To be sure, our ostensibly apolitical officer corps has been playing politics for decades. With the rise of the national-security state after World War II, the Joint Chiefs of Staff emerged as big-league political operators. On issues ranging from desegregating the armed forces in the 1940s to the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, the brass has stalled, dissembled, or liberally reinterpreted directives to suit uniformed interests. To subvert administration initiatives at odds with service predilections, “senior military officials,” always anonymous, have mastered the art of the well-timed leak.
Through it all, however, military politics remained the exclusive purview of top-ranking generals and admirals, and typically occurred behind closed doors. Last year’s “Generals’ Revolt,” with just-retired senior officers launching angry salvos at Donald Rumsfeld, attracted attention in part because it was so unusual. Yet even for these embittered generals, challenging the authority of the commander in chief—as Douglas MacArthur had done a half century ago in Korea, with disastrous results—remained beyond the pale. Attack an especially abrasive and dogmatic secretary of defense? Perhaps. Openly question the president? Never.
Superficially, the Generals’ Revolt and the Appeal for Redress have much in common: They are both signals of military discontent, and of military experimentation with public politicking. But the type of politicking implied by the appeal differs. For starters, it was the brainchild of enlisted personnel—of Madden and Jonathan Hutto, a young seaman stationed at Norfolk, Virginia. Although the appeal’s signers today include several hundred junior officers, the majority are sergeants, petty officers, and ordinary GI’s. In an arena where things typically start at the top, here the impetus comes from below.
Furthermore, the cause animating these rank-and-file soldiers is bolder and broader than that of their commanders: It is to hamstring their commander in chief—to prevent George W. Bush from pursuing a course of action to which he appears unalterably committed. Although sworn to obey, they have undertaken to obstruct.
The appeal is a manifest consequence of a disastrous war. But its deeper roots lie in the transformation of the ethos of the enlisted corps over the past three decades. With the establishment of the all-volunteer force in 1973, those serving in the ranks began to see themselves as full-fledged members of the profession of arms. At the same time, a new American way of war placed a premium on advanced technology, requiring highly skilled and well-educated troops. One result is troops who are opinionated, who expect their opinions to be taken seriously, and who are more likely to ask what the Army can do for them.
The creation of the all-volunteer force had a second consequence. Military service, once viewed (at least nominally) as a civic obligation, has become a matter of choice. As a result, the burden of “defending our freedom” no longer falls evenly across society. Those choosing to serve do not represent a cross section of America, and most are presumably well aware of that fact.