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One outspoken general does not make a politicized military

Just because officers have opinions doesn't mean they want to meddle in political affairs, an Air Force colonel writes

July 01, 2010

A June 23 op-ed by Bruce Ackerman that portrayed civil-military relations against the backdrop of the Gen. McChrystal affair is wildly off the mark. Dr. Ackerman's commentary presumes a rapid politicization of the U.S. military and a foreboding future of a biased officer corps involved in political partisanship. To the contrary, the vast majority of military officers are well disciplined in the principle of civilian control of the military. Modern military officers are purposefully educated on its tenets and governed by strict codes of conduct. Gen. McChrystal's regrettable actions are in no way symptomatic of a politicized officer corps.

Civilian control of the military is a concept that is widely understood, shared among service members, and taught to each new generation of officers. From the very moment of their induction, military officers assume subordination to civilian control through an oath of allegiance. This oath directs that officers "support and defend" the Constitution. From that, the concept of civil control of the military is inherent in the very foundation of each officer's authority and his raison d'ĂȘtre. Officers know this concept, understand it, and are legally compelled to support it through service regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Conduct. When an officer fails to adhere to the standards set forth in these regulations, he or she is immediately disciplined.

Adhering to civilian control of the military, however, doesn't inhibit an officer from holding opinions or engaging in discourse on political or current events. Officers have always carried a sense of public duty and, as such, have opinions and positions that may be critical of governmental policies or changing social behaviors. The myth of an early 20th century officer corps without political affiliation and faithfully abdicating the right to vote was perpetuated by Gen. George Marshall during and after World War II. The fact that many early 20th century officers had no party affiliation simply reflects the larger rural society that was decidedly more independent and less affiliated with structured national political parties. Certainly it's ludicrous to believe that early 20th century officers held no political opinion or refused to exercise their right to vote.

Contrary to Dr. Ackerman's assessment, the future for civil-military relations is actually quite encouraging. The nation's military colleges, especially our senior service schools, offer significant educational opportunities on civil-military relations and the proper role of the officer within modern society. All senior service schools are congressionally mandated to adhere to Joint Professional Military Education standards which dictate instruction in national security decision-making, security policy formulation, and strategy development. These areas of study all involve civil-military relations, the preeminence of civilian control, and detail the negative ramifications of the officer intruding into political affairs. Since the early 1990s, all military schools have expanded not only their curriculum on civil-military relations, but also broadened their student bodies to include interagency civilians and other governmental representatives, which further enlightens the officer corps on their proper role within the governmental hierarchy.

America should be absolutely confident that its military officer corps is committed to avoiding partisanship and meddling in political affairs. The mild ranting and frustrations of a senior officer should not deter them in that confidence. In fact, Gen. McChrystal's apology and acknowledgement of responsibility for inappropriate conduct, combined with the rapid acceptance by the officer corps of his removal, should serve to reinforce that fact. Dr. Ackerman's call for a presidential commission on civil-military relations might well be welcomed by the military because it would undoubtedly show that all the services' officers corps clearly recognize their subordination to civilian control and the importance of avoiding partisan political affairs.

Col. Stuart K. Archer, a command pilot, is a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force currently serving in Southwest Asia. The views are his own and do not reflect the opinion of the Air Force or the Department of Defense.

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