Losing Our Profession: The Dire Consequences of a More Partisan Military

“Do the generals have too much power?”

That was the prompt I was originally asked to answer on a recent panel which discussed the relationship between civilian society and its armed forces.

My answer was, perhaps not surprisingly as a mid-career U.S. Army officer, a firm “No.” Military leaders do not have too much power. But to ask that question of someone in uniform is a little like asking a servant on Downton Abbey whether they think the master, Lord Grantham, has given the “downstairs” servants too much power. A servant’s answer, I suspect, would be something like, “the servants have as much power as Lord Grantham thinks we need.” I feel the same way.

Setting that issue aside, I drove the discussion in the direction of another issue I think matters a little more. Too often, when we talk about the relationship between civilians and their military, we quickly gravitate upward, toward presidents, prime ministers, generals and admirals. Instead, I think we ought to consider that “downstairs” perspective for a moment, because there’s a lot going on, and it’s not all good.

I believe we should be concerned with growing partisanship in the U.S. military that is threatening our military’s fundamental norm of non-partisanship. The military has long held on to non-partisanship to prevent politics from dividing our troops and separating us from society. But this supremely important norm appears to be changing—for the worse.

I come at this as someone who is experiencing this shift as it happens. A year and a half ago, I was serving in a headquarters in Korea during the presidential primary season. We would huddle in a bunker watching the presidential debates—the partisan invective spilled from the screen and divided the soldiers that were there. I stood next to a Mexican-American soldier and I could almost physically watch his skin crawl.

When I returned from that assignment to a base in Colorado, I was greeted at my new desk not by a smiling colleague, but by a continuous supply of robo-calls from one of the political parties, because, at my military phone at my military desk, one of the previous occupants had been aligned with a political party. That shouldn’t be the case.

So I started digging into the numbers. And in one generation we’ve seen a marked shift in partisanship within the military. In 1976, when surveyed, 55 percent of officers said they were “independent” or “non-partisan” or “unaffiliated” with a party. In 2009, the same question was asked and the number was down to 16 percent. (And I’m sure there are newer figures in Dr. Kori Schake’s most recent book, Warriors and Citizens).

Behavior-wise, when surveyed in 2010, 27 percent of officers said that another officer had tried to influence their vote in the 2008 election cycle. This was followed five years later by Col. Heidi Urben’s 2015 study of 500 West Point cadets and National Defense University colonels which found that over one-third had observed or shared insulting, rude, or disdainful comments about elected leaders.

Perhaps the modern era of politicization in the military has its origins in the now-common trend of retired officers endorsing presidential candidates. The moment of inception was in the early 1990s, when one retired admiral endorsed one candidate, Bill Clinton. We now expect that every election cycle there will be hundreds of retired officers endorsing presidential candidates.

So there has been a marked shift in a generation. I was just at a conference at West Point where we were talking about these issues and some very smart people said “there’s no crisis,” adding that, “absent a physical threat by the uniformed military, against the civilian leadership, we don’t have a problem.”

But I think that’s the wrong standard. Just as peace isn’t the absence of war, healthy civil-military relations is not the absence of an imminent coup.

To me, this indicates a major part of the problem, which is that we don’t agree on the problem! We think that things could get bad but we don’t all agree on when they’ll get really bad. It’s as if we’ve all jumped off a building and we’re arguing about where the cement floor is.

But we know there is a cement floor. My remarks were on April 9th, which was 153 years on from the day when Gen. Robert E. Lee, West Point Class of 1829, surrendered to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, West Point Class of 1843 at Appomattox Court House to end the Civil War. That war was only so devastatingly possible because 27 percent of West Point graduates (from the decades leading up to the war) chose active partisan politics, voted with their feet for secession, and took up arms against the U.S. government.

That sounds alarmist. It’s not meant to be. We have the chance to address this now, while it is still a problem that relatively few Americans worry about. It’s time for the military to act as the profession that it is and start purging this corrosive partisanship. Given the stakes, this is a mission we must not fail.

This article is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US government. 

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About the Author(s)

Maj. ML Cavanaugh

non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and co-edited the forthcoming book, with author Max Brooks, Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict.