The U.S. Military Must Be Nonpartisan, but Not Apolitical

The U.S. Military Must Be Nonpartisan, but Not Apolitical
National Guard troops reinforce security around the U.S. Capitol ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration, in Washington, Jan. 17, 2021 (AP photo by J. Scott Applewhite).

When an agitated mob of extremist supporters of President Donald Trump sacked the U.S. Capitol last month, egged on by Trump and other Republican politicians, they struck at the bedrock principles in the oath that members of the U.S. armed forces swear to protect and defend the Constitution. Nonetheless, America’s uniformed military leadership waited a full week to issue a public statement directly addressing that riotous invasion of the seat of the American republic.

The statement, in the form of a memorandum to service members from the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, was appropriately strong and concise, even if the delay in publishing it was unnecessarily long. It condemned the “sedition and insurrection” at the Capitol, mourned the police officers and others who died as a result of the riot, and reiterated the military’s commitment to “defending the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The statement was also a welcome, if unusual, change from the military brass’ traditional insistence on remaining “apolitical,” even though this is not the official policy of the Defense Department. This departure from the norm probably played an important role in the delay in issuing it.

Despite the conventional view that military officers should stay out of politics, scholars and practitioners such as Mara Karlin and Jim Golby have argued that the military is not—and should not be—an apolitical institution. “Military leaders need to be able to engage on political issues with their troops and with the public, and they shouldn’t shy away from a topic simply for fear of being labeled ‘political,’” they wrote recently in Task & Purpose. “We don’t want a military that is ‘apolitical’; we instead want a military that avoids partisanship, institutional endorsements, and electoral influence.”

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.