August 1, 2008  

The nonpartisan military

Officers should exercise their citizen’s right to vote

In an interview with National Public Radio this spring, Gen. David Petraeus was asked about the prospect of a new president taking office next year who was committed to an expedited withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Petraeus responded with thoughtfulness and propriety, emphasizing civilian control of the military and the proper apolitical role of the armed forces.

But then the general said something surprising.

“Look,” Petraeus explained, “I haven’t voted in elections in some time actually.”

“So you don’t vote yourself?” the correspondent followed up.

“I have not since I was a major general,” he confirmed.

By that measure, the last time Petraeus voted was likely in the 2002 midterm elections. This timeline could be viewed as significant, given that he has received criticism from some corners for penning a Washington Post opinion piece just before the 2004 presidential election that highlighted the “tangible progress” he had witnessed in Iraq.

In choosing to abstain from the electoral process, Petraeus joins a long line of iconic military leaders, stretching from William Tecumseh Sherman to George C. Marshall, who determined that even the slightest degree of political participation would compromise their professional independence and judgment.

As the historian Richard Kohn told a Harper’s Magazine roundtable on the state of the armed forces, “One of the great pillars in our history that has prevented military intervention in politics has been the military’s nonpartisan attitude. That’s why Gen. George Marshall’s generation of officers essentially declined to vote at all, as did generations before them.” Hence, Marshall’s use of the subjunctive tense when, as secretary of state in 1948, he advised President Truman not to recognize the new state of Israel and reportedly warned, as a consequence of failing to heed his advice: “If I were to vote in the election, I would vote against you.”

In addition to its historical roots, the ideal of the staunchly apolitical officer boasts an impressive intellectual pedigree. In his seminal treatise “The Soldier and the State,” Samuel P. Huntington theorized that the 19th-century professionalization of the military had the salutary effect of rendering its members “politically sterile and neutral.”

Yet, for better or worse, there is today little doubt that a prerequisite for occupying the highest military billets is a considerable level of political savvy and expertise in bureaucratic maneuvering. As early as 1972, the historian Barbara Tuchman noted wryly that “the new army of today” put a higher premium on “a term at the Harvard Business School” than almost any other endeavor in professional military education.

Moreover, it is by now common wisdom among political observers that civil-military relations were strained during the 1990s, as many in the military establishment reacted viscerally both to President Clinton’s personal history, as well as to his administration’s policy on homosexuals in the armed forces. During the Clinton years, a veritable cottage industry emerged in certain scholarly journals, with writers warning of hypothetical military coups if the trend of eroding civilian supremacy were not reversed. Even apparent untouchables such as Gen. Colin Powell came in for public rebuke from some press outlets for meddling in political affairs.

The widely reported trend of military voters’ increasing identification with the Republican Party was capped by the 2000 election and its aftermath, as the airwaves were inundated with widespread media analysis of “the military vote” and accusations of attempted disenfranchisement of service members.

In light of these developments, it is perhaps unsurprising to read reports that some concerned political scientists, such as Professor Ole Holsti of Duke Universtiy, “long for the days when generals like Marshall never even voted.” At a panel discussion at the U.S. Military Academy in 2002, Kohn and fellow historian Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel, reportedly suggested to the cadets in attendance that upon entering active duty, they avoid the pitfalls of partisanship by eschewing voting altogether.

With respect both to the esteemed generals who subscribe to this advice and to the renowned scholars who advocate it, retired colonel and political veteran Jim Nicholson had the appropriate response: “That’s absurd.”

“Our citizens in uniform,” the late Chief Justice Earl Warren said, are not “stripped of basic rights simply because they have doffed their civilian clothes.” Not having been denied the right to vote, there is simply no good reason why service members should deny it to themselves. If anything, members of the armed forces, more than any other group of voters, are personally affected by the policies and decisions of elected leaders and, thus, have a special stake in the outcome of elections.

It is certainly worrisome, as Holsti noted, if the military becomes just another special interest group. But the personal act of voting, in itself, does not imply that the military is acting as a concerted political bloc. In a paper written for the National War College, Col. Lance Betros, head of the history department at West Point, argued that although military partisanship may be problematic, mere “voting preference does not constitute partisan activity and is not, by itself, harmful to professionalism and civil-military relations.”

Current law and policy recognize the distinction between partisanship and democratic participation. Defense Department Directive 1000.04, which implements the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, originally signed into law by President Reagan, instructs the heads of each uniformed service to “encourage eligible voters in their organizations to register and vote in elections for federal, state and local office.” The voting assistance officers designated by each service are tasked to provide “accurate, non-partisan voting information and assistance to those citizens attempting to exercise their constitutional right to vote.”

