In Divided Times, The Military Must Maintain Neutrality

By Ben DiDonato

The United States is currently badly divided. It can be seen every day and citizens cannot avoid it in their personal lives. In times like these, it is easy to get drawn into the political fray, and that makes it especially critical to remember the importance of keeping the military apolitical.

As the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Alice Hunt Friend explained in a 2017 article, “This idea underwrites the peaceful transfer of power between presidential administrations and ensures that the American people can make governance choices free from the threat of coercion.” If the military allows itself to be drawn into domestic politics as a partisan actor, that threat, whether implicit or explicit, will inevitably compromise the integrity of its elections and constitution. Once that happens, it is only a matter of time before there is major disagreement between the politicized military and the opposition, similar to what can be seen today with the schism between Democrats and Republicans. While it is possible the elections will go the politicized military’s way, there will always be major, structural disagreements to be had, and eventually the military will find itself on the losing side of the argument.

The logical outcome of the politicization of the military is a distorted civil-military relationship. It doesn’t matter which party or cause the military aligns with, or the intentions of the officers making the decision to become political. This is completely unacceptable in a democratic society. It is why an apolitical military serving the constitution rather than a political party is an essential foundation of the country. If a politicized military becomes as deeply entrenched as current political parties, it may be unwilling to respect the authority of duly elected officials or accept electoral defeat, which may result in subversion of civilian leadership up to and including a coup.

The American people are smart, perceptive, and aware of this risk even if it is rarely discussed directly. They are constantly watching the military for signs of politicization, and so the military must remain highly conscious of the public’s perceptions of its words and actions. It is not enough for servicemembers to believe in remaining apolitical and avoid explicitly partisan policies or actions. They must constantly be conscious of their public appearance and ensure they maintain the image of impartiality at all times, because that is ultimately what they will be judged on. In some ways, this public perception is even more important than their internal thoughts and policies since that is a part of what the country judges them on. While the data does indicate that the military has been largely successful in remaining apolitical to date, it can never take public opinion for granted because trust is extremely easy to lose, and even more difficult to regain once lost.

Politics must remain a civilian matter, and so servicemembers must keep themselves out of the conversation and trust the American people to resolve the current issues themselves. Servicemembers must remember that division cannot happen with only one side, and they must support the entire country regardless of their personal feelings on any given issue. The American people will come out of these times stronger than ever as with every other major challenge before, and the military must give them the space to do so on their own.

That said, servicemembers all have their own opinions, and must remember that the people around them will fall on all sides of these divides. Whether they serve in the Navy, the Marines, the Coast Guard, the reserves, another service, the civilian government, industry, or simply retired, they must be prepared to support each other regardless of political leanings, race, religion, gender, or any other category they can be put into. They need to remember that some of the people around them are deeply concerned about police brutality against African Americans while others interpret “black lives matter” as “white lives don’t matter.” They need to remember that some people around them believe the media and tech companies are going to be the downfall of the country, while others feel the same about President Trump. They need to remember that people of many religious faiths, including Judaism, Islam, and Christianity may be feeling persecuted for their beliefs. Finally, they need to remember that not everyone fits into neat buckets, and that they should not make assumptions about people’s beliefs or concerns based on characteristics like race or political persuasion. All of these feelings are real to those who experience them, and they need to respect and support all of them, especially if they are leaders.

Servicemembers all need to support each other right now, regardless of their differences, and work together on behalf of all the American people, avoiding even a hint of bias. Remember, the United States is strong, and has proven it will repeatedly grow stronger in the face of adversity. The country will come out of this stronger than before. The American people thrive on diversity of ideas and internal disagreements. The current turmoil is only adding new opportunity to grow and reinvigorate the system American forefathers built. As unlikely as it appears in the moment, it is truly making the country a better place.

However, there is a threat to the country capable of destroying the system and the American way of life from within.

If those in the military community allow themselves to become politicized, they could tear their own country down. It may not be today, and it may not be tomorrow, but if the military becomes a considerable force in domestic politics, it could go from having official yet partisan opinions, to influencing elections, to possibly subverting or outright overthrowing elected civilian leaders.

