So the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff took issue with a couple comments that George W. Bush made about Army readiness, and conservatives took issue with his taking issue. Then a group of retired senior officers publicly endorsed Mr. Bush, and it was the liberals’ turn to hissy fit. Then flowed all the ominous reminders — we’ve been hearing them for years — about how the military has become “alienated” and “estranged” from civilian society, and what a risky scheme it is that let them out of their box, etc.
We shall pass over the fact that those who burn the flag merely exercise their First Amendment rights while those who put their lives on the line for it are now expected to take a lifelong vow of silence. Three other items concern us here: the Founding Fathers’ sense of the military they wanted; the modern misunderstanding; and what really gripes the military today.
Popular mythology notwithstanding, the Founders never seriously feared military dictatorship. Their beef with standing armies and a professional officer corps was that they were expensive. In addition,they could be used by wayward civilian governments for both foreign and domestic misadventures. But the Founders disliked standing armies mostly because they relieved the citizenry of participation in the common defense. Hence the citizen-soldier ideal, transferred over time from state militias to federal service, whether volunteer or conscripted.
Today, perhaps it’s time to transfer the ideal yet again, to recognize that the present force is also composed of citizens. I suspect that the Founders might view this force as, in its own way, a citizen-soldiery, as appropriate to this era as Civil War voluntarism or 20th century conscription were to theirs. These are American professionals, not mercenaries dedicated only to their profit or their profession or their caste.
But whence comes this notion that they must practice complete political abstinence while in uniform, and even beyond? From several sources. One, obviously, is military law and discipline, enshrining the principles that the military serves the nation as embodied in the Constitution, and no particular faction.
Another source, not often remarked, lies in the notion of professionalism as it emerged in the Progressive Era. A true professional must maintain a certain level of disinterest. Just as doctors and lawyers must place their patients’ and clients’ welfare before their own, military citizen-professionals must have no inappropriate personal stake in the outcome of elections, or of decisions taken by those in power. Such disinterest is also, presumably, a hallmark of a professional civil service.
But experience demonstrates that this ideal of disinterested professionalism can never be fully attained. Nor should it be. The higher the officer, the more he or she must deal with politically significant questions and offer politically significant counsel. When the lives and deaths of millions, the very existence of the nation and the world are involved, the last kind of officers we need are narrow specialists, technocrats, or bureaucrats.
Or, to put it another way, expecting the senior officer corps to restrict themselves to purely technical matters is like expecting judges to follow a totally strict constructionism, reducing themselves to slavish automata, regardless of real-world facts and consequences.
Finally, it has been alleged by numerous studies that the military is estranged from the civilian world, i.e., more “conservative.” The survey evidence here is mixed, with the military also showing some surprisingly liberal trends, especially on issues such as abortion and gun control. What is clear is that the military is human. Military personnel resent people who dislike them for what they are, who scorn them for their virtues, and who mock their way of life. Who might such scornful mockers be? Not the American people at large, who consistently rank the military at or near the top of their list of respected professions . . . respected from a greater distance than before, perhaps, but respected nonetheless. No, the military is estranged only from those who, for reasons of their own, are estranged from it.
To repeat and conclude: The nation’s military is now as it always has been, citizens first, soldiers second. Professional self-limitation in regard to political affairs is necessary in many ways, but cannot and should not be robotically total. And estrangement is in the eye of the estranger.
Now, what has this to do with the Shelton and “Veterans for Bush” fracases? Two things. First, time to apply some common sense. Gen. Shelton was correct to address what he believed to be misrepresentations of military reality. No line was crossed. “Veterans for Bush” is right to organize and act, despite all the legalistic guff about senior officers never “really” retiring. (The vast majority of non-senescent retired officers receiving retirement pay remain in some kind of recall category.) If the Gore campaign wants its own version, fine.
Second, time to look beyond the election. Defense issues are once again matters of public debate. The next few years will occasion some hard national decisions. Would that both active and retired officers speak out a bit more, on all sides of these issues. I would call it a part of their duty as citizens engaged in providing for the common defense. It hasn’t often been seen that way. Perhaps it’s time that it was.