The Professional Military Ethic and Political Dissent: Has the Line Moved?

August 15, 2011

The June 2010 firing of General Stanley A. McChrystal, Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan, once again highlighted the friction that occurs when military matters and civilian policy collide and has prompted many to reconsider whether the line separating military affairs and political matters has moved or been erased. It is generally believed that the Army has a long-standing history of avoiding direct involvement with politics or politically charged debates. A closer examination of that history, however, casts doubt on this perception. In the 236 years of the United States’ existence, members of the military—both junior and senior—have made many incursions into the political realm, with varying results. The apolitical culture that has informed the Professional Military Ethic, born during the two World Wars of the 20th century, has failed to evolve along with the environment in which it exists. Changes in the behavior of retired general officers, the increasing complexity of the operational environment, the constantly evolving generational characteristics of military personnel and the transformational advances in communications technologies necessitate a change in the military–political boundary line that restricts servicemembers from entering public debate and voicing dissent on political issues that affect the armed services.

The line that delineates the restrictions placed on the military has its roots in the founding fathers’ understandable aversion to standing armies, a result of their experience with British troops before and during the American Revolution. Therefore, they wanted legislators to have complete control of the nation’s military. The founding fathers ensured this control through various means, including dividing the authority between Congress, who raises and funds the military, and the President, who commands it. This concept of civilian control of the military was inculcated in the Continental Army by George Washington after the start of the Revolution and continued with the creation of the United States Army. Early military regulations reflected a slightly altered version of the British articles of war. It is interesting that a nation who had just liberated itself from monarchical rule would so quickly adopt such laws regarding warfare and Soldier conduct. But John Adams, who was given the thankless task of updating the inadequate colonial articles of war at the behest of General Washington, felt that “there was extant one system of articles of war which had carried two empires to the head of mankind, the Roman and the British” and was “convinced that nothing short of the Roman and British discipline could save us.”

Since the mid-16th century, the British articles of war had intermittently contained various prohibitions against contemptuous, traitorous or disrespectful words directed at 2 the sovereign. Adams altered these references to prohibit words against “the authority of the United States in Congress assembled, or the legislature of any of the United States in which he may be quartered.”2 These articles evolved their appropriation by Adams and form the foundation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, with the aforementioned language serving as the basis for Article 88, Contemptuous Words against the President. While political dissent does not necessarily include contemptuous words against elected officials, dissenting statements often are measured against Article 88 first, so it is important for both elected officials and members of the military to understand its context. These articles of war were administered poorly, however, because they were not codified by the War Department or made available to the officer corps.3 As a result, they were unevenly enforced prior to the War of 1812.

The line between the military and politics was blurred in the first hundred years of the United States’ existence, as officers regularly used political influence to advance professional careers and personal interests. Frontier Constabulary duty following the Revolution found officers assuming both civilian and military authority roles in their areas of operation.4 Officers formed an association to protest the post-War of 1812 drawdown, bringing their message to Congress and the press.5 However, the 1820s and 1830s found officers embracing their military professionalism and thinking about service to the nation as opposed to serving a political party.6 This feeling carried through the mid-19th century. In 1866, Army and Navy Journal repeatedly urged apolitical behavior from officers, telling them to stay “aloof from all politicians” and avoid “all political meetings.” In 1867, General John M. Schofield refused an overture to run for the Virginia Senate and in 1892 urged West Point cadets to “abstain from active participation in party politics.” By 1920, an officer’s apolitical stance was so ingrained in the Army culture that a group of officers’ wives voting in a local election was viewed as scandalous.7 Perhaps more than any other time in the nation’s history, this period saw a clear line drawn—and adhered to—between military and political affairs; post-World War I peace and prosperity no doubt enabled the adhesion to this boundary.

World War II produced a bit of a paradox as well as an interruption of the short-lived military–political divide created after World War I. Senior military leaders such as Generals George C. Marshall and Omar Bradley did not vote in elections, considering this decision part of their duty. At the same time, military voting increased as a new generation of officers exercised their right to do so, thanks in part to the Servicemen’s Voting Rights Act of 1942, which attempted to improve the absentee ballot voting process.8 The act of voting theoretically led to a need to know, comprehend and discuss the political issues of the day, both in private and in public. The turmoil caused by the Cold War and its major conflicts, Korea and Vietnam, generated a rift in civil–military relations, and the United States returned to a period of blurred lines between military and civilian leadership. The end of the Cold War did not heal this rift, and the boundary of dissent remains murky.