Military's officer corps: too political?
Some detect overt support for President Bush. Others just see more polarization.
The battle for "hearts and minds" in wartime has always been fought at home as well as abroad. It's the main lesson today's senior military officers learned as young lieutenants in Vietnam.Skip to next paragraph
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This has never been truer than with the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. The war was controversial from the start. President Bush, the commander in chief, is running for reelection and slipping in the polls. Whether partisan or not, opinions are more visible and often polarized.
The senior officer corps is not immune from the trend. At recent media events at the Pentagon, in Baghdad, and this week at the Army War College, uniformed officers led cheers for Mr. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. That may not be unprecedented, but it illustrates the more prominent role of public diplomacy and public relations in war. Some officers grumbled at the sight of senior officers participating in events with political overtones, at least in image value.
The trend is accelerated by advancements in the media allowing for real-time war coverage, which - in the eyes of TV producers - is made more legitimate with recently retired senior officers, preferably with pointers and maps, taking part. That, in turn, leads to more analysis, which - especially in a prolonged and divisive war - leads to more opinionating.
In many ways, the war is being run like a political campaign. For public relations and rhetorical purposes, senior commanders and uniformed spokesmen are taking their lead from civilians at the Pentagon and in the war zone. "When military guys talk about 'terrorist death squads' rather than 'irregulars,' they are following political direction from the White House Office of Global Communications passed through and coordinated by the political types," says retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner. He notes that senior civilian communications officials in Iraq and at Central Command previously worked for the GOP on the Florida electoral recount.
In terms of political inclinations, military officers do not reflect the country as a whole. A year before the 2000 election, a survey by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies showed strong support for the GOP among officers. Of those surveyed, 64 percent identified with Republicans, 17 percent with Independents, and only 8 percent with Democrats.
One study shows absentee voting for the military (which started after the Vietnam War) helped lead career officers to think in more political terms. In a paper written while at the National War College, Army Col. Lance Betros concluded that "the officer corps' voting preference does not constitute partisan activity and is not, by itself, harmful to professionalism and civil-military relations." But Colonel Betros (who now teaches at West Point) also noted that such legendary military leaders as William Tecumseh Sherman and George Marshall stayed out of politics to the point where they didn't vote.
"They believed that meddling in politics, including voting in ... elections, eroded professionalism by weakening officers' military expertise and undermining their credibility in providing unbiased advice to civilian leaders," wrote Betros, who warned that the partisan trend could have "long-term harmful effects."
Today, however, it doesn't necessarily harm military careers. Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin told an evangelical group in Oregon last year that although Bush had lost the popular election in 2000, "He's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this." General Boykin is now deputy to Stephen Cambone, under secretary of Defense for intelligence and one of the most influential advisers to Mr. Rumsfeld.