By lex, on January 9th, 2011
The Chairman sees the need for the services to do a little self-evaluation after a decade on the line:
As he enters his last year as the nation’s top-ranking officer and as the military enters its 10th year of war since the Sept. 11 attacks, Admiral Mullen is openly voicing concerns that professionalism and ethical standards across the armed forces are being severely challenged by the longest period of sustained combat in the nation’s history…
“We’ve learned a lot about ourselves in the last decade; some of it’s been pretty unpleasant stuff,” Admiral Mullen said in an interview. “I want us to understand what we’ve seen, to a depth that we can ensure that our moral compass stays true, our ethical compass stays true.”
The conference is the first such introspective session into “military ethos” organized specifically at the request of a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It will examine a subtle set of political and social challenges to military integrity, like a potential slide toward partisanship among the officer corps, especially retired generals and admirals acting as television commentators, and whether the behavior of up-and-coming leaders fits with the image the military as an institution wants to exhibit to the nation.
A particularly relevant topic on the agenda is how the next generation’s generals and admirals should express their best, unvarnished military advice to the nation’s civilian leadership, and what to do when they disagree with the eventual policy. Admiral Mullen has said there are just two choices: an officer obeys the policy and follows it with enthusiasm or resigns.
Hovering over that discussion will be memories of the bruising, closed-door debate about shaping a strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that many at the Pentagon and the White House said soured civilian-military relations…
The discussion is also expected to touch on whether service members have the right to a different persona online, like on Facebook or in a blog, than they do in uniform.
If this is to be a free and open discussion, might be it could do some good. If it’s to be an exercise in message control, not so much.
Given that military subordination to civilian rule is inbred and given, there are three issues at play here, really: 1) The open role of flag and general officer retirees, who are (finally) free to express their opinions publicly, 2) the behind-the-scenes role of serving senior officers who, having given their best professional military judgment and seen it disregarded by the political arm, found a way to make their disagreements public, and 3) bottom dwelling scum suckers like your humble scribe, who – whilst on active duty and then again after retirement – have had the temerity to punch up above their station.
I fully agree with The Chairman that serving officers of flag and general officer rank have the right and responsibility to give their best military opinion on the instant question and then fall in line behind policy. This is nothing new, and what those same officers would expect from their staffs: When it comes to execution, it’s either get on the train or get run over by it. You’re on or you’re off. Get on board or join the wounded.
We shoot the wounded.
When it comes to retirees, I think I beg to differ, with certain caveats: A warrior can be a warrior up to commander/captain rank (O-5/O-6), but I suspect that when you become a flag officer you have to also be a bit of a politician. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Politics is the art of the possible, and the possible shifts with the winds of the zeitgeist. Which can be hard for the officer corps especially, brought up to think in terms of black and white, of right or wrong, of absolutes: Winds might blow ten degrees one way, and they might blow ten degrees another, but the runway doesn’t change. In a democracy there is inestimable value in graybeards free of political constraint voicing their opinion on the public stage, so long as their pecuniary interests are understood. If the retired three star thinks that the political branch is making a huge mistake because they’re reacting to a misinformed public opinion – always the strategic center of gravity in a democracy – that’s one thing. If he’s disagreeing because of his relationship to Big Huge Contractor, that’s another thing entirely. The people have a right to know, and it doesn’t much matter how much that steams the collar of a serving four star who has his own political master to placate. While the military is indeed subordinate to the civilian branch, we swear our oaths to the enduring Constitution, not to transitory governments.
Which brings me to my final point. The point of my right to “a different persona online, like on Facebook or in a blog” than I had in uniform.
Which is harder than it looks.
I started this blog as a serving naval officer, recently returned from a war, with stories to tell and very much aware that there was a gap in understanding between the public we served and the forces that served them. I sought to enlighten and entertain, and to have my strongly held opinions be challenged and informed by those who both agreed and disagreed with me. Although conservative by nature – but no Republican – I strove to seek a certain political ambivalence. I used a “different persona” because I wanted to shield both my superiors and my subordinates from any consequences of my online activities – as a terminal O-6, I had no illusions about personal impacts.
But then there was the Max Cleland case in 2002, which was awful. And which led in turn to the 2004 presidential bid of John Forbes Kerry, which was ridiculous. It was about that time that I shed my pretensions to neutrality and expressed a partisan preference. This was not an easy thing to do.
The military serves neither the GOP nor the Democratic Party – it is the country’s defense. It is not good for the country to believe that the military – or perhaps, more specifically, its officer corps – belongs to one political party or another. It’s not good for the military either.
But Kerry ran on a “secret plan” to end the war in Iraq, and most of us thought his plan consisted of losing it. Our military mission is to fight and win the nation’s wars – it’s understandable I think, even if perhaps not forgivable, why so many in the milblogging community came out against the candidacy of the junior senator from Massachusetts. And once you’ve broken the seal on that, everything else follows after. Tax policy, school vouchers; the list goes on. Sure, the officer corps tends to be conservative: Who else would lay their lives on the line at modest pay to defend the institutions of the status quo?
Fundamentally I think it comes down to this: It is not so much that the military became political, as that the military sensed that politicians were twisting national security issues to political ends. Politics used to end at the water’s edge. It doesn’t any more, and yet the legions still deploy, sent forward by the political class.
With respect, Admiral Mullen, I don’t think it’s us.