Servicemembers cannot allow that to happen, and so they must maintain their neutrality, both in image and in policy, and support the entire country. To do this, they must remain conscious that external forces are always acting on them and trying to politically activate servicemembers since they are voting Americans as well. Most of these forces are civilian institutions and servicemembers must not pass official judgment on them or interfere with them because doing so would threaten civilian control of the military.

Unfortunately, there are forces within the military community attempting to politicize it. One example of this is Admiral McRaven’s New York Times opinion piece, which some Americans interpreted as an explicit call for a military coup against the president. But he is far from the only retired flag officer making highly political statements. Regardless of intention or party, these forces directly threaten an apolitical military. Servicemembers must hold themselves to a higher standard, police themselves, and reject these malign influences, because no one else can.

None of this is easy, but so long as servicemembers stand together with all the people around them, be they subordinates, shipmates, coworkers, friends, or family, they can prevail. They can remember that the feelings of all their fellow countrymen are just as valid as their own, even if their concerns are completely opposite to one’s own private opinions, and they can reject the forces attempting to politicize the military. They have stood strong as an apolitical organization all Americans can look up to through many past crises, and they can do so again. The military can maintain its neutrality, and in doing so will support the entire country as Americans work to resolve the current crisis and make the country even stronger than before.

Mr. DiDonato is a volunteer member of the NRP-funded LMACC team lead by Dr. Shelley Gallup. He originally created what would become the armament for LMACC’s baseline Shrike variant in collaboration with the Naval Postgraduate School in a prior role as a contract engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. He has provided systems and mechanical engineering support to organizations across the defense industry from the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) to Spirit Aerosystems, working on projects for all branches of the armed forces.

Featured Image: The U.S. Army Honor Guard marches pass the U.S. Capitol Building during the Pass and Review during the Department of Defense Dress Rehearsal, in front of the U.S. Capitol Building, Jan. 15, 2017. (DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Sean Martin)

8 thoughts on “In Divided Times, The Military Must Maintain Neutrality”

  1. When a nation’s publics are divided (or subdivided, as here in the UK)
    then it is bound to have serious effects in the military…Exploited by our enemies, too. Expounding neutrality and keeping democratic military’s communications policies…we have a constant Watch.

  2. Never has been. Even since the Revolution to our current wars the General and flag officers have been involved. More notable examples General Knox, I should command the army not you Washington, General (President) Jackson, Mexican War General Scott, and the Civil War too many to list but Mcclellan, is the biggest Union stand out, Pre ww2,ww2, and Korea the antics of the big ego, Mcarthur. Then our current crop of semi self servers, example Kelly. For the seagoing services the post WW2 revolt of the admirals. You could throw Admiral Rickover in also. I could go on and on…but

  3. This essay’s main theme on the importance of the military remaining non-partisan is fine and correct. The military needs the confidence of the civilian leaders the American people elect.

    But, there are two big problems with what the author says later in the essay. First, he implies that any public statement on politics by a retired military officer (particularly a flag or general officer) is wrong and contributes to the problem of tarnishing the military with a partisan bent. But, when a former military leader like Mike Mullen, Jim Mattis or John Kelly speak out to explicitly defend the military from being pulled into the partisan fray, is that not different and warranted? When one political leader, particularly the president and commander in chief, continually tries to use the military for domestic political purposes, retired officer silence could be interpreted as approval for such action. I think we’re smart enough to make this distinction.

    Second, this statement is problematic: “They can remember that the feelings of all their fellow countrymen are just as valid as their own, even if their concerns are completely opposite to one’s own private opinions, and they can reject the forces attempting to politicize the military.”

    Not all feelings are equally valid, and some feelings/viewpoints are beyond the pale and have no place in the modern military. I cannot serve in the military and espouse racist views, misogynistic views, etc.. These are not simply benign differences of opinion on political matters. There is a growing white supremacist problem in the military, which Proceedings will publish on in the coming months. The data is disturbing.

