Be a politician or a soldier – not both

*Note: This essay was published in the Los Angeles Times print edition on August 2, 2019. Images from the actual print story, as well as text can be found below; it can also be found online here (and a PDF version as well).

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Tulsi Gabbard highlights a problem that is not unique to her. She has two identities, one as a politician and member of Congress and the other as a military officer and major in the Army National Guard. As a Democratic presidential candidate, she’s blurred and crossed the lines distinguishing those identities.

She should either serve the country in a military uniform or as a national politician, but she shouldn’t do both simultaneously, because it harms our military’s all-important nonpartisan ethic and has the potential to weaken our national defense by normalizing what could be a dangerous practice.

So either Maj. Gabbard — or Rep. Gabbard — should stand down.

Her ambition to do double duty is noble, impressive, yet nonetheless wrong. And unfortunately, this is a bipartisan affliction. Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s (R-Ill.) service in the Air National Guard is a prominent example on the other side of the aisle. Although the exact figure ebbs and flows, by my count nearly 20 members of Congress were soldier-lawmakers as recently as two years ago.

In this week’s Democratic debate in Detroit, Gabbard was true to form: Her military service was front and center, as it is in her campaign. Her status as a soldier is the lead biographical bullet point on her Twitter page and her campaign website points out that she’s “presently a major” in the Army National Guard. The site features a slick video of a political speech she gave in 2014 as a member of Congress, wearing her military dress uniform, deriding the “slashing of benefits” for service members and asserting “we must hold leaders accountable.”

Politicking in uniform clearly violates the spirit of the military officer’s oath — something she’s done over and over — and should concern every American citizen and soldier.

Because by regulation and tradition, our nation’s military is thoroughly and deliberately nonpartisan as it has a responsibility to prevent politics from splintering our troops and separating the military from society. Military officers are, of course, allowed to have political ideas and to vote privately. But that’s where it stops because the U.S. military serves all Americans — the red, white and blue — not one party, red or blue.

Although reservists and National Guard troops have slightly different rules that allow for some greater level of political participation than full-time troops, part-time service doesn’t mean part-time ethics.

In choosing to run for president, Gabbard’s combined identity as a citizen-soldier sends her into profoundly uncomfortable terrain.

As an oath-bound military officer — with the potential to be called into national service by the sitting commander-in-chief — how can Gabbard answer questions about impeachment appropriately? Could she honestly say to her constituents in Hawaii, and other national supporters, that her answers aren’t conditioned on her service as a military officer (which would counsel exercising caution and avoiding calls for impeachment)? Or when she’s so publicly sold herself as an “outspoken critic of regime change wars” could she really tell the soldiers she might lead into combat that she’s truly willing to salute and support the chain of command, all the way up to the commander-in-chief, and that she’ll fight when necessary?

In military culture, leaders set examples. And Gabbard is setting an example for everyone in military service. Would it be acceptable for others in uniform to similarly broadcast and propagate their personal political views on social media to the same degree as Gabbard? To follow her lead and risk alienating others in their platoon, company, battalion or brigade?

Members of Congress serving in the military undermine the chain of command. Since they can’t set aside such a prominent day job (designed to provide direct oversight to the military itself), they are almost certain to receive special treatment. Some majors are more major, but shouldn’t be.

For example, Gabbard famously met directly with an avowed adversary of the U.S. government, Bashar Assad, known as the butcher of Syria. How many Army majors would be permitted to do that without facing military justice, let alone be allowed to spell out what their foreign policy would be separate from our government’s?

Practicality also intervenes: National political figures will probably never be able to meet the 39 days per year of unit training required for reservists or members of the National Guard, a fact that should exclude them from service. Their job should be given to someone who can put in the time to be ready to fight when duty calls.

Such dual service easily becomes dual exploitation — a national politician advantaged and protected by military camouflage, as well as a military officer advanced and privileged by political clothing.

People are far less likely to tell a soldier-politician like Gabbard, or other simultaneously serving members of Congress, what to do. That’s understandable, given the public servants’ instinctual nobility — we need more citizens like them who want to serve in politics or in uniform.

But one identity should stand down.

Military service is a privilege, sometimes a painful one. It entails the suppression of certain individual interests for the nation’s greater benefit. Whether members of Congress should simultaneously serve as reserve or National Guard officers is a question that should be officially addressed. At a minimum, those who formally seek the office of commander-in-chief should follow the example of Gen. George Washington — and leave military service behind before ascending to political office.

In Detroit, Gabbard promised to bring the “soldier’s values of service above self to the White House.” That’s fine, as long as she leaves the uniform behind well before walking in the front door.

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