Best Defense

Some thoughts on the problem of politicians in the National Guard

It's time to reevaluate how "part-time military professionals" -- who also exercise civilian political rights -- fit with traditional civilian control of the military.


By Lindsay P. Cohn Warrior, Ph.D., and Jessica D. Blankshain, Ph.D.

Best Defense guest columnists

In a year of divisive midterm elections with the Senate up for grabs, the Iowa senate race received significant attention. One issue that was particularly polarizing was senator-elect Joni Ernst’s military status. Ernst’s campaign slogan proclaimed her a “mother, soldier, and independent leader.” Supporters said that she represented the citizen-soldier ideal, alternating campaign stops with National Guard training days. Opponents contended that by speaking out against the Obama administration and its policies, and vocally defending her right to use a personal firearm to defend herself against the government if necessary, Ernst violated both the tenets of military professionalism and the fundamentals of civilian control of the military.

Iowa Vietnam veteran Steve Wikert (Des Moines Register, Oct. 30) argued that Ernst violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice when she called President Obama a “dictator” who should be “removed from office” or “impeached,” and when she told a National Rifle Association audience that she believed in her “right to defend [her]self and [her] family … from a government, should they decide that [her] rights are no longer important.”

Had Ernst been an active-duty military officer, her statements might well have constituted violations of the long-standing principle of military discipline that prohibits expressing contempt towards civilian officials in the chain of command. There are multiple historical cases of military officers being disciplined for similar statements. However, as an officer in the National Guard, Ernst is subject to the UCMJ only when she is under Title 10 orders. That is, she is covered by the UCMJ only if she is on duty and the Iowa Guard is actively under federal, not state, orders. At the time of the aforementioned political statements, Ernst was, for legal purposes, a civilian with no additional restrictions on her right to political speech.

This hybrid status for members of the National Guard is a legacy of the United States’ long history of preference for part-time “citizen-soldiers” as a means of protecting the country from a predatory warrior caste. Clearly, a significant part of that logic is that these part-time officers are protected in their rights to political speech when they are not actively under federal orders. However, the U.S. abandoned reliance on a part-time soldiery in favor of a full-time professional force decades ago. While the ideal of an apolitical, professional officer corps arose mainly from Army reformers’ desire to prevent repetition of the extreme political-military tensions of the Civil War, it became an indispensable principle of civilian control when the U.S. decided to maintain large standing military forces during the Cold War. In the post-Cold War era of high-tech warfare and perpetual military deployments including the Guard and Reserves, the distinction between part-time and full-time service-members has become increasingly blurry. Guard and Reserve officers increasingly resemble their full-time counterparts in terms of expertise and combat experience

This is why Ernst’s campaign has drawn such disparate reactions: it has shone a spotlight on the tensions inherent in a political system that idealizes the part-time officer as well as the part-time politician, but also demands abstention from partisan politics by those in the military. A primary reason for prohibiting military officers from expressing contempt for civilian officials is to preserve their ability to maintain good order and discipline among their troops, who have sworn to follow the President’s lawful orders. Words stick around, especially in the Internet age, and it is unreasonable to think that the words of public figures will not follow them back to their units when they do go on duty. A second reason for restricting officers’ political speech is to preserve the American public’s broad-based trust in the military as an institution. Candidates for partisan office running, at least in part, on their military status risk furthering the belief, already held by many Americans, that the military is a partisan institution. And a multitude of polls show that Americans place less trust in political institutions they perceive as partisan.

Ernst is not alone in wearing both political and military hats: according to the National Guard Association, five current members of the National Guard were reelected, and one newly elected, to House seats this November. Many members of state and national legislatures are also in the reserves.

It is time to reevaluate how these “part-time military professionals,” who also exercise civilian political rights, fit with traditional norms of civilian control of the military. In the public eye, National Guard and full-time service members are no longer as distinct as they once were. At the same time, the current polarized political climate makes it difficult for those who might try to remain non-partisan to win elections or to function as legislators.

A range of reforms is possible. Military leaders could encourage new norms: that all officers abide by the UCMJ prohibitions on contemptuous speech, whether or not it legally applies at the time; and/or that Guard and Reserve officers make their civilian status, and the fact that they do not represent the military, clear while campaigning. Guard and Reserve officers who run partisan campaigns could be allowed to retain their commissions, but taken out of the running for future command positions. As demonstrated by reactions to the Ernst campaign, the issue is likely to be politically sensitive on all sides, but the military profession and the American people will be ill served by sweeping the issue under the rug until the next election cycle.

The authors are assistant professors in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are their own and do not represent the views of the Naval War College, Department of the Navy, or the United States government.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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