Sidebar: Fighting the enemy within the ranks

Political violence and the US military

*Editor’s Note: As a “Sidebar” subject, this isn’t strategy-specific so much as strategy-adjacent. If it’s a topic of interest, read on. If not, we’ll still be running a strategy-focused essay on regular rotation in the coming days. Enjoy!

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They led from the front, as trained. Almost 20 percent of the rioters charged so far for storming the US Capitol on Jan. 6 were military veterans, according to one count. Representing all services, they included Larry R. Brock, a 1989 US Air Force Academy graduate and retired US Air Force pilot; Donovan Crowl, a former US Marine; Jessica Watkins, a veteran of the US Army; and Adam Newbold, a retired Navy SEAL. 

It wasn’t surprising, then, when US defense officials announced recently the FBI was carefully vetting the estimated 25,000 National Guard troops securing President Joseph R. Biden’s Inauguration. They ultimately weeded out a dozen potential insider threats. It’s unfortunate the military must take steps like these to repair public trust. But they’re just first steps. It’s time for the US military to work harder to root out enemies within the ranks. 

As a thoroughly non-partisan, active duty officer, speaking only for myself—we’re not talking about many people here. We’re not talking about protected speech. We’re talking about a few bad troops with poisoned minds, twisted by extremist partisan politics. We’re talking about people with weapons and training and declared intentions to act. With consequences this high, all it might take is one. 

This insider threat is so insidious because all American troops, active and retired, are called to live by codes of honor to defend “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Self-enforced standards of life-long behavior that guide conduct even in the worst circumstances. Perhaps the most important of these codes is non-partisanship. While military members may vote privately—public, partisan political activity is uniquely dangerous. Organized violence against America is unforgivable.

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The American military, and country, has been stress-tested this way before. America’s Civil War was only possible because 26 percent of West Point’s graduates chose partisan politics, and then took up arms against the US government. Political rancor within the Union led a serving general—George B. McClellan—to challenge a sitting president.

It was close, but there was enough herd immunity from partisan politics then that America prevailed in the Civil War’s test. There’s reason to think it’ll hold firm again.

The military’s code of non-partisanship remains a strong shield in certain spots. Start with America’s top general, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Testifying in the House of Representatives this past summer, Gen. Mark Milley directly addressed our traitorous Civil War-era military forebears: “Those generals fought for the institution of slavery…The Confederacy…was an act of treason against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the US Constitution. Those officers turned their back on their oath.” 

Just as those January-Sixers who ever wore a US uniform broke their oaths. They are the cracks in America’s armor. Some of this was predictable. America’s military is a microcosm of society. If society’s taken up arms in extreme partisan warfare, members of the military will be tempted to join in. But it wasn’t always this way.

Solid figures are hard to come by, but trends run toward military politicization. In 1976, 55 percent of military officers polled were either independent or did not affiliate with a political party. By 2009, that had dropped to just 16 percent. One recent study found over one-third of respondents, a mix of US military officers and West Point cadets, reported that their active duty military acquaintances online used or shared “insulting, rude, or disdainful comments on social media directed against elected leaders, including the president.” 

They may be taking cues from the retired top brass. It was unheard of for a retired general or admiral to endorse a presidential candidate three decades ago. Since then, over 1,000 retired senior officers, one-in-seven, have made presidential endorsements, according to research in Armed Forces & Society

Then there’s Michael Flynn. If the codes against partisan behavior in uniform were eroding, the disgraced former lieutenant general Michael Flynn took a sledgehammer to the remaining firewall. 

Flynn recently called for the military to “rerun” the presidential election to find a different outcome. He’s defamed a commander in chief, he’s demonized an entire world religion, he’s delegitimized political opponents, been deemed a liar, publicly, a particular low for someone once an Army officer. Perhaps worst of all, he even pledged some kind of strange oath to QAnon this past summer. 

Flynn opened the floodgates, and out poured the filth. 

Following Flynn’s example, in 2017, an active duty major teaching at West Point wrote online in giddy terms about “burning D.C. to the ground.” He carefully couched it in metaphorical language, but no one could doubt he deliberately violated the spirit of the military’s nonpartisan ethic. He contemptuously called members of Congress “complete frauds.” Some other low points stand out: “This is the fight we have been waiting for”; “The Left wasn’t going to go down quietly or peacefully, no matter how we approached the fight”; “if we want to replace them we have to kill them first”; “stop resisting those who are willing and capable of performing this messy and necessary work.” With these words, the deeds of Jan. 6 are less shocking.

Intolerable actions should carry intolerable consequences. Members of Congress in recent days have talked about legal punishment. Military retirees are often entitled to benefits including retirement pay, which the Uniform Code of Military Justice might take away. 

But those are legal methods. That’s the law. That’s courts and judges. What will the military profession do? A profession is only a profession if it polices its own. What consequence will the military impose on this behavior to deter it from happening again? Formal censure, stripping titles, public shame for public dishonor—these would be a good start. 

Because whatever the military profession has been doing clearly wasn’t enough to keep its former members from a serious attack on America (and some current members to openly consider political violence). The military must rebuild trust with the American people. If the military profession’s enemy is within, that’s where we fight. Americans must be confident our codes will be kept and that our military breaks dictatorships abroad—it never backs them at home.  

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*Editor’s Note:  Please let me know what you thought with a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward it on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything to this little community’s continued growth. 

All the very best & see you next week, Matt