The case of a Marine who is facing discharge for posting disparaging comments about President Obama on Facebook has renewed a debate about free speech rights for members of the military.
A review board on Thursday recommended that Marine Sgt. Gary Stein be discharged for comments on his “Armed Forces Tea Party” site, where he called Obama “the domestic enemy,” superimposed his face on a “Jackass” movie poster and said he would not follow some orders from Obama.
Sgt. Stein’s lawyers claim that Stein was…well, you know what his lawyers are going to say:
[Stein] was acting as a private citizen when posting on the Facebook page, and say the Marine Corps are violating his First Amendment rights by prosecuting him for his comments.
I’ll come back to Stein in a moment, but there’s a larger issue here. This kind of behavior is part of a pattern over the past decade of military involvement in U.S. politics that threatens our more than two centuries of tradition.
Our unique system of civil-military peace and obedience, and the military protections it affords our country, is in danger of being torn down by the arrogance of a small number of military personnel, with the support of activists on both the Right and Left, who have apparently decided to participate in the political process as an extension of their military service.
Let me pause here, and say that this is going to be a long column. So get a cup of coffee, or a bottle of bourbon, or whatever it’s going to take, and buckle up, because the issue is not pretty. By the time we’re done, we’ll have marched through and over patriotism, duty, culture, sexuality, greed, and a lot of other messy stuff. While I try to keep the The War Room light and readable (and will still try today) this is serious business. You’ve been warned.
This is also a good place to stop and note, as usual, that readers should check the disclaimer at the bottom of the page: I do not speak for the government, or any other institution. Instead, this subject is a matter of intense interest for me for two reasons.
First, I wrote my dissertation over 25 years ago on civil-military relations, but in the USSR, not the United States. I got a solid look, through interviews with dozens of Soviet officers, at the terrible things that happen when a tough, professional military is politicized, and I think the Russians are still living with the fallout of the decisions made by their Soviet predecessors.
But second, I spend my days, and have devoted my career, to teaching U.S. military officers. My job, like those of my civilian colleagues in the world of Professional Military Education (PME), was created long ago as an American experiment in repairing the damage done to the civil-military relationship in the 1960s, and as part of a set of safeguards to protect the political and practical working relationship between officers and civilian national security experts.
As Admiral Stansfield Turner said at the Naval War College in his convocation address in 1972:
“We must be able to produce military men who are a match for the best of the civilian strategists, or we will abdicate control of our profession. Our profession can only retain its vitality so long as we ourselves are pushing the frontiers of knowledge in our field.”
That kind of teaching, like all teaching, requires trust between civilian teachers and military students. I especially feel that way teaching men and women who are risking their life for me and for my family, my country, and the ideals I believe in.
So I care about the freedom of speech of military personnel, and of my own liberty to speak as a scholar and teacher in a PME institution. And that’s why it pains me to say that the actions of a small group of civilians and military personnel are recklessly endangering the traditions and boundaries of the American civil-military relationship.
Before pressing ahead, a bit of constitutional history.
The constitutional structure of the United States of America is nothing short of a miracle: Americans live under the longest-surviving, continuously-functioning written constitution in the world. Other nations like to scoff at the United States as a “young” country, but that’s a cultural, not political, definition of “young:” we Americans were establishing important rights like judicial review (Marbury v. Madison, 1803, a case of some interest lately) while the Russian tsars were still murdering each other in St. Petersburg and the French were at war with all of Europe during the madness of Napoleon.
When my Russian friends (yes, I do have some) say that America is a “young country,” I remind them that The Simpsons has been on television longer than the current Russian Constitution has been in effect. There were paratroopers in the streets of Paris as recently as the 1950s, and colonels ran Greece from the Summer of Love in 1967 almost to the resignation of Nixon in 1974.
So while there’s always some cadre of Europeans who like to scoff at our popular culture — while snarfing down McDonald’s cheeseburgers and bitching about us over Twitter on their iPads — there can be little argument with the contributions of the Americans to Western civilization as political engineers.
And perhaps one of the greatest gifts of the Americans to the rest of the world is a the modern model 0f civil-military relations, in which a lethal, fully capable and professional fighting force is also completely loyal and obedient to the civil authority.
Small nations may not care much about civil-military relations — although a long list of those countries have suffered under a parade of generals, admirals, colonels and even sergeants. But for powerful nations, the magic formula, the Holy Grail, of national security has always been to create a military strong enough to win wars but without being a threat to the domestic order.
Getting this balance wrong has had catastrophic consequences for many unhappy nations, from military defeat on one side to a coup d’etat on the other.
