The men and women who serve in the United States military are a rare and unique breed; less than one-half of one percent of the American population serves in an active-duty military capacity. What makes our military personnel special is not merely their willingness to fight and die for others, but also the professional ethic and ethos they hold dear. When Americans raise their right hand and take the Oath of Enlistment, they swear a solemn oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. It is the Constitution, not the government, or the nation, or the flag, for which the military fights. This oath carries with it a heavy burden. It is a mantle of responsibility that has followed the Armed Forces of the United States since the birth of our nation. Because of this charge, the military must be apolitical.
This mandate, however, does not mean that members of the military cannot exercise their Constitutional rights or are politically disenfranchised, but there are limitations. Specifically, service members must not conduct political activity while in uniform. John Doe, private citizen, may express his political views and may attend rallies and marches. Sergeant John Doe, United States Army, however, may not. Service members cannot, and must not, suggest or allow the suggestion to be made that their views are representative of the Armed Forces as a whole.
This concept is not just a matter of principle; this is an issue of military regulation. Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 specifies which political activities service members may or may not take part in, both in and out of uniform.
As rallies and protests both for and against President Trump have dominated the news cycle, you may have seen images like this in the past few weeks:
Source: Hawaii News Now
Do you see what’s wrong in this picture? An active duty Soldier, in uniform, taking part in a political march against then-presidential-candidate Donald J. Trump. This action clearly violates the DOD Directive and suggests that this Soldier’s views are that of the Army.
When you wear the uniform, you represent everyone else in that uniform.
Another example, this time in support of our President:Source: Reddit.com
In this image, Navy SEALs pose with the Trump campaign banner, also in violation of DOD Directive 1344.10. You may have also seen photos like the ones below during the Obama administration; service members are hiding their faces while they express disapproval of Former President Obama’s potential actions in Syria.Source: New York Daily News
The individuals above hid their faces because they knew that what they were doing was wrong. So, what is the problem? Why is it so important that the military remain non-partisan? Why is what these service members did wrong? Moreover, why do many veterans and active duty members feel their fingers extending and joining into a knife edge at the sight of these infractions of policy?
For the answer, we must look no further than the birth of our Nation and the historical context that informed the decisions and motivations of our founders. Since antiquity, powerful generals took their armies and seized power for themselves. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with those loyal to him and became Emperor. Napoleon returned from exile on Elba and took power with the army that, ironically enough, was sent to arrest him. Coups have shaped the history of the world, and our founders wanted to protect our American experiment from a potential military takeover.
Our founders feared a powerful standing army and built the separation of the military and civil authority into the Constitution. This civil/military relationship has been vital to maintaining our democracy. General Washington himself stopped a military coup that would see Congress overthrown and Washington installed as king in 1783.
In what has become known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, a group of Washington’s top officers planned to send an address to the fledgling American government demanding that Congress keep its financial obligations to the Continental Army. Under the Articles of Confederation, a weak federal government relied on the States to provide the funding for the Continental Army. Unfortunately, many states were reluctant to foot the bill, as the war was winding down.
If Congress did not meet these demands, the Army would either disband immediately or refuse to disband after the end of the war, with the ominous threat of forcing their will upon Congress through violence. The officers in the plot met in the Spring of 1783. This meeting was crashed by General George Washington, who delivered a powerful admonition of the plot and those taking part in it.
And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country—as you value your own sacred honor—as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and National character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire in blood.
Washington knew the threat posed by a military willing to throw its weight towards a political goal, the very future of the Republic in jeopardy, and ambitious generals waiting in the wings to secure their political glory. That threat has not changed, and the fabric of our government and our military revolves around the single idea that the Armed Forces and civilian political beliefs are mutually exclusive.
It should stay that way.