The Activist Soldier

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

Amid all the finger-pointing and contested policies surrounding the war in Iraq, there is one sentiment that seemingly everyone can endorse: "Support our troops." The men and women who choose to serve in America's armed forces risk their lives to protect our national security. Even those who return home safely often do so only after having experienced stresses that the rest of us would have a difficult time imagining. One might think that the extraordinary commitments and burdens these men and women shoulder entitle them to a greater voice than most in shaping our country's direction. But do they?

In his May article, "Warrior Politics," Boston University history professor Andrew J. Bacevich takes a considered look at a new antiwar movement now being fomented by a group of junior members of the military who have joined together to call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The movement's founders cite a tradition of activism that dates back to the Vietnam era: Jonathan Hutto, a Navy seaman who has been a leading figure, was reportedly stirred to action by the 1975 book Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War. Hutto connected with the book's author, David Cortright, and an Iraq War veteran named Liam Madden, and on January 16 of this year, they presented their statement—"An Appeal for Redress from the War in Iraq"—to Congress, along with the signatures of more than 1,600 fellow servicemen and women. The number of signatures has now grown to over 1,700, and members of the military continue to add their names at a Web site dedicated to the cause. Although soldiers walk a fine line when speaking out while wearing a uniform, those who have signed the appeal assert that they are acting within the bounds of appropriate behavior; the appeal's Web site explains that according to military law, soldiers have the right to "complain and request redress of grievances against actions of their commanders" and "to make a protected communication to [a member of Congress]." So far, the higher-ups seem to agree. As Marc Cooper recently noted in the Nation, when questioned about the appeal, a Pentagon spokesperson confirmed that active-duty personnel are free to express their views to Congress as long as they are not violating military law.

Bacevich is not so sanguine. Although he shares the soldiers' view that the war in Iraq has been bungled, he cautions that it is a mistake to believe that soldiers' risks and sacrifices entitle them to a special platform for dissent:

On matters of policy, those who wear the uniform ought to get a vote, but it's the same one that every other citizen gets—the one exercised on Election Day. To give them more is to sow confusion about the soldier's proper role, which centers on service and must preclude partisanship.

His recent book, The New American Militarism (2005), similarly warns against assuming that soldiers are entitled to moral superiority and speaks to the broader danger of basing our national identity and sense of self-worth on military prowess and accomplishments. Bacevich would prefer a more realistic, non-idealized attitude toward the armed forces. As he sees it, open dialogue between military and civilian society is of utmost importance. Through clear-eyed understanding, our country can effectively honor the respective roles and responsibilities of both soldiers and civilians.

We spoke by telephone in mid-March.

—Justine Isola

In 1969, more than a thousand active-duty soldiers signed a New York Times ad calling for an end to the Vietnam War. Jonathan Hutto has described the Appeal for Redress as a movement that follows in the footsteps of the soldiers' lobby during the Vietnam War. You don't claim that the appeal is unprecedented, but why do you see it as new and noteworthy?

I see the appeal as new and noteworthy for two reasons. The first is that it represents a collective effort on the part of serving soldiers to influence national security. Secondly, the traditional or standard politicking by the American military typically occurs at the senior ranks of the military, but the organizers and the majority of the participants in the appeal for redress are junior enlisted soldiers. This is military politicking from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

Do you think that soldiers who have signed the appeal are acting within their rights?

No, I don’t. I think that although it’s being styled as an appeal—that is to say it’s being advertised as if it were equivalent to the individual appeal connected to individual grievances, this is in fact a petition. It is a collective political act and it’s not intended to redress a particular problem of either an individual soldier or even of the 1,700 soldiers who have signed it. It’s intended to bring about a change in U.S. national security policy. I myself think that the policy that the appeal addresses—namely the Iraq war—is an utterly misguided policy. I think the war is unnecessary. It has been utterly bungled. But I don’t believe that it ought to be the place of soldiers acting collectively to try to put pressure on members of Congress, or on Congress collectively, in order to bring about a change in policy. That really begins to undermine the principle of civilian control, which we all should be careful to guard.

Is there someone who needs to step in and put a stop to the appeal?

The people who should speak to this as unacceptable are the members of Congress who are the recipients of the appeal. Members of Congress ought to say, “We welcome appeals from individual soldiers with regard to individual problems, but we view as inappropriate and improper any action intended to bring about changes in national security policy.”

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.

So the solution is not necessarily to make the military completely subservient to the Secretary of Defense?

No. This is where Eliot Cohen’s book Supreme Command is exactly on target. Open, honest, and candid dialogue is crucially important. My sense is that the dialogue between senior civilians and senior military officers is so distorted by posturing, game-playing, and bringing peripheral political considerations into the matter that the environment in which discourse happens is one in which there is great mistrust rather than openness and honesty. The issues don’t get addressed in a straightforward way. And that is part of the problem here.

