Overstepping the bounds of duty?

Two of the cardinal principles governing the United States military have been challenged by senior naval authorities. They are civilian control of the military and the noninvolvement of military men and women in domestic politics. The occasion was an annual symposium at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., just two weeks ago.

The War College provides midcareer education for naval officers in their early 30s to mid-40s. The objective is to broaden their understanding of their profession and ready them for higher responsibilities. A part of that broadening is an annual symposium with 250 to 300 business people, academicians, and news media representatives. In theory, the student officers who rub elbows for three days with these civilians will better understand where they and our military fit into American life. Not so this year. The tables were turned upside down.

Instead of the student-officers learning from the civilians, they and the civilians were lectured by senior naval officials on how civilian control of the military should be exercised and about which political party deals with military issues better.

Among others, Vice-Adm. James A. Lyons came up from Washington to tell the assemblage that the War Powers Resolution of Congress is ''insidious'' and an ''impediment'' that needs to be removed. That resolution establishes the circumstances under which a president can order military forces into action and those when he must obtain the concurrence of the Congress. Such division of authority over the military is a domestic political matter. It is part of the continual push and pull for power between the Congress and the presidency. The military has no business taking sides as to which form of civilian control it prefers - and will obey. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia described Admiral Lyons's remarks as ''outrageous.'' He was right.

Admiral Lyons went on to praise the current Republican administration for its ''very courageous political decision'' to invade Grenada last October; he implied criticism of the previous Democratic administration for not standing by Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza and the Shah of Iran in 1979. If Admiral Lyons is campaigning for Ronald Reagan's reelection, it is against the law for him to do so while on active duty. The admiral needs to be reminded that the American people want their military to stay clear of domestic politics. We see enough of military meddling in politics in the rest of the world.

Military men must be prepared to offer forthright views on military matters, such as whether we are adequately prepared to defend our nation's interests with force if necessary and what the chances are for success if we do go to war. They have no business speaking up on essentially political issues, such as whether it is, or was, in the country's interests to employ military force. Our constitutional process does not provide for the military to play such a role. Beyond that, as Admiral Lyons has amply demonstrated, military men often tend to see complex political issues in starkly simple military terms.

The ill-advised remarks of one vice-admiral are not cause for widespread concern. Unfortunately there are other straws in the wind: Admiral Lyons is a protege of the current secretary of the Navy and presumably reflects the secretary's views; a lieutenant general in the Marine Corps went equally off the reservation at the same symposium, so much so that President Reagan disavowed his remarks; the secretary of the Navy himself was at the symposium and neither then, nor since, has he expressed any concern at the overstepping of bounds by his uniformed subordinates; and there is an increasing amount of talk among military men, including some by Lyons at the symposium, that we may need to strike the first blow in the next war - a line of military reasoning that has pressured civilian decisionmakers over history to pull the trigger.

The United States military has far too deep a tradition of following civilian control and remaining aloof from domestic politics to be swayed easily by indiscretions such as were rampant in Newport. There was an exuberance there, however, that bespeaks improper civilian encouragement of the military into a political role and an unwise willingness of some military officers to fall into that trap. It is vital to the future of our military that both of these trends be arrested promptly.

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