    1. Mr. Bray,

      It is good that you, the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, responded. I was originally planning on calling out your organization, USNI, as a malign actor attempting to politicize the military, but the CIMSEC team was understandably reluctant to call out another organization so I removed it.

      While you do undeniably have a first amendment right to have a political agenda and enforce it in your editing, doing so is fundamentally incompatible with your formal relationship with the US Navy. It is just as improper for the US Navy to maintain a formal endorsement of a politically active USNI as it would be for them to endorse a partisan organization like Breitbart and is not far behind endorsing political candidates.

      Between your editorial decisions and public statements like this one, it is my opinion that your political agenda has created an obligation for the US Navy to terminate its relationship with you as I have.

      Now, with that said I’ll address your two points specifically.

      First, while there is some room for expressing caution at politicization, the commentary goes far beyond that. No one writes headlines like “Unhinged Retired Admiral and Clinton Loyalist Calls for Coup of President Trump: Remove Trump from Office ‘The Sooner the Better’” about officers expressing concern about politicization, yet that’s exactly the headline of one of the articles I link to.

      Also remember that it’s normal for the military to implement politically motivated policies under one president and then repeal them under another. Civilian control of the military isn’t something you discard when it gets inconvenient or the civilian government changes, it’s a constant rule and that means conforming to the wishes of the current administration. Unless the President issues orders that are actually illegal, the military must follow his orders. If the President repeatedly and publicly expresses a certain position, taking independent action against that position is grossly negligent at best and directly insubordinate at worst. If retired officers advocate for the military to disregard the will of the President or, worse yet, disobey orders, they are a direct threat to civilian control of the government and should be treated accordingly.

      Second, the views on race and the like you express here clearly conform with the current policies and beliefs of the Democrat Party, and are generally targeted at the Republican Party. The Republicans hold similar beliefs about Democrats as can be seen in the short video below by Ben Shapiro, arguably the most prominent and mainstream Republican commentator.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0dmIQdTBeo

      Since there is obviously no way to reconcile these views, I will not publicly take sides and encourage everyone in uniform to follow my example.

      1. Ben,

        My comments here are my personal views, not those of USNI. You have no idea what my “editorial decisions” are. The Naval Institute is non-partisan. I do not “enforce a political agenda in my editing.” If I did, I would be fired. My first amendment right to express my political views does not mean if I did so as an editor for a non-profit 501c I could not be fired for it. You clearly do not understand what the first amendment protects and doesn’t protect, but I find that is true of many people.
        The CNO stood up Task Force One Navy to address systemic racism in the Navy, therefore we feel submissions about that subject are relevant to the Navy and sea services.
        You actually have no idea, as well, what my political beliefs are, nor am under any obligation to tell you.
        My two points are simple: 1) There may be times when retired military officers feel a moral obligation to speak out if they feel the civilian leadership of the country is trying to pull the military into partisan domestic politics (Mullen, Mattis and Kelly said nothing about not following legal orders or instigating a coup like that ridiculous headline you linked), and 2) there are certain views that are outside the pale and should not be tolerated in a modern, free democratic society, like those of white supremacist groups, such as the KKK and Neo-Nazis who would deny equal protection of the law to many fellow citizens based on their race and/or religion.
        You wrote of our military servicemen and women: “They can remember that the feelings of all their fellow countrymen are just as valid as their own.” Well, some of our countrymen belong to the KKK and Neo-Nazi groups. Some belong to radical left-wing terrorism groups that espouse violence in the name of environmental justice. Are there views “just as valid as your own”?

        1. Let me be crystal clear here.

          You are a partisan.

          USNI is a partisan organization.

          This is shown by both what you say here and what is published by USNI. You are so deep in a partisan bubble you cannot acknowledge that other people have different viewpoints.