And yet, through several major wars, including two in Vietnam and Iraq that have struck at the heart of American society and what it believes, the United States and the U.S. Armed Forces have remained organically bound to each other in a way that many other states and societies envy, but do not understand. (Just ask the Russians, who wish they could pull it off and can’t.)
So why, after two centuries of political and military success, are we now so determined to screw it up? Because we’ve reopened the Culture Wars, and this time we — the civilians — have invited the military to participate in them. This is a ghastly mistake.
The modus vivendi reached by the American Right and the American Left after the entropic waste of time known as the late 1960s was that each side claimed its own spoils once the dust settled.
Conservatives, unable to stop the youth culture spawned by the Baby Boom, gave up on trying to regulate cultural behavior. Likewise, the Left surrendered the economic reins of power; despite their hey-hey, ho-ho chants about this or that having to go, the truth is that they had no idea what to do with an actual, functioning economy, and like the hypocrites on the Right, they knew that as soon as all the malarkey calmed down, they would want stable property values and good schools for their privileged children.
The military, sent into the cauldron of Vietnam, was pulled from side to side during the riots and wars of the time. But once the All-Volunteer Force replaced the draft, the military was placed safely on a pedestal, open to any who wanted to join it, but neither a requirement nor a prison for those who did not. In theory, the U.S. armed forces returned to the job of protecting the United States from Soviet Communism — insofar as that seemed feasible by 1976.
By the late 1970s, the disco glitter balls began to spin, and the largely white middle class — now beneficiaries of the Left’s cultural irresponsibility and the Right’s economic rapaciousness — prospered nicely for the next three decades, while crucial economic and social questions were left untouched.
No one wanted to return to the inter-generational trench warfare that produced nothing but poorly-parented children, avocado-colored kitchen appliances, and an increasing social disparity between classes. The Left pushed harder for cultural nihilism, the Right pushed harder for unregulated capitalism, and both got what they wanted.
Somehow, the deal was broken starting way back in the late 1980s. It doesn’t matter now whose fault it was. The disgusting 1987 attack on Judge Bork (and the subsequent term “Borking”), the mind-boggling shrug-off of the Iran-Contra Affair and the subsequent elevation of Oliver North to “hero,” years of the smirky arrogance of Bill Clinton followed by years of the smirky arrogance of George W. Bush (both spoiled and self-regarding Boomers, more alike than they want to admit) — perhaps all of it left scores to be settled, and contributed to a sense among the political class that there was one more round left in the old fight, especially once the culture and the economy both seemed to collapse at the same time circa 2008.
This would explain a lot, from the bizarre rise of the Tea Party to the rise (and bizarre fall) of Occupy Wall Street, to the current Trayvon Martin disaster-in-the-making. But that’s not my subject here: the scarier aspect in all this renewal of the Culture Wars is that for the first time since the late Vietnam period, there have now been repeated attempts by popular forces on all sides to politicize the U.S. military.
The Left wants to use the military as captive subjects for social engineering, a huge Habitrail full of guinea pigs, a carefully controlled aquarium full of pretty, compliant fish, where they can test all kinds of theories about nature vs. nuture, “heteronormativity,” social promotion, and all the other things that even universities won’t allow them to do to helpless rats due to prohibitions against cruelty to animals.
On the other side, some military conservatives sense a strength in numbers — because the U.S. military, like most militaries, is overwhelmingly conservative, as Tom Ricks wrote over 15 years ago. Some of them would like to enforce a code (and I mean “code” in that pants-crapping way Kiefer Sutherland says it in A Few Good Men), that is meant to keep the military right where they want it: 1952, or thereabouts.
These are the men who hold “voluntary” prayer meetings at U.S military bases that are anything but voluntary– yes, that’s happened in the past — and grit their teeth at any criticism of the military or of ultra-conservative values.
I have actually heard, for example, serving senior officers openly state that they are sworn to protect the Constitution not only because it reflects the wisdom of the Founders, but because it is also based on the words of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (The Constitution? Based on the words of Jesus? I must have missed Civics 101 that day. Or all the rest of the days when I got my BA from a former Methodist school, my MA from an Ivy League university, and my PhD in Government from a Jesuit institution.)
Both sides, left and right, are now corroding the civil-military relationship.
The result of interference from the Left? A protected and favored class of warriors whose political activity is welcomed because it accords with the progressive politics of those who sponsor such experiments.
The result of pandering from the Right? A protected and favored class of warriors whose political activity is welcomed because it accords with the hard-right moral and evangelical agenda of the commands in which they serve.
