Interviews May 2007

The Activist Soldier

Andrew J. Bacevich, author of "Warrior Politics," talks about the increased politicization of the American military and its troubling potential consequences

You write that soldiers are "sworn to obey." What options do members of the armed forces have for voicing their grievances?

This gets to the heart of why this movement is termed an “appeal for redress.” Most of us would think of it as a petition, a collective petition. However, the military prohibits soldiers from petitioning collectively. Instead, there is a channel for soldiers to bring individual grievances to the attention of their elected congressional representatives. This longstanding practice—one could almost call it a tradition—allows individual soldiers who have some sort of complaint about the way they are being treated a voice if they feel that they are being treated unfairly or that their individual problems are not being properly addressed. Soldiers have long enjoyed the prerogative of writing individual letters to their members of Congress asking their congressmen to intervene on the behalf of that individual soldier. This practice is certainly recognized by the military itself, which goes out of its way not to prevent individual soldiers from appealing to members of Congress for assistance.

Does a soldier have any options if he has a change of heart mid-way through his tour of duty and would like to be relieved of his commission?

I don’t believe so. An enlistment is a contract in a very formal sense. An individual commits himself or herself to serve for three years, four years, six years—whatever the commitment may be—and both parties of that contract are obliged to live up to it. It is possible that circumstances may change. For example, a soldier may become ill or injured or experience a personal tragedy. If a married soldier’s spouse passes away and the soldier is left responsible for the care of young children this could provide the basis for asking to have the enlistment contract terminated. But “I don’t like serving in the Army anymore” or “I don’t feel like going back to Iraq again” would not be viewed as grounds for terminating the contract.

Could a soldier also decide mid-way through a tour of duty that he or she is a conscientious objector?

Yes. If a soldier honestly came to the conclusion that war is immoral, that all war is wrong, then this could be the basis for asking to have the contract for the enlistment terminated. In this case, a soldier would not necessarily have to go to his or her congressman. In fact, the first step for an individual soldier who had concluded that he or she was a conscientious objector would be to go to his or her immediate leader, the company commander. The soldier would say “I’ve had a change of heart about war, I think it’s immoral.” This could lead to the soldier being allowed to leave active duty.

You write that senior military officials have also been politicking over the last 50 years. Can you give me any examples of the sorts of behaviors or actions you're thinking of?

In 1993, the Joint Chiefs of Staff vehemently opposed President Clinton’s announcement that he wanted by executive order to permit gays to serve openly in the military. The Army, Marine Corps, and Navy particularly opposed Truman’s 1948 executive order to desegregate the armed forces. In 1950, at the outset of the Korean War, the great majority of troops were still segregated, and when generals finally did desegregate their troops, they did so in order to facilitate ongoing operations—not because of any principled rejection of racial segregation. And [Air Force General] Curtis LeMay was very famous for cutting budget deals with Congress around Eisenhower’s back, thereby building up the strategic air command on a scale that far exceeded the president’s intentions.

Do you see any steps as necessary or useful to curb this sort of military politicking?

First of all, both citizens and politicians should recognize that civil-military relations in the country are in many respects dysfunctional. This is a problem that deserves attention. And in my judgment, it’s a problem that has largely been ignored for decades. More specifically, I think that members of Congress ought to be more sensitive to the limits of permissible action on the part of senior military officers. Members of Congress ought to try to ensure that senior military officers respect the law. People who stray beyond the bounds of the prerogatives of the military profession should be slapped down and penalized. But I also think that the military profession itself has a real obligation here. We should ensure that part of the process of educating, developing, and selecting officers for positions of high responsibility includes inculcating an awareness of the limits of proper professional behavior. The sort of politicking I just described—working around the administration, manipulating directives, disregarding orders—all of that really works in the long run to the detriment of the military itself.

Should the military come under firmer civilian control?

My view is that the principle of control should be sacrosanct. General Shinseki was invited to testify before a congressional committee and was asked his views by members of Congress as to the prospects for the Iraq war. He stated quite candidly that he believed that the most difficult phase of the operation was likely to be the occupation of Iraq and that in his judgment the occupation of Iraq could take up to several hundred thousand soldiers. That action was completely appropriate; he was speaking candidly, he was offering his professional judgment when asked for it by members of Congress. What was dismaying was the retaliation directed against him by senior civilians in the office of the Secretary of Defense who publicly chastised him and very quickly terminated his influence and career.

To place the retaliation in a larger context, one could see it as an expression of a Republican determination to rein in generals who had exceeded their writ during the Clinton years. According to their own lights, officials like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz were trying to restore the principle of civilian control that they believed had been weakened during the 1990s. I wouldn’t want to cite General Shinseki specifically, but in a broader sense the Joint Chiefs of Staff brought this on themselves in part because in the 1990s they had indeed been playing fast and loose with their responsibilities. For example, they had defied President Clinton over gays in the military. When the Republicans came to power in 2001 they were adamantly committed to the proposition that they were going to restore unambiguous control.

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Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.

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