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.

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.

Many analysts believe the warm response to Bush at the Army War College indicated how many officers see eye-to-eye with this administration more than they did with Bill Clinton - notorious among career officers for having avoided military service and instituting a "don't ask, don't tell" policy allowing homosexuals to serve in uniform. "The military despised Clinton, so in Bush...they see a more principled president," says retired Army Col. Dan Smith. "That is, of course, arguable. But that's what is behind the applause lines."

Other observers see a trend toward "careerism" among the officer corps - working for advancement based as much on success in Washington as on competence in the field.

"Sea duty, for us Navy types, began to be a box to be checked between Pentagon assignments more than the point of one's career," says retired Navy Capt. Larry Seaquist. "It was a careerist's game. One's skills on the Washington battlefield were the personal, political skills of the staff officer and the courtier, not of the combat team leader. The result is, we have grown several crops of senior officers who are very good at Washington politicking, excellent at program acquisition, or at least PowerPoint program sales, but rather shallow on the combat command and troop leadership end."

Though some - perhaps many - career officers oppose actions of the president and other senior civilians in charge of the military in Iraq, they know that speaking out can quickly end a career - or worse. The Uniform Code of Military Justice states that "any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President...shall be punished as a court-martial may direct."

Such inside opposition is often communicated through retired officers appearing regularly on television. Others, such as retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who declared the administration's conduct in Iraq a "failure" last Sunday on "60 Minutes," are well known for their outspokenness.

"There is a lot of dissension right now about the Iraq war plan, or lack of plan, within the uniformed community, both at leadership and rank and file levels," says Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "It may well be that more retired folks are speaking out because they feel that the uniformed folks cannot."

In any case, says a retired Army colonel, "Retired military's involvement pro and con is unprecedented in my experience and memory of history. Even with Ike [Eisenhower], it was much more muted than now."

The conflict in Iraq - the first extended US combat with live TV and soldiers on the ground sending home e-mails and digital photos - has brought the war directly into living rooms, which makes it especially political in an election year. This phenomenon may be all the more evident because so many reserve and National Guard troops are involved. These citizen-soldiers are much more inclined to speak out, especially when so many have had their combat tours extended and families back home are complaining.

"We are in a no-kidding war, and most people don't remember Vietnam firsthand," says John Pike, director of "Those that do remember Vietnam, remember it on tape in black and white, and this war is live, in color, and high definition to boot."

That's one reason the president has used military settings to counter bad news and emphasize his agenda, analysts say. Some in the armed forces may object. But most are either enthusiastic about Bush or used to saluting and doing what they're told.

"The military has no choice if the president chooses to use it as a backdrop. He is commander in chief," says Colonel Smith, now a military analyst at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington. "But no other president that I can remember has so tied his political fortunes to military success - not even Lincoln in the Civil War."

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