*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.
Last week’s midterm election reinforced and amplified America’s deep divisions. What’s worse, today, many Americans even fear this partisan divide will lead to political violence. And as the start line for the 2020 presidential race draws near, it’s virtually certain the political animus that’s pulling America apart will only gain strength over the next two years.
At the same time, in this context, formerly popular branches of the federal government, previously seen as nonpartisan, have been dragged through the partisan mud and come out much worse. Could partisan forces similarly consume Americans’ faith in their military?
Maybe. The military has long held a tradition of nonpartisan service to prevent politics from dividing troops from within and separating the military from the society it serves. This stance has arguably supported strong public trust in the military profession. Indeed, every major American public institution has seen declining public confidence since 2000—except the military. Yet, there is no guarantee the military will continue to hold onto this privileged position in society. It might, just as has happened to other important institutions already, fall victim to the perception of partisanship, especially in the currently fevered climate.
“You just hold the line,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told a crowd of overseas troops in August 2017, “until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”
So how do we “hold the line”? How can the military profession inoculate itself from extreme partisan fevers?
Unfortunately, the military already shows signs of infection. Surveys show the officer corps has grown more partisan over the past several decades. And when it comes to acting on those partisan beliefs, there are studies that’ve shown behavior, particularly online, has turned distinctly partisan.
The infection’s spread may even be worse among some of the most publicly prominent members of the military profession—retired generals and admirals. In the 1992 presidential election, exactly one retired flag or general officer endorsed exactly one candidate. This nakedly partisan behavior spread exponentially until over five hundred generals and admirals endorsed political candidates in the 2012 presidential election cycle. Starting from just one, partisan activity by retired members of the profession has now climbed such that we regularly expect hundreds to engage in presidential politics.
So far, so bad. As with the flu, it appears the military profession has been exposed and infected, but the illness is still survivable. How then to stop the rot before it turns worse and impedes critical functions? How do we ensure that healthy nonpartisanship always outweighs the cancer that might corrupt society’s military arm?
Getting beyond hand-wringing is often the greatest problem when it comes to matters of civil-military relations. That’s because military personnel are essentially two people at once—a citizen with rights as well as a professional with responsibilities. And when you’re talking the tangled mess of legal rights and professional obligations that surrounds each military servicemember, options can get tricky.
Still, to protect the military profession from partisan politics, the key activity should be to educate and inspire the members of that profession to be mindful of and live up to its values. The goal of such a program would not be perfection, where every single serviceperson adheres fully, without question, to the organization’s values (which would be impossible to achieve). The more appropriate objective is to obtain a broadly held, commonly known set of principles—a “herd immunity”—that protects the organization from another, future strain of partisan fever that might overtake the profession.
To achieve this aim, in the past, suggestions have ranged from better professional military education, letter-writing campaigns specific to senior officers, and even an improvement in the crafting of rules and regulations.
All these options have merit, but are fundamentally too small to confront the challenge. They treat the symptoms individually and separately—when what should (and must) be done is much, much simpler and much, much larger.
It’s time for a “Homefront Code of Conduct.” But before we get there, let’s start with the code currently on the books.
The current Code of Conduct is an ethical guide to aid military members serving in theaters where they might be captured. It was written by a Marine Corps colonel in the aftermath of the Korean War, a conflict in which hundreds of American troops behaved inappropriately in captivity—and their actions and political statements harmed the American war effort and morale.
A post–Korean War committee found that while there were many bureaucratic documents that listed the expectations of American military members held as prisoners, these were not well-known or widely understood by troops in the field. So Executive Order 10631, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955, included a simple set of statements written to make explicit these expectations in the clearest manner possible. While it has undergone minor revision since then, here is the current Code of Conduct:
Article I: I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.
Article II: I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.
Article III: If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.
Article IV: If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.
Article V: When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.
Article VI: I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.
While perhaps not memorized, today, each member of the military would certainly recognize the essential tenets of the Code of Conduct. The words are hardwired into the modern military and it has been wildly successful at communicating the profession’s (and nation’s) moral expectations for a soldier held in captivity.
Those concerned about inappropriate partisan political behavior in the military should look to this model. Beyond its potential to match the previous success of the existing code, a Homefront Code of Conduct has several other benefits. It is inspirational and gives military members something honorable to strive for. It is bottom-up, internally driven professional discipline (as opposed to an external catalyst for change, which often comes from a congressional hearing). It is peer enforced. It is likely to solidify and reinforce America’s faith in the military. It is relatively simple and inexpensive to implement as part of existing professional education systems. It is apt to shift individual thinking from “Can I, legally?” to “Should I, ethically?”—an important change in mindset that’s at the very core of a self-abnegating professional.
