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Politicization of the US Military over the Last 4 Decades

American respect for its military is plummeting. It has dropped by 30 points in the past five years in surveys conducted by the Reagan Foundation. In their recently released poll, less than half of respondents have a great deal of trust and confidence in America’s military. Unless both civilian and military leaders take corrective actions to repair the breach, this will impede recruiting, diminish unit cohesion, and damage the bond between the military and the public it serves.

As concerning as the drop itself is the reason. 62 percent of respondents said they were losing trust and confidence because the military leadership is becoming overly politicized. Nor is the attitude partisan: 60 percent of Democrats gave that answer, as did 60 percent of Independents and 65 percent of Republicans. Only 35 percent of respondents expressed confidence in the military’s ability to act in a professional and nonpolitical manner.  

If America wants to retain a military that recruits from all parts of the citizenry and brings them together into an effective fighting force, it should both correct that public perception and better insulate the military from being a pawn in partisan political disputes. This will require more discipline from military leaders and greater recognition by politicians of the damage they are doing to our national security by castigating the professionalism and non-partisan commitment of America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and their leaders. Military leaders should stick to the core functions of the profession and master saying “that’s a more appropriate question for the secretary of defense.” Politicians should stop hiding behind uniforms when enacting unpopular policies, and expend their efforts on passing relevant legislation in areas urgently in need of attention.

The Path to Polarization

The Reagan Foundation’s findings are at strong variance with how the military views itself. America’s military believes it is a paragon of non-partisan professionalism, and works hard to inculcate that attitude through professional military education. Military leaders worry about veteran political activism reflecting on the active-duty force. But they don’t believe public concerns about politicization of the military are affecting the force. Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said recently that “I don’t see and hear a conversation or an impact of woke-ism in the rank and file, at all.” The Army’s head of recruiting believes the concerns are having no effect on Americans’ willingness to serve.  

But there have been a number of developments over the past several decades that have contributed to the perception of the military’s politicization. Veterans’ endorsement of presidential candidates has been an escalating arms race since retired Marine Commandant Paul X. Kelly endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980. Presidential campaigns now routinely roll out lists of hundreds of retired flag officers and include uniformed military in campaign ads. The Bush administration left it to the military to persuade Congress to support the Iraq surge. In 2016, retired Gen. John Allen spoke at the Democratic National Convention to endorse the Democratic candidate while, in a more egregious move, retired Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn led chants of “lock her up” at the Republican National Convention.  

Furthermore, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both nominated record numbers of high-ranking veterans into senior civilian appointments. Like his predecessor, President Joe Biden nominated a recently retired veteran to be secretary of defense. More recently, Biden placed uniformed marines beside him as he gave a highly political speech about the threat to democracy in the country. All of these actions are shaping public perceptions of the military as a partisan political force.

Read entire article at War on the Rocks