When Americans watch news coverage of any contemporary event, no one’s surprised to see it turn political. We live in a time when we can expect almost any topic – whether it’s school shootings, movie awards, climate change, or a sports event – to be packaged by members of one “side” to make their political point or use it as ammunition against the opposing political party. As we have seen with President Donald Trump’s 4th of July parade, the USS John S. McCain controversy and Trump’s transgender military ban, military events and policies are not exempt from this trend, and young service-members must begin preparing to serve in an increasingly politicized environment.
Despite enjoying high institutional confidence and popular approval among members of both political parties for the last three decades, society’s perceptions of the military are likely to become increasingly dependent on the partisan implications of its actions. Research has shown that Americans increasingly tend to view the military like the Supreme Court, awarding approval or disapproval of the institution itself based on whether its decisions align with their personal opinions. This similarity does not bode well for the future. A hypothetical future in which Senate confirmations of senior military personnel are handled in the same hyper-politicized way as Supreme Court nomination hearings, for example, should chill every American to the bone. Such a development would devastate the military’s ability to act as an objective, apolitical American foreign policy instrument. It would fundamentally alter the military’s standing within our American democracy.
While elected leaders should be the first line of defense against military politicization, many instead worsen the problem by improperly invoking “national security” and the military to legitimize policy preferences that they otherwise could not implement. Retired military leaders have also exacerbated this issue by leveraging their credibility to weigh in on political topics and make partisan endorsements. These retirees, as many scholars have noted, are playing with fire.
But despite occasional consternation about military politicization by scholars and opinion writers, there is little reason to expect a mass awakening on this issue in Congress or general society. Political candidates’ stances on maintaining civil-military norms will not likely become the most salient issue in upcoming campaigns. As a result – and unfortunately – men and women joining the armed forces today must mentally and morally prepare themselves to spend their careers having their service viewed through partisan lenses in a way that their recent predecessors have not.
What might this mean?
First, young military professionals must work to understand political leaders and the pressures they face, and the military should actively encourage their young leaders to do so. The active-duty military must always stay apolitical, but adherence to that norm does not mean service-members should stay willfully blind to political realities. A working knowledge of the political environment will help service-members recognize when their mission is being exploited by a partisan agenda, and later in their careers it will help them separate partisan rhetoric from their decision-making processes on military matters. This distinction could prove vital to the future military’s non-partisanship.
Furthermore, admirals and generals, especially those who interact with civilian policymakers, need sharp political awareness every day – and the U.S. military cannot expect its senior leaders to suddenly develop that awareness when they reach the upper echelons. Military leaders aren’t politicians and, in a world where politicians respected civil-military norms, deep political fluency would not be a prerequisite for military leadership. But if norms against politicization continue to erode, future admirals and generals will need to be considerably more politically knowledgeable and agile if they are to have any chance of preserving the military’s non-partisan ethos.
Finally, young military leaders should immerse themselves in the long history of U.S. civil-military relations. This background knowledge will help guard against the tendency to view every moment of tension in the contemporary political environment as an existential crisis for their profession. The U.S. military has in fact been deeply politicized before, and recovered. The United States has maintained a relatively powerful standing military for hundreds of years while mostly keeping safe from the unhealthy, undemocratic dynamics that characterize coups and juntas in other nations.
Yet, as every investor knows, “past success is no guarantee of future performance.” Military and civilian leaders alike should work to foster a sense of respect for the unique stability of civil-military relations – gratitude for our history with a dose of urgency to preserve those norms for the future. Remembering the successes and failures of history will help the next generation of military leaders uphold their end of the complex civil-military bargain when called upon.
Views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the official positions of the Department of Defense or any other military entity.