understanding is needed, however, if we are to preserve America’s apolitical military.
This essay uses the framework of three paradoxes—strength, proficiency and civic participation—to shed light on the complexity of sustaining an apolitical military. No one should assume there is any guarantee that the future will resemble the past with respect to the nonpartisan military the nation has created and sustained for so long. Nothing guarantees America’s apolitical military except the vigilance of both America’s civilian and military leaders.
Paradox of Strength
This first paradox is the one that receives the most attention. On one hand, the U.S. needs a military strong enough to defend the nation against its enemies, as well as to protect its vital interests and contribute to a global environment in which America can flourish. On the other, the U.S. military cannot be so strong that it threatens the democracy it exists to protect and serve.
Most people understand the balance in this paradox as civil control of the military, which is formally established in U.S. law and informally in American military culture and embedded through professional military education and professional development programs.
Paradox of Proficiency
The second paradox receives much less focus. One node of this paradox acknowledges that the military must be proficient in what is essentially a political activity—waging war and using force. Strategic, political objectives govern all uses of force. Without such objectives, using force risks becoming an illegal or immoral act.
Strategic political objectives— hammered out in often contentious civil-military dialogue among senior political and military leaders—provide force its purpose. From these objectives, senior civil and military leaders can then derive the proper ways military force and the nonmilitary elements of power will be used to achieve the objectives set.
The other node, however, requires that the participation of senior military leaders in the civil- military dialogue stops at the door of partisan political discussions. For example, once the discussion turns from the decision about why and how to use military force to a conversation about how these decisions may affect domestic politics, senior military leaders must recuse themselves.
The common understanding of this paradox is that American senior military leaders provide “best military advice” to the nation’s political leaders. This understanding, however, hides an important nuance: At the most senior levels, “best military advice” rendered in the civil-military dialogue is relative to political objectives and is, therefore, inherently political-military advice.
Paradox of Civic Participation
The last paradox is beginning to receive the attention it deserves, but in the age of ubiquitous information and ever-expanding forms of social media, it needs more public discussion. The first node of this paradox is this: A citizen who serves in uniform has a right to participate in the democratic process. The other node, however, acknowledges that such participation cannot develop into a “political bloc” that can be viewed as a form of lobbying or political action activity.
While the first two paradoxes have standard interpretations, the third does not. What all three share in common, though, is the challenge of each paradox is not in its apparent contradictory nodes, but in the space between the nodes. The nodes are not rigidly separated. Rather, the space between them is permeable. So, each paradox contains a challenge of balance, which means both political and military leaders must routinely reevaluate competing requirements and make adjustments to behaviors and structures.
The paradox of strength, for example, requires a strong military, which rests on a sufficiently robust research and development and production capacity. The strength of the nation’s industrial base directly affects the nation’s military strength. The industrial base cannot, however, come to dominate America’s economy. Doing so would threaten the democracy the military is designed to protect. The paradox of strength is not just one of civil control of the military, it is also one of proper use of that military. For example, our Constitution, and the code of laws that flow from it, allows federal military force to be used within our borders only under specific conditions. Using the strength of America’s military force inappropriately inside the U.S. would erode the apolitical nature of our military and have serious constitutional consequences.
The paradox of proficiency precludes, as a general rule, active military officers from openly participating in partisan politics. At the same time, this general rule must also acknowledge that some retired military officers do become political figures. Gens. George Washington, Ulysses Grant, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower are the most prominent examples. Gens. Colin Powell and Jim Mattis and Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft provide more recent examples.
Even so, the space between the nodes of this paradox should not be so free-flowing that it allows former military figures—recruited for their rank or position— to become props in partisan campaigns. Useful though such props may be, both political and military leaders should avoid this kind of partisan political action, for it risks creating the impression that America’s military is just one more influence group, thereby threatening to politicize America’s military.
Challenge of Overuse
The paradox of proficiency presents a second challenge, that of overuse. This challenge is especially dangerous if coupled with the second challenge that emerges from the paradox of strength: inappropriate use of the military. In the past few years, trust and confidence in many U.S. institutions has eroded, but not so with respect to America’s military. While this is good news for those of us who remember how low the military stood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the current standing potentially has a dark side: that the military will be seen as a solution to domestic problems. Proficiency in using force to attain strategic political aims does not translate into proficiency in solving domestic problems.
Again, balancing the seemingly contradictory nodes of this paradox is the challenge, not acknowledging the contradictions. And the balancing requires both political and military leaders’ attention. In neither of the first two paradoxes can short-term expediency replace long-term values. The same will be true of the third paradox.
The paradox of civic participation holds that those in uniform remain citizens. They retain, therefore, their right to vote and the corresponding obligation to be sufficiently informed to exercise that right responsibly. This is an individual right essential to our democracy. On the other hand, those in uniform cannot become so identified with party ideology that they lose their identity as selfless servants to the nation. Yet the ubiquity and supposed anonymity of social media may be moving America’s military in that direction.
Various social media platforms allow users to identify themselves not only by name but also by profession. This data becomes useful to political leaders and their staffs, as are the comments made in chat rooms. Data and the comments attributable to military members have the potential not only to separate those in uniform into political voting blocs, but also to separate one bloc from another in ways inconsistent with selfless service—a key military value essential to preserving an apolitical military.
Maintaining each of these three paradoxes in a healthy tension is important to the preservation of an apolitical military. Each paradox has its own inherent risks and challenges, and no senior leader, military or political, should take the balances in any for granted. An apolitical military does not maintain itself. That takes leadership. Getting one out of balance is problematic. Having two or three out of balance magnifies the risk.
Keeping the delicate and complex balance begs at least two important questions. First, are senior military and political leaders—retired or still serving—behaving in a way that maintains proper balance? Second, are current and recent-past military and civilian practices tipping the scales in the wrong direction, thus putting both American democracy and the apolitical profession of arms at risk?
In addition to senior political and military leaders, the citizenry at large must ask these questions. Our democracy should demand that the answers become part of both private conversations, public discourse, and the classrooms of public and professional military education. Laws, regulations, common practices and traditions must continually be reevaluated relative to conditions, then updated or reformed to match reality—this is what “constant rebalancing” means, and this is what a democracy needs.
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Lt. Gen. James Dubik, U.S. Army retired, a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, is a senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and is the author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.