          Nothing makes this more clear than your outright dismissal of the American people’s concerns about Admiral McRaven’s article. You cannot comprehend why people would object to a call to remove the duly elected President from office “the sooner, the better” because you are too isolated from mainstream Republican opinion to even know what it is. These are not extremists as you keep trying to claim with your false equivalencies to vanishingly small fringe groups, they are the views of a major political party and by extension approximately half the country. You outright refuse to acknowledge the concerns of the Republican party have any validity at all, and that makes you unambiguously partisan.

          As for the CNO’s decision to investigate systemic racism, systemic racism is an exclusively Democrat belief. The mainstream Republican position (remember this is what they believe and I will neither support or reject it here) is that systemic racism is nonsense being used to grab power and justify implementing racist policies like California’s Proposition 16 which, if passed November 3rd, would repeal proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative, which amended the state constitution to prohibit the state government from considering race, sex, or ethnicity, for public employment, public contracting, and public education. Since Presedent Trump is obviously a republican and thus opposed to the Democrat concept of systemic racism, the CNO’s action could be interpreted as a direct rejection of the wishes of the civilian government and thus an enormous problem. I personally am waiting to see what the study says before passing judgement because it’s possible this is actually a ploy to cut funding to external organizations hostile to the President (e.g. Harvard University which is the subject of ongoing legal action over racial discrimination in admissions) by pretending to be on their side so they provide incriminating evidence, but if this is actually what it appears to be on the surface then it’s a direct attack on civilian control of the military from the highest levels of the Navy and must be dealt with accordingly. As such, I find it completely implausible there have not been any submissions critical of the CNO’s actions, so the only logical conclusion is that USNI has actively suppressed Republican and moderate viewpoints in an attempt to politicize the Navy by forcing the Democrat viewpoint on its readers.

          A similar publication bias is evident in the broader discussion of race with only material conforming to the Democrat narrative being allowed to see the light of day. Furthermore, you directly acknowledged this rejection of alternative viewpoints in your recent CIMSEC article, Military Officers: Read Black Writers with the line “It shocks me today to hear young, white officers reflexively discussing race in the context of white victimization and grievance.” which once again completely rejects the Republican view of Democrat beliefs and policies as shown in the video in my previous post.

          Thus, we return to my original point.

          You are a partisan.

          USNI is a partisan organization.

          1. You clearly don’t get the fact that my personal views do not represent USNI. As an editor, my personal views don’t matter. I edit and publish views I disagree with all the time. On race, we published Carey Cash’s article which directly took issue with Jada Johnson’s article on systemic racism (https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/september/addressing-racial-disparity). Maybe you missed that. I edited Cash’s piece and worked with him on it.

            You also have no idea how many articles on race that you would certainly consider left wing we have rejected (many).

            And no, we have had no submissions critical of the CNO’s decision to stand up Task Force One Navy. You can accuse us of spiking them without any evidence, which you are clearly comfortable doing.

            You also can’t seem to handle the fact that someone might take issue with parts of your article. I thought the article was not bad and my criticisms took issue with just two parts.

            Only you have brought up the words “Republican” and “Democrat” and leveled accusations of partisanship against USNI. But If you want to keep ranting about this without all the facts, just send it to my email address: bbray@usni.org.

          2. Now that I’ve gotten access to that article through a colleague, I can respond to your comment.

            While Captain Cash’s article is more moderate than the current mainstream Democrat positions since its central thesis is a criticism of critical race theory, it still embraces many of their beliefs about race and does not go as far as Republicans on critical race theory. Thus, it still falls more towards the Democrat side of the issue even if it is more moderate and fails to refute my previous point.

            Now, before I move on to the rest, I want to remind you of article 88 of the UCMJ, Contempt toward officials, which I’ve copied the full text of below for reference.

            “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.”

            Per article 2, this applies to retired officers receiving pay which should include retired flag officers even if they do typically get leeway on this topic.

            With that said, my fundamental argument and the point you’re disagreeing with basically boils down to “obey the UCMJ”. A number of retired officers have made statements that clearly qualify as contemptuous words against the President, and Admiral McRaven’s article may even cross the line into sedition as defined in article 94.

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