Do you think there’s any need for an overall bureaucratic reorganization of the armed forces—for example, an updated Goldwater-Nichols Act?

I don’t know exactly what an updated Goldwater-Nichols act would propose, and I would probably want to see specific proposals before commenting. Having said that, I don’t believe that we can legislate healthy civil-military relations. We need to have people who are genuinely professional, genuinely committed to the national interest, rather than to some narrow and parochial interest—people who undertake their responsibilities honestly and fearlessly. And that needs to be the case both on the civilian side and on the military side. It’s not. I don’t think you can legislate a fix to the problem.

Your book The New American Militarism suggests that we have become more militarized as a society in recent years. But some would argue that the American public has in fact become increasingly disengaged from the politics of war. For example, we haven't seen the same sorts of organized protests on college campuses or marches on Washington that we saw during the Vietnam War. Can you speak to how we can reconcile what seems to be increased apathy toward war with the idea that we are becoming increasingly militarized?

From the archives:

"The Widening Gap Between the Military and Society" (July 1997)
U.S. military personnel of all ranks are feeling increasingly alienated from their own country, and are becoming both more conservative and more politically active than ever before. Do they see America clearly? By Thomas E. Ricks

I teach at Boston University and have observed that although our students are patriotic, that doesn’t translate into any particular enthusiasm for enlisting in the military. ROTC, which had become a contentious presence on many campuses during the Vietnam War is now readily accepted. The presence of ROTC at BU today is completely non-controversial. But despite the fact that there are now public professions of respect and warm regard for soldiers, as a practical matter, a large gap has opened up between the American Army and American society. For all kinds of reasons I think we need to close that gap, which means ensuring that the burdens of military service are shared more broadly across the spectrum of American society. We need to find ways to induce greater numbers of young people to serve.

Should we reinstate the draft?

From the archives:

"The Draft" (April 1980)
Why the country needs it. By James Fallows

"The Draft" (April 1980)
Why the Army needs it. By James Webb

It’s infeasible to have a draft. If, for whatever reason—and I cannot imagine what the reason would be—but if for some reason Congress passed a draft and the President signed it into law, I believe there would be massive civil disobedience that would gut the program before it even got off the ground. If indeed we want to close the gap between the army and society, it has to happen by finding incentives that will induce people from the middle- and upper-middle classes to serve voluntarily. The federal government could offer all-expenses-paid college educations to any soldier completing a term of service. Given the ever-increasing cost of a college education, that might provide a very attractive incentive to serve. To make that incentive effective, the government would probably have to reduce the availability of education grants and loans to non-veterans. Closing the gap is not going to be the result of some kind of compulsory service.

You also suggest in your piece that the American public is partly to blame for endowing soldiers with a sort of moral authority. In your book you flesh out this idea, explaining that our current attitude towards soldiers is due in part to a backlash following the Vietnam era, where the stature of the armed forces fell in the eyes of the public following incidents like My Lai. We then went from being antimilitaristic to revering the military. Do you think that Guantanamo, Abu Grahib, or Haditha will create a similar backlash or change our perceptions of soldiers today?

No, I don’t think so. I believe that Vietnam-era soldiers were collectively tarred with the brush from episodes like My Lai. One could overstate the case, but to some degree soldiers generally came to be viewed as baby killers. That’s not the case today, although we have had our episodes of abuse—whether we’re talking about Abu Ghraib or Haditha. It seems to me that there is not a tendency today to view the perpetrators of those kinds of episodes as representative of all soldiers. Lynde England will remain the face of Abu Ghraib.

Is there any reason for us to heed the soldiers who have signed the appeal? Couldn't one argue that the soldiers' lobby deserves our attention because the men and women serving in Iraq are better informed than the average American about what’s happening on the ground there? Not that we should listen to soldiers because they are potentially sacrificing their lives, but because they are eyewitnesses and have seen the futility of persevering in this war.

Yes, of course, individual soldiers speaking as individuals have every right to say, “This is what I saw, this is what I experienced, this is what I learned, this is what I think it means”—especially once they’ve completed their military service. Those voices deserve to have a place in the public arena. However, as citizens, we should be concerned and troubled by the fact that a soldiers’ lobby has begun to appear. We should hope that it fails. And we should hope that it’s not followed by further lobbying efforts by soldiers.

How could soldiers appropriately make their voices heard?

Soldiers can speak out through congressional testimony, or through the writing of books, or movie scripts, or poetry. There are numerous ways we can try to make sense of our experiences of life and of the evolution of history.