Throughout its history, the United States’ military has, by design, removed itself from partisan politics and pursued an apolitical voice in public discourse. In the current political climate where the popular culture has blended so heavily with politics, the line between apolitical speech and partisan talking points has all but disappeared and the military has jumped into that quagmire with both feet. In recent months, scandals in the form of social media outbursts, participation in unlawful assemblies by current and former members of the armed forces, and political statements in uniform made by senior enlisted and general officers have removed any pretense of political neutrality from the U.S. armed forces.
This shift is not only damaging to the U.S. armed forces’ reputation, but to the morale of the service members and the support of United States citizens. The leadership stand-down to address extremism in the force appears to have been designed in direct response to the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol building where there have been arrests of current and former active duty and reserves members of the military. In and of itself, this is not a particularly surprising move — every action has a reaction and typically that reaction from senior military leadership is mandatory training in regards to the issue at hand (e.g., Marines United). This stand-down training does not exist without context, however.
The context in this case is that the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol followed nearly eight months of riots in nearly every major city that resulted in over $2 billion of damages to public and private property and over 30 deaths. When presented in this context it is impossible to maintain the perception that partisan politics did not play a role in the creation and mandate of this training. As every service member knows, perception is reality. Further evidence of emergent partisanship at the highest levels of the armed forces, when service members at “every echelon” question as to why the anti-extremism training has been created in response to the Jan. 6 rioting and not the previous eight months the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Sergeant Major Ramón Colón-López stated, “We cannot confuse a First Amendment grievance because of social injustice organization and some of the criminals that latched on to go ahead and loot, destroy and commit other crimes. There’s two clear, distinct groups right there.”
In an anecdotal account from an active-duty sailor reported by prominent political correspondent Jack Posobiec, during the extremism stand-down groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers were identified by their leadership as extremist groups while the sailor in question was told Antifa, BLM, and domestic Islamic jihadism were not appropriate examples in regards to the extremism training despite domestic terror incidents being carried out by members of, or in the name of, these groups. In this example, the focus on only one side of the political spectrum is stark and is counter to the military’s tradition of non-partisanship. It is evident that according to a separate article by McClatchy, this is not a unique case.
While it is true that there have been more service members, actively serving or otherwise formerly associated, were implicated in and charged with crimes in relation to the Jan. 6 riot; it is disingenuous (and factually inaccurate) to assert that no service member was engaged in the riots for “social injustice” during the previous eight months considering the arrest of Airman First Class Larry Williams Jr., allegedly caught on video torching a police car during riots in Salt Lake City. This begs the question: is the military actually concerned with all extremist ideologies equally or is it only concerned with partisan optics in response to a right-wing riot?
Unfortunately, this is not the only recent example of hypocrisy and partisan statements by senior officials. In response to comments made by Tucker Carlson, a Fox News political commentator, several senior officers and enlisted members of the U.S. military took to social media and even CNN to disparage him and his comments. These comments fly in the face of the social media misconduct policies instituted by each branch. General officers such as Army Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe, TRADOC Gen. Paul Funk, enlisted leadership such as Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant Scott Stalker and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, and the official Twitter account for Marine II Marine Information Group, have made public, politically charged comments — irrelevantly pointing at Carlson’s lack of military service — in response, adding fuel to the partisan firefight. Grinston went so far as to appear on CNN in uniform. II MIG (to their credit) has issued a public apology for their unprofessionalism.
These comments, without the context of being in response to a partisan political commentator, would not be seen as a political statement and would be rightly seen as a relatively obvious group of statements that accurately reflect the role of women in the military. When taken in context, however, the comments are political statements directed at a political commentator in order to play party politics on behalf of armed forces. Despite anyone’s personal opinions on Tucker Carlson’s statements on the military’s priorities with regard to hair and nail polish regulations or maternity uniforms, making public statements from official military social media accounts and appearing on partisan news networks is — and should be — impermissible for our senior military leaders. This bold-faced partisan commenting has led Republican Sen. Ted Cruz to state, “This spectacle risks politicizing the military after several centuries of efforts to keep military officials out of domestic affairs, undermining civil-military relations by having the military take a side in a contentious cultural dispute, and the perception that military leaders are happily weaponizing the institution against political critics of the sitting administration.”
Senator Cruz has also requested a meeting with the Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger to discuss the comments made by military service members against Tucker Carlson.
This commentary is not meant to disparage the military — it is a metaphorical call to arms. It is intended to bring to light the emerging partisanship of the armed forces and correct the course of action before it is too late. The military exists to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and by becoming embroiled in partisan politics that becomes impossible to do. If I, a current member of the military, and others do not begin to voice our concerns with our senior leaders’ increasingly partisan activities and statements we will lose the pride we once had in our service, we will lose quality service members who feel their personal political opinions are being disparaged by the military leadership, we will lose the faith of the citizens of the United States, and (most importantly) we will lose future conflicts by bleeding off quality members who would rather leave the military than become pawns for partisan use by leaders who would rather focus on optics and future political opportunity than on the future of our missions and our national defense. We cannot allow ourselves to become a tool to the current or any future administration for partisan politics.
Jacob Richardson is a field artillery captain in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and works in law enforcement in his civilian employment. The views expressed here are solely that of Richardson’s and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or Department of the Navy.
Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.