As mentioned here recently in a post on the role of the U.S. military in American society, President Trump has a habit of referring to the military in personal terms. He often talks of “my military” or “my generals.” For example, when announcing a ban on transgender personnel serving in the military via Twitter this week, Trump stated that the decision was made in consultation with “my generals.” This tendency might seem like an innocuous verbal tick but not when put in the context of Trump’s other habit: politicizing the military. In a speech at MacDill Air Base in Tampa, Florida—home of U.S. Central Command—earlier this year, the president told the assembled military personnel in reference to the election: “And I saw those numbers, and you liked me, and I liked you. That’s the way it worked.”
Once again last weekend, President Trump insisted on politicizing the military. In his speech during the commissioning for the USS Gerald R. Ford—the first in the U.S. Navy’s new class of aircraft carriers—Trump told the assembled sailors to call their members of Congress to support his proposed defense budget (and their Senators to support the GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare). Specifically, he said,
Now we need Congress to do its job and pass the budget that provides for higher, stable, and predictable funding levels for our military needs that our fighting men and women deserve — and you will get, believe me. President Trump, I will tell you– you will get it. Don’t worry about it. But I don’t mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it.
And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get healthcare.
In discussing this issue, it is important first to define what it means to “politicize” the military. Alice Friend Hunt, an expert of civil-military relations for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently provided a useful explanation of what it means to politicize the military and why it is a problem:
A politicized military exercises loyalty to a single political party and/or consistently advocates for and defends partisan political positions and fortunes. An apolitical, nonpartisan military is one of the norms underpinning American democracy and a feature of American military professionalism. The military serves the Constitution through obedience to democratically elected civilian officials without regard for political party or partisan positions. 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. Knowing that partisan intentions do not inform professional military advice also allows elected officials to trust the expertise and advice provided by senior officers. Moreover, if the military took partisan positions or exercised partisan loyalties, voters might reasonably assume that the opposition party would not be able to control the military if voted into office.
Hunt’s explanation of why an apolitical military is so important rightly focuses on issues dealing with the chain of command and civilian control of the military that is vital in a democracy. There are at least two additional, related reasons why a politicized military poses a major problem. First, by its very nature, the military is a coercive tool. The U.S. military employs violence in pursuit of the international political objectives of the American state. It is for that reason that political scientist Samuel Huntington, in his classic work on civil-military relations in the United States, The Soldier and the State, referred to the military profession as specialization in the management of violence. It is also why America’s Founding Fathers were concerned about standing armies.
Second, the military is one of the most respected institutions in American society today. It is far more respected than civilian elected officials. Few people have any connection to the military, yet fewer people want to be seen as anything less than “pro-military.” Identifying himself so closely with the military, and the military so closely with himself, is a source of political power for the president. It is for that reason that it is so important to ensure that the military remains an apolitical instrument of state power, as opposed to the political instrument of a particular party or individual.
Andrew Exum, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, former U.S. Army Ranger, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy in the Obama administration, and now, a writer for The Atlantic, touched on both these themes in a piece following Trump’s remarks at the commissioning of the USS Ford. Exum rightly cites the American people’s reverence for the military—what he refers to as an overcorrection to the public’s reaction to veterans returning from Vietnam war—as a factor facilitating the politicization of the military. However, Exum’s solution is problematic. He suggests that the military’s image needs to be taken down a peg or two and that veterans are best positioned to do so because they know better than anyone the absurdities of military life. Furthermore, he suggests that the current generation of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will be well positioned to do so because a decent number of them are now serving in, or running for, Congress. After all, Exum suggests, Sen. John McCain’s status as a veteran and prisoner of war, has afforded him the opportunity to publicly rip into generals and admirals for strategic errors and dysfunctional defense acquisition programs.
There are a number of reasons to be skeptical of such a solution. First, while the American public needs a more realistic perspective of the military—one of skeptical respect, rather than unquestioning reverence—it might be dangerous to tarnish the one remaining institution in which they still have faith. Taking the military down a peg or two without a commensurate effort to build up other institutions might create more problems than it solves.
Second, assuming that veterans in Congress are willing to hold the military’s leadership accountable, assumes two things: one, that the American people view generals and admirals as synonymous with the military as an institution; and two, that the public pays attention to congressional armed services committee hearings. The former point is up for debate. The latter is most likely not. Voters tend to be “rationally ignorant”: that is, they have incentives to not be as informed about politics as democratic theory would suggest they should be. Acquiring information about congressional oversight of the military costs members of the public more in the time it takes than it is likely to benefit them. People have busy lives. The precious few moments they have outside of their careers and families are unlikely to be spent watching C-SPAN to see if an Iraq-war-veteran-turned-senator is going to berate an admiral about cost overruns on the Littoral Combat Ship during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Third, will the veterans that run for office be as thoughtful as a former officer like Exum? Will there be more Seth Moultons, the U.S. Marine Corps veteran who represents Massachusetts’ 6th district in Congress? Or will there be more Tom Cottons?
Finally, it seems that relying on veterans in Congress to solve the problem of too much reverence for the U.S. military might exacerbate it. Leaning too heavily on those who served in the military to criticize it might reinforce the idea that those who did not, cannot. It might increase the gap between the military and the society it serves, bolstering the idea that members of the military are a separate “caste” who should be immune from criticism by civilians.
None of that is not to say veterans should not run for office. Nor is it to say that veterans have no role to play in resisting the forty-fifth president’s continuing attempts to politicize the military. That retired military officers such as Exum, civil-military relations expert Eliot Cohen, Philip Carter of the Center for a New American Security, and others, have spoken out about Trump’s attempts to politicize the military is a positive thing. Yet more needs to be done to create connective tissue between the U.S. military and the society it serves to ensure that they understand when a president is politicizing the institution they revere in the way Trump is doing now.
Matthew Fay is a Foreign and Defense Policy Analyst at the Niskanen Center