Common to all of this political misbehavior is the notion, encouraged by partisan political figures, that military service confers special rights — special political rights — that other people don’t have.
This is the world of Starship Troopers, boys and girls, where only “service guarantees citizenship.” Starship Troopers has long been recommended reading for U.S. military officers for its depiction of training, but politically, it’s supposed to be a cautionary tale, not a guidebook.
The end result of all this political activity is a fracas in which notions of military stoicism and apolitical service to the Nation get tossed out the window because, again, veterans are special.
And this idea, that veterans have greater political rights than civilians, has done more to inject a poison into the veins of the U.S. civil-military relationship than any one thing anyone has said in this whole mess. Whether the result will be a mild fever among the ranks, or a full-blown infection that incapacitates our national security establishment, hangs in the balance right now.
While each of these cases represent extreme danger to the future of our Republic, they also include a nice big wallopin’ dose of good ol’ American stupidity.
So let’s go back to the obvious case of the Marine Tea Partier.
Whether he’s a political menace or not, Sgt. Gary Stein doesn’t look to be winning any Nobel Prizes any time soon. He calls his Facebook page “the Armed Forces Tea Party,” which sure as hell to me looks like an attempt to link his views to the U.S. military.
(Imagine if I called this blog “Tom’s United States Defense Department and Naval War College War Room Blog,” and then said “but I don’t mean anything by it.” Fail. Hell, if I put one more disclaimer on this page, there’ll be no room for actual posts.)
Stein has put up all kinds of numbskullery on his page, including referring to a sitting President of the United States — the commander in chief — as “the domestic enemy.” This is meant, I guess, to be a spooky echo of the Federal oath to defend the Constitution from all enemies “foreign and domestic.” (Yes, I have taken the same oath, and proudly. If that’s what Stein meant, it’s disgusting.)
Of course, no political rodeo is complete until the clown car from the American Civil Liberties Union shows up. San Diego ACLU legal director David Loy said:
“The military is not immune or exempt from the First Amendment. We know the First Amendment standards are different in the military, but nonetheless we still think all service members have the right to engage in core political speech as long as it’s clear they’re not doing so on behalf of the government or the military.”
That’s the kind of
bullshit that gives bullshit a bad name disingenuous argument that the ACLU loves to make. By Mr. Loy’s reasoning, it would be acceptable for Sgt. Stein to stand around in his uniform on a Sunday morning in downtown Newport, not far from our beautiful naval base here, with a megaphone blaring his low opinion of the man whose lawful orders he has sworn to follow.
But now some conservatives have joined forces with the ACLU as well. Why? No doubt because they’re enjoying the spectacle of seeing a U.S. Marine zinging a President they don’t happen to like.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Gary Kreep — yes, that’s really his name — a lawyer with the conservative U.S. Justice Foundation, said: “My suspicion is that someone in the White House bureaucracy watching social media saw this [Stein's website] and said, ‘We’re going to nail this s.o.b.” Paranoids have real enemies, as Henry Kissinger famously observed, but there is a narcissism here in believing that the White House is watching some sergeant’s Facebook account.
So now you have the ACLU enjoying the fracas within the Marine Corps, and the conservative Justice Foundation enjoying the open criticism of the President, with both joining forces to keep a guy in the Marines who has openly shown contempt for his own chain of command.
As USMC Capt. John Torresala told the Los Angeles Times:
“This is what he’s putting out to the public, and he’s a sergeant of the Marines, on active duty. How can this not be prejudicial to good order and discipline?”
Good question, Captain, but the more important question is this: Where on earth did Sgt. Stein train, and what briefings did he attend, where he somehow got it into his head that his personal shots at his commander were somehow acceptable?
Stein, I suspect, knew exactly what he was doing, and seeing how far he could go, but again, that’s not the point. What’s even more striking is the utter narcissism of a sergeant in a volunteer army who feels the need to express his deep contempt for the President via social media in a way that cannot be interpreted any other way as making hay off his uniform.
Now, don’t get me wrong about the AVF: the All-Volunteer Force has been a blessing for the country, and a powerful multiplier for our military effectiveness. There is no greater military organization in the world, and if I were captured by terrorists, the list of modern militaries I’d want rescuing me is pretty small, with our guys right at the top of the list.
But the glorification of the AVF by civilians who want to politicize the military has also cemented the notion that America has a new warrior class composed not of ordinary men and women like the fictional Mr. Roberts or Ensign Pulver, but a special caste of superheroes, like the sons of Horatius swearing to defend Rome to the death so that others may live in safety.
At this point, I’m sure many of you are saying: Okay, we get it, the Tea Partiers are nuts. But it’s just them, right?
