A Tipping Point in U.S. Civil-Military Relations

A Tipping Point in U.S. Civil-Military Relations
AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian

Wisdom and courage, I have found, oft go hand in hand, as do their malevolent twins, ignorance and cowardice. And so it is, at this particularly fraught moment in time, that two observations commonly attributed to Plato come to mind. The first, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something”; the second, “When men speak ill of thee, live so as nobody may believe them.”

Whether Plato actually uttered such words is less material than the insight they convey. For they serve today to challenge uniformed members of the U.S. military to reflect on who they are and why they serve, and to confront the enduring dilemma of whether, in deference to their deeply ingrained professional ethos of political neutrality, to remain dutifully silent when they are subjected to contempt, alleged or real, from their commander in chief or to speak out publicly in opposition to such disparagement. This is a true tipping point for U.S. civil-military relations, one that commands a rethinking of established notions of propriety.

It’s hard to believe that there are many among us who haven’t become at least dimly aware of the just-published Atlantic article by Jeffrey Goldberg about President Trump’s alleged string of insulting acts and words concerning members of the U.S. military, both living and dead. Relying on unnamed sources, for obvious reasons, Goldberg describes numerous examples of presidential disparagement of military heroism, patriotism, service, and sacrifice as reflections of “losers” and “suckers.”

This episode underscores and accentuates the divisions and hatreds this President's repeated disparagements have spawned throughout American society. Even Fox News is divided, we are told. A good example is my West Point class. One of my most respected classmates, a retired colonel of infantry, airborne and ranger qualified, decorated in combat in Vietnam, who served in numerous high-level positions, including as a director on the National Security Council Staff, was recently prompted to communicate his concerns to a number of us. Interestingly, he included both those he knew would agree with him, and those he knew would disagree.

After reading the Goldberg article, he said, he doubted that any of us, as sons and descendants of career Army, Air Force, Marine and Navy veterans, would feel the same about this President. Much of what the article says, he found "repulsive and hard to stomach." He repeated many of Goldberg's allegations: the President's refusal, while in Paris, to visit the Aisne-Marne Cemetery where the Marine fallen from Belleau Wood rest in honored glory; his accompanying question of why he should go there since "it's full of losers . . . [who] were suckers for getting killed"; his disparagement of the selfless service of John Kelly's fallen Marine son while standing on his grave in Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day; his discrediting of John McCain for being a prisoner of war in Vietnam; and his labeling of George H. W. Bush as a "loser" for being shot down by the Japanese in World War II.

“I know none of us considers any of our 18 classmates who fell in Vietnam,” my classmate said, or the son of another highly decorated classmate and combat veteran who fell in Iraq to be “losers and suckers.”  Yet the President, he continued, disgracefully derides them and our wounded brethren in this fashion. They and we are hardly losers and suckers.  Just ask the siblings, widows, roommates, teammates, and friends who gathered with another classmate (a minister) at their gravesites last year their opinions.  “We should all be enraged,” he intoned.

Citing numerous other examples of presidential insensitivity, my classmate was ultimately moved to say, “Given what’s befallen our nation under his administration, Donald Trump demonstrates daily that he is unfit to remain as Commander-in-Chief.  Duty Honor Country [the West Point motto] are concepts foreign to him.  We can place no faith in his fealty to the Constitution.”

These were powerful words that hit me with unexpected force. I responded by telling him I thought his message was indeed well and powerfully made, testimony to his characteristic thoughtfulness. But I went a step further than I think he would have in offering this: “You’ve said exactly what needs to be said – even, perhaps especially, by those still in uniform. Yes, those still in uniform. This ups the ante to a point where established norms of dutiful, obedient silence by the uniformed military warrant serious reconsideration. To remain silent is no longer a demonstration of disciplined restraint.”

Such a view is inherently controversial, to both those versed and those not so well versed in civil-military relations. Having taught civil-military relations for many years, I am confident in my knowledge of the subject but also sensitive to the realization that there are no unassailable truths on the lengths and limits of politicization, political language, or civilian control of the military more generally. So, I wasn’t surprised to hear from another classmate, himself also a retired, combat-decorated, airborne-ranger colonel of distinction who had served as well in numerous high-level positions. He was quick to take issue with my position, as he had on other occasions:

You won't be surprised that I disagree with your advocacy of serving military personnel voicing political views publicly (such as disenchantment with the Commander in Chief).  As I have said before, I believe the politicizing of the military is dangerous to a democratic republic such as ours and a violation of both laws and long-held traditions of American military service.  I trust that West Point (and other institutions entrusted with military education today) still teaches the vital importance of the separation of the two (politics and military duty).  I thought the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs' remarks reinforced that principle just last week when he spoke before Congress. I don't expect to change your mind on the issue, but since I was an addressee, I feel compelled to separate myself from what I consider your ill-chosen stand on the matter.

These contrasting views frame the boundaries of the issue at hand: dutiful (risk-free) silence or principled (risky) voice by those in uniform. My response to the foregoing criticism is basically this:

Considering that there is a tacit but binding social contract of mutual rights, obligations, and expectations between those in uniform and their civilian overseers, should those in uniform justifiably be expected to forsake their right to speak in public if their civilian overseers fail to fulfill their obligations (such as not pardoning convicted war criminals or seeking and achieving retribution against serving uniformed professionals for testifying before Congress about illicit, politically motivated presidential behavior that threatens the rule of law)? No, they shouldn’t.

Although Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes commissioned officers who use contemptuous words (incompetent? ignorant? insensitive? self-aggrandizing?) against the President subject to punishment by court-martial, there recognizably is no comparable prohibition (other than “The Vote,” since impeachment, even if it worked, is irrelevant here) against contemptuous language by presidents and other high public officials against the military. Is the military the personal property of the commander-in-chief or the public property of The Country and The People? The answer speaks for itself.

While a president who shamelessly politicizes the military in virtually every way is unequivocally and unreservedly free to do so, since he has been popularly elected (even if not by a legitimate electoral majority), does it make an iota of sense that those in uniform be considered guilty of politicization – and thus a danger to The Republic and the rule of law – if they defend their honor and integrity by speaking out in public about the impropriety of characterizing them, not as patriots or heroes, but as “losers” and “suckers”? To adjudge such public statements by uniformed professionals political – dangerously so? – would arguably make them guilty of seditious, mutinous behavior potentially punishable – in accordance with Article 94 of the UCMJ – by death. This would signal a dramatic shift to Ludicrous Speed (to use the words of the Rick Moranis character Dark Helmet in the Mel Brooks movie, “Spaceballs”). No more need be said.

Thanks to the popularization of the term by Malcolm Gladwell, we have indeed reached a crucial “tipping point” in U.S. civil-military relations. With the presidential election just ahead, and some truly scary speculative scenarios about what the military might be ordered to do in the election aftermath, the question is, first, who will push us to that tipping point – the military or its civilian overseers – and, second, what will be the result: crisis or evolutionary advance?

Gregory D. Foster is a West Point graduate, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, and an occasional contributor to RealClear Defense.

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