Strategically, it would help insulate the military profession from the social media division sown by malign foreign actors. More pointedly, as the entire American intelligence community assessed in early 2017: “Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election” in order to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process.” If Putin’s trolls or Russian bots were able to place any kind of a wedge between the American public and its fighting forces, or split troops from within, the result would be nothing short of catastrophic. Psychological and political warfare may look differently today than the brainwashing of the Korean War—but the original Code of Conduct was meant to harden Americans overseas from such threats. A Homefront Code of Conduct would certainly guard against the same threat as it manifests today.
Of course, there are challenges to developing a Homefront Code of Conduct. First, it would be perceived as admission of a problem that much of the American public isn’t aware of. However, the limited research that’s been done seems to indicate the military profession actually does have this problem, and so any consideration for momentary hits to public image should be far outweighed by the imperative to fix the problem—ignoring flashing warning lights while driving may get you to your next appointment, but they ultimately grind everything to a halt. Second, a Homefront Code of Conduct is difficult from the get-go because ethical issues are not so black and white. But, of course, “difficult” is not impossible, and getting the big issues mostly right is certainly better than the current ethical vacuum. Third, a Homefront Code of Conduct will not succeed absent simultaneous buy-in from the very top to very bottom of the profession. Without both ends, such a course of action will likely fall by the wayside.
What follows is a suggested start point for a Homefront Code of Conduct. Written in the style of its predecessor, it is tailored to apply only to active duty troops and formally retired members of the military profession (Note: “Formally retired” refers to all those that either retain a commission or paycheck from the government for previous military service.). The reserve components have been left out of what follows (for now), owing to their difference in status. Down the line, these populations would certainly need their own separate version (or versions). Additionally, this draft does not take on the issue of the many full-time civilians that serve alongside the US military. They have, at times, been considered as part of the military profession, and may also merit their own version of a Homefront Code of Conduct.
Preamble: The Homefront Code of Conduct provides guidance for the behavior and actions of current and formally retired active duty members of the Armed Services of the United States. This guidance is largely focused on domestic conduct, but is also applicable beyond American borders.
Article I: I am an American, fighting in the forces which defend my country, democracy, and our way of life. I serve all Americans, without consideration for personal gain or partiality toward any political party, cause, or person.
Article II: I will never publicly share my own partisan political opinions, in person or otherwise. I do this to maintain the world’s most cohesive, unified, and powerful fighting force.
Article III: If I participate in public life, I will do so as a nonpartisan servant of the nation. If I choose to vote, I will do so privately.
Article IV: When questioned in public, by citizens or the elected representatives of the American people, I will provide military advice on matters specific to my expertise or experience. I will make no political statements that disparage our country or its leadership, and my remarks will always be respectful and civil.
Article V: If I formally retire from active military service, particularly should I have been privileged to attain senior rank, I will always remember that I retain important responsibilities to the military profession. Through this continued sacrifice, I will uphold the spirit of nonpartisanship and take part in no political activity which might be harmful to my still-active comrades. If I choose to seek an inherently political office or position, I set aside these obligations to the military profession in explicit pursuit of another form of public service.
Article VI: I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for democracy and freedom. I am grateful for the privilege to defend our nation’s ideals and people. I take personal responsibility to live up to these values and hold others accountable when these standards are not met. Only vigilant adherence to this commitment will support America’s trust and confidence in its military profession.
This, of course, is not a perfect draft. Merely a start point. It is certain that lawyers and judge advocates general will pick it apart for clauses that clash with the rights of individual servicemembers.
But this is not fundamentally a legal document. AsMartin Cook and Linell Letendre recently found, there is a “professional dimension to military service” and that “representatives of the profession of arms” necessarily “forfeit several important constitutional rights upon taking the oath of office.” This is backed by at least three US Supreme Court decisions that specify that oath-taking military service personnel must be prepared to subordinate individual wants to military needs—including certain restrictions on both speech and political activity.
In short, the law allows the military space, as a profession, to advocate that its members self-restrict certain individual rights for the good of the profession and nation.
Which is precisely what a Homefront Code of Conduct would call for. It would be conceived to inspire members of the military profession to live up to their traditions and tenets and avoid harmful political activity. It would help keep foreign psychological operations and political warfare from dividing our forces. And it would answer Secretary Mattis’s call to “hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other.”