President Trump was at it again last week: attacking the press and politicizing the military in the same breath in a speech at the headquarters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City. The attack on the press led some journalists to weigh in on the armed forces’ role in upholding freedom of the press. But the president’s words were really nothing new. As noted before, the president routinely politicizes the military. As a result, some have argued that Democratic-leaning veterans need to countermobilize to fight against the effort to associate military service with support for the president’s partisan agenda. At the same time, at least one journalist suggested not only Secretary of Defense James Mattis, but also General Joe Dunford—chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, unlike Mattis, still on active duty—should speak out publicly against the president’s remarks. Neither suggestion though is good from the perspective of American civil-military relations.
Jim Golby, an active duty U.S. Army officer with a PhD in political science from Duke University—who specializes in civil-military relations—explained in the Washington Post that an “arms race” between veterans groups on both sides of the aisle is the last thing we need:
Regardless of their own personal political leanings, members of the military and veterans organizations should resist calls to let an incident like this divide them into different camps of “our veterans” and “their veterans.” In our already polarized society, with its increasingly isolated echo chambers, this approach can exacerbate growing divisions and diminish Americans’ regard for the military.
Appeals for one side to counterbalance another ultimately have the effect, not of providing balance, but undermining trust in the military and corrupting the perception of nonpartisan competence that the American armed forces currently enjoy and that leads to the military’s high approval in the first place.
Golby is right that creating partisan veterans’ factions is a bad idea, particularly in these highly polarized times. While the military as an institution enjoys high levels of support from across the political spectrum, associating the armed forces with a partisan agenda will likely lead to diminished confidence in it.
Equally problematic is a military that internalizes the partisan divide. On the one hand, a military loyal to one party or the other might be reluctant to take orders from a commander-in-chief of the opposing party. On the other hand, presidents who come into office fearing such a situation might take measures—such as promoting military leaders on the basis of partisan affiliation, rather than merit—that diminish military effectiveness. Similar practices are evident in authoritarian regimes as leaders attempt to “coup-proof” their militaries.
However, this incident does raise uncomfortable questions about what can be done to counteract the president’s politicization of the military in the absence of countermobilization or requesting an active-duty generally publicly rebuke the civilian commander-in-chief. The president is not going to stop politicizing the military. Is there a way to restore proper norms of civil-military relations in the face of the president’s steadfast refusal to abide by them? Or do those norms need to be burned down in order to save them?