Wrong. The Left has its own culture warriors (pun intended) out there as well.
In fact, perhaps Sgt. Stein got the idea that he could get away with being a political provocateur from watching the kid-glove treatment given to another soldier — an officer — who crossed the line as well: Army Captain Stephen Hill, who jumped into a September 2011 GOP debate in Florida while on duty overseas, which I blogged about at the time here.
In his best stony stare-down, and with the calm, detached tone of a man dropping the anvil of the classic “gotcha” question, Hill asked:
“In 2010 when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was because I’m a gay soldier, and I didn’t want to lose my job. My question is, under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?”
Nicely phrased, since there is no way to give a reasoned answer to this question without saying either I will or I will not “circumvent progress.” And who doesn’t love progress?
Hill was instantly booed for asking the question, which in turn caused more of a ruckus than the question itself. How dare we boo a veteran! And how dare anyone boo a gay veteran! And a gay vet in a war zone!
Yes, Captain Hill was the perfect trifecta of political immunity: self-identified as gay, wearing an Army t-shirt, and Skyping from Iraq. Who could dare say anything to him other than to apologize for his having to eat Army food while protecting the blanket of freedom under which we all sleep?
Please spare me the debate about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or unload about whether gays should be in the military. That fight is over and settled. This isn’t about DADT.
It’s about whether serving military officers should be participating in political debates of any kind, on any side.
If you think it’s a good idea to have officers tossing zingers at political debates, ask yourself how it would work in the general election. Shall we invite the good Captain to return, and to grill the President during a Town Hall debate with Governor Romney? Of course not — because it would be illegal. So why was it okay during a GOP debate?
And remember: political participation is a double-edged sword. When the next Democrats are running in 2016, should conservative military officers be able to Skype from Fort Calamity with questions about whether the candidates are trying to “destroy America” or some similar barb? Of course not.
And as for the booing …well. The press, especially the Leftish blogosphere, went completely nuts over this affront to a fine military officer. (Is this the same Left whose moms and dads spit on returning Vietnam draftees? I guess, in the eyes of the media, going overseas and serving in combat is okay if you’re part of a group they happen to support.)
Now, personally, I think it’s bad form to yell or boo during political events, but it happens, and if you’re going to participate in partisan gatherings, then expect to take your lumps. Instead, Captain Hill got the usual craven whining from Rick Santorum and others on the stage about “honoring his service” and all that boilerplate that candidates do when they don’t want to be seen as anything but completely obeisant to the armed forces. (And when did that start?)
What codswallop. The first thing I thought, watching Hill pose his question, is that Hill must have been violating about three stacks of regulations about the political activities of military personnel. I’m a civilian professor, and I cannot imagine that I could — or should — participate in a political event from my duty station, using government resources, and wearing official insignia showing my DoD affiliation.
But again, the real issue here is that both of these men, Stein and Hill, have gotten it into their minds that their uniform is not a restraint on how they should express themselves, but even worse, their military status is actually a special pass to express themselves far beyond what any other member of the government service would be allowed to do.
When the warriors think their right to speak trumps the orders of their chain of command, we’re no longer North America in 2012, but rapidly heading to becoming South America, 1958. This has to stop, and it has to stop by bipartisan agreement. The U.S. Armed Forces serve neither Alfred Kinsey nor Jesus Christ. They serve the American people and the American Constitution.
And if some members of the U.S. military cannot endure the special obligations that apply to them — — like, say, showing respect for the Commander in Chief no matter how one feels about him, or staying out of partisan dogfights while posted at a Federal installation — as we entrust to their care everything from pistols to nuclear weapons, then we’re headed for trouble that is deep and wide.
So, on my own behalf, and no one else’s, let me just say: Sgt. Stein? Capt. Hill? Shame on both of you. And to America’s political class: leave the military alone. No more press conferences at military academies, no more staged photographs, no more canned “honoring your service” speeches. Let the military do what it does better than anyone: defend our country.
In 1962, Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey wrote a novel imagining a coup d’etat in the United States, the result of a group of generals who came to think they knew better, and had greater rights, than the civilians they served. Rod Serling’s 1964 screenplay for that book, Seven Days in May, suggested one solution for soldiers who don’t like the way the military is run, and it’s worth remembering now, as we head into a contentious election:
General Scott: James Mattoon Scott, as you put it, hasn’t the slightest interest in his own glorification. But he does have an abiding interest in the survival of this country.
President Lyman: Then, by God, run for office! You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical affection for your country — why in the name of God don’t you have any faith in the system of government you’re so hell-bent to protect?