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What the McChrystal flap doesn't say about the military

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His comments about Obama administration officials in no way indicate a broader disrespect of civilian leadership.

June 24, 2010|Shawn Slayton

Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal received swift and predictable punishment for his unprofessional and derisive comments regarding Obama administration officials, many of whom were in his direct chain of command. However, to formulate a generalization that this type of conduct is indicative of a much broader problem in the U.S. Armed Forces is misleading and insulting to all members of the military, officers and enlisted alike.

This generalization was advanced in Bruce Ackerman's June 22 Times Op-Ed article, "An increasingly politicized military." Ackerman asserts that escalating political partisanship within the military is driving an erosion of constitutionally mandated professional conduct, particularly where civilian control is involved. He believes that the officer corps "doesn't have a firm grasp of basic [civilian control] principles" and that military members need to "rethink constitutional fundamentals." He likewise hints that growing Republican Party affiliation among the military's ranks drives a disrespect for the civilian control set forth in the Constitution.

On all points, nothing could be further from the truth.

Thousands of military officers and enlisted personnel at all levels report directly, or nearly directly, to civil service employees. The civilian-military relationship and hierarchy is vitally important: It offers essential continuity on long-term projects, and it presents military personnel with unique professional development opportunities. For many years as a lieutenant in the Coast Guard, I reported to a high-ranking civil service employee; this person assigned my work, conducted my performance evaluations and gave me highly informed career advice. This civilian was the boss; not once did I misperceive my standing merely because I wore a uniform and he wore pinstriped slacks.

At the U.S. Coast Guard Academy I was taught that the chain of command is essential to good order and discipline. As a freshman "swab," I was vigorously indoctrinated to this idea; failure to know and recite one's entire chain of command — military and civilian — was a punishable offense. I was further educated regarding civilian control of the military through classes on U.S. government, U.S. history, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Geneva Conventions and the Law of the Sea. (All service academy cadets and midshipman can likewise explain the folly of nations where civilian control of the military was relinquished: Nazi Germany, imperial Japan and Napoleon's French Empire.)

Most important, on commissioning day I took an oath to defend — giving my life if necessary — civilian leadership of the military. I swore to defend and bear true faith and allegiance to the entire Constitution — including Section 2 of Article II, which establishes the president as commander in chief. Enlisted personnel take a similar oath, affirming to "obey the orders of the president of the United States." Nothing could be less ambiguous regarding the legal mandates and cultural norms for civilian control of the military.

As Ackerman notes, there are indeed more Republicans serving in the Armed Forces than Democrats or independents. I endorse the notion that raising the share of politically centrist or left-leaning military officers and enlisted personnel would be a good thing; it would bring diversity to the ranks and might yield some fresh ideas. But for decades, those on the political left have been frustrated by the "values gap" between themselves and the military. Ackerman apparently laments the disproportionate number of Republicans in uniform, yet in his home state of Connecticut, the 2007 per-capita enlistment rate was only 63% of the national average. In "blue state" New York, it was 68%, and in California it was only 80%.

The solution to a less politicized military can be accomplished via dilution, but for this to happen more political centrists and liberals would have to join the military. I doubt this will happen. According to tens of thousands of surveys conducted by University of Virginia social psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, politically conservative individuals disproportionately value both respect for authority and loyalty — values that perfectly align with military culture. By contrast, those on the political left disproportionally value caring for others and fairness. These are admirable preferences, but they don't immediately comport with a military career.

Overwhelmingly, military members continue to value respect for authority; this value precedes and subsumes political affiliation and encourages a respect for civilians within the chain of command. If it hasn't hit McChrystal already (and it likely has), upon reflection he'll realize he betrayed his core values and the values of the Armed Forces. I'll likewise wager he's outright embarrassed by his poor example. However, it's absolutely unfair to make generalizations about the military from this unfortunate incident.

Shawn Slayton, a U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduate, is in the U.S. Navy's physician program.

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