As Democrats and Republicans blasted one another during their conventions this month, one of America’s most prominent institutions could end up worse off: the US military.
At both parties’ conventions, US troops appeared on camera in uniform — in possible violation of a longstanding Defense Department policy barring uniformed, active-duty service members from participating in partisan political events. The reason for the directive is pretty straightforward: Having uniformed troops at a partisan campaign event implicitly signals that the party or candidate hosting the event is backed by the nation’s armed forces.
At the Democratic National Convention last week, two Army reservists stood behind American Samoa’s Democratic Party leaders during the roll call to officially nominate Joe Biden. And at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, two Marines opened a door for President Donald Trump as he walked through the White House to participate in a naturalization ceremony.
The Democratic example is more egregious than the Republican one, experts told me. There was no legitimate reason for those soldiers to appear in the roll-call video, whereas the Marines were performing their official duties for the president by opening the door for him at the White House.
However, many I spoke to noted Republicans didn’t have to feature the Marines at all and could have instead had Trump in the room to begin with. As of now, the Army is investigating the American Samoa incident, while the Pentagon has waived away concerns about the White House one.
Still, experts and members of the military told me the brazen use of troops — essentially as political props — could harm the armed forces, which both claim to support.
“The DNC shouldn’t involve them, and the RNC shouldn’t have either,” an active-duty Air Force officer told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. “Both should have thought about the broader implications when conceiving of their plans for political rallies.”
Why neither party should feature active-duty troops in their political conventions
Democratic and Republican candidates for president want to be seen as very supportive of the military. It’s one of Americans’ most favored institutions, so bolstering pro-military bona fides is partly an appeal to voters.
That’s why there’s been a modern-day gold rush of politicians seeking explicit and implicit military support for their campaigns since the late 1980s, but especially since retired Adm. William Rowe Jr., who served as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, endorsed then-Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992.
But courting support from voters who care about the military or even service members themselves is different from forcing or even allowing active-duty members to participate in partisan events, which seemed to have happened at this year’s conventions. When the military itself is used to bolster the chances of one political party over another, the risk of dangerous consequences rises.
Three main reasons stick out as to why it’s troubling to see troops used at political conventions.
First, as mentioned above, having uniformed service members at partisan political events like conventions simply goes against the Defense Department’s own rule. “As a matter of long-standing policy, military service members and federal employees acting in their official capacity may not engage in activities that associate the DOD with any partisan political campaign or elections, candidate, cause or issue,” it reads on the agency’s website.
Whether they wanted to be in the shot or not, having service members appear on camera at both DNC and RNC events clearly “associate[d]” the military with Biden and Trump’s bids for the presidency (respectively).
Think back to 2016 conventions when retired Marine Gen. John Allen made his forceful case for Hillary Clinton, and retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn led a “lock her up!” chant in support of Trump. Both men had officially left the military and were speaking as private citizens. But their public support of the candidates still made it seem like once-top officers — effectively military representatives — were throwing their weight behind political parties and candidates.
It’s why their appearances received a strong rebuke from retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chair. “The military is not a political prize,” he wrote in a 2016 letter to the Washington Post. Both men were “introduced as generals” at their events, he wrote, so “they have an obligation to uphold our apolitical traditions.” Otherwise their preferences serve as a kind of litmus test or stand-in for who the entire military deems a viable presidential candidate.
Second, these kinds of cameos — both in 2016 and 2020 — may open the door for active-duty service members to more publicly back one party’s candidate over another. “Little acts normalize political activity by military officers in ways that can create the expectation that the military can and should be involved in domestic politics,” Jim Golby, an Army veteran now at the University of Texas at Austin, told me.
It’s good for the nation’s armed forces to be seen and act as, well, the nation’s armed forces. If the military becomes inextricably linked to just one party, it erodes the norm that troops must stay clear of king-making in a civilian-led, democratic government.
“It is a fundamentally undemocratic situation for the military to be one of the power players in electoral politics or partisan struggle,” Lindsay Cohn, a civil military affairs expert at the Naval War College, told me.
Which leads to the third big concern: An overly politicized military would risk losing the public’s trust. If the military is seen as the tool or puppet of just one party, fewer and fewer Americans will likely see service members as representing them.
Take, for example, when Trump considered sending active-duty troops into American cities to quell anti-racism protests around the country. He legally could do that as commander in chief, but deploying the nation’s armed forces in service of a clear partisan aim risked forever linking the military with that action. That may not have been Trump’s intended consequence when he mulled the decision, but it was certainly a likely side effect.
“If active-duty troops are used in the streets of our cities, we will lose that near-universal support for an institution that I really care about,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), a House Armed Services Committee member and former top Pentagon official, told me in June. “It will make the military less effective, and it will make us as a nation question our military and their intent.”
Other military members I spoke to agree. “It’s vitally important for any democracy for its military establishment to be nonpartisan in fact and appearance,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, now at Duke University. “With all the polarization these days, Americans across the political spectrum need to know that their military is staying out of the partisan bickering.”
The need for the military to steer clear of partisanship isn’t just good for appearances, but also its self-interest. A public that doesn’t trust the military may, among other things, no longer support large defense budgets or volunteer to serve at high rates. The public’s backing, then, aids the military’s functionality.
Few people I spoke to expect that politicians will stop trying to use troops as political props. The Pentagon therefore has to do a better job at setting up a firewall, experts say. “The military itself needs to police being used for partisan purposes,” said Kori Schake, the defense and foreign policy studies director at the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.
The military will almost certainly have a chance to take such a stand before the conventions four years from now.
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