Each election cycle, the defense secretary issues guidance reiterating the permitted and prohibited political activities for civilian employees (under the Hatch Act) and military personnel (under Defense Department Directive 1344.10). Essentially, the policy encourages voting and prohibits partisan activity in an official capacity, consistent with the First Amendment right to noncontemptuous political speech in a private capacity.

Whether it is feasible to actively promote political participation without crossing the line into political advocacy is, of course, open to discussion. The Army voting assistance Web site, for example, proclaims in bold, flashing, capital letters: “VOTING KEEPS ARMY STRONG!” Does that imply that soldiers should be thinking about institutional needs when they cast their ballots? At the very least, it appears to inaccurately portray voting as an Army imperative, rather than a personal prerogative.


Chief Justice Earl Warren commented nearly 50 years ago that “the problem of the extent to which members of the armed forces may properly express their political views to other troops … and to the public at large are subjects of controversy.” That controversy is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

What seems clear, though, is that a military constituency that voluntarily disenfranchises itself out of a chivalrous sense of stoicism and propriety is not a part of the solution.

Marshall, deservedly lionized as the consummate military professional, was heroic not because he declined to vote but because he was forthright with his elected superiors and then accepted civilian authority when it mattered most. When Marshall and President Roosevelt disagreed in 1940 over whether America’s first priority should be to rearm Britain or rearm itself, Marshall faithfully implemented FDR’s decision to emphasize the former, over his strenuous objections.

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently articulated, “The significant thing is what did not happen next. There was a powerful domestic constituency for Marshall’s position among a whole host of newspapers and congressmen and lobbies, and yet Marshall did not exploit and use them. There were no overtures to friendly congressional committee chairmen, no leaks to sympathetic reporters, no ghostwritten editorials in newspapers, no coalition-building with advocacy groups. Marshall and his colleagues made the policy work and kept England alive.”

Even the legendary Marshall arguably offended civil-military relations by accepting an appointment as defense secretary only five years after retiring from the Army — an act that required a special congressional waiver because it violated the National Security Act’s requirement of a 10-year hiatus. Clearly, Marshall’s assumption of the highest civilian defense post five years before the expiration of the statutorily imposed waiting period posed a far graver threat to civilian control of the armed forces than would a service member’s individual exercise of his voting rights.


Sherman openly disdained politics and believed that “no Army officer should form or express an opinion” on partisan matters. After leaving the Army, Sherman issued his now famous Sherman Pledge in response to rumors about his potential role as a Republican presidential candidate in 1884: “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.” Yet, even Sherman was not so scrupulously apolitical as to ignore Lincoln’s request (which the president insisted was “in no sense an order”) that he furlough his Indiana soldiers to vote in that state’s 1864 local elections.

President Grant wrote in his classic “Memoirs” that he did not cast his first vote for president until his pre-war hiatus from the military at age 34. “I had been in the army from before attaining my majority and had thought but little about politics,” he recalled. Grant did, however, agree to let Lincoln’s team use his official military correspondence with the commander in chief as re-election campaign material in 1864.

The point here is not to discount Marshall, Sherman and Grant as excellent, or even the best-possible, models of staunch military professionalism. Rather, the useful lesson for today’s generation of service members is that even these fabled generals did not operate in a self-imposed political vacuum and were, at times, arguably guilty of violating their own apolitical ethic. Ultimately, their greatness as public servants stemmed not from extreme political indifference but, to borrow from Adm. Mike Mullen’s recent commencement speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, because they possessed “the moral courage to question” their superiors, and “then the strength of character to support whatever final decisions [were] made.”

Indeed, in a recent article emphasizing the vital importance of the military’s remaining “apolitical at all times and in all ways,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made sure to add: “I am not suggesting that military professionals abandon all personal opinions about modern social or political issues. Nor would I deny them the opportunity to vote or discuss … or even to debate those issues among themselves. We are first and foremost citizens of this great country, and as such have a right to participate in the democratic process.”

Our nation has a proud and honorable history of military subordination to civilian decision-making, dating from Gen. George Washington’s extraordinary public resignation of his commission to Congress in 1783. In a protocol carefully scripted by Thomas Jefferson and others, Washington bowed to the assembled Congress, who uncovered but did not bow in return. “Having now finished the work assigned” to him, Washington then bid “an affectionate farewell to this august body under whose orders [he had] so long acted.”

Washington had faithfully obeyed Congress’s commands throughout his eight-year tenure as commanding general. It is worth noting that his deference to that body was buttressed, rather than eroded, by his role as an active political citizen and his corresponding desire to return to civilian life as quickly as possible. “When we assumed the soldier,” Washington reassured the New York legislature 10 days after assuming command, “we did not lay aside the citizen.”

AIR FORCE CAPT. CHARLES G. KELS is a medical law consultant at the Mike O’Callaghan Federal Hospital, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force or Defense Department.