May 27, 2008
International Herald Tribune
The highest-ranking U.S. military officer has written an unusual open letter to all those in uniform, warning them to stay out of politics as the country approaches a presidential election in which the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be a central, and certainly divisive, issue.
"The U.S. military must remain apolitical at all times," wrote Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "It is and must always be a neutral instrument of the state, no matter which party holds sway."
Mullen's essay appears in the coming issue of Joint Force Quarterly, an official military journal that is distributed widely among the officer corps.
The statement to the armed forces is the first essay for the journal Mullen has written as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and veteran officers said they could not remember when a similar "all- hands" letter had been issued to remind military personnel to remain outside, if not above, contentious political debate.
The essay can be seen as a reflection of the deep concern among senior officers that the U.S. military, which is paying the highest price in carrying out national security policy, may be drawn into politicking this year.
The war in Iraq already has exceeded the length of World War II and is the longest conflict the United States has fought with an all- volunteer military since the Revolutionary War.
In particular, members of the Joint Chiefs have expressed worries this election year about the influence of retired officers who advise political campaigns, some of whom have publicly called for a change in policy or others who serve as television commentators.
Among the most outspoken were those who joined the so-called generals' revolt in 2006 demanding the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary, as well as former officers who have written books attacking the Bush administration's planning for and execution of the war in Iraq.
While retired officers have full rights to political activism, their colleagues still in uniform fear its effect on those trying to carry out the mission, especially more junior officers and enlisted personnel. Active-duty military personnel are prohibited from taking part in partisan politics.
"As the nation prepares to elect a new president," Mullen wrote, "we would all do well to remember the promises we made: to obey civilian authority, to support and defend the Constitution and to do our duty at all times."
"Keeping our politics private is a good first step," he added. "The only things we should be wearing on our sleeves are our military insignia."
Mullen said he was inspired to write the essay after receiving a constant stream of legitimate, if troubling, questions while visiting U.S. military personnel around the world, including, "What if a Democrat wins?" and, "What will that do to the mission in Iraq?"
"I am not suggesting that military professionals abandon all personal opinions about modern social or political issues," Mullen wrote. "What I am suggesting - indeed, what the nation expects - is that military personnel will, in the execution of the mission assigned to them, put aside their partisan leanings. Political opinions have no place in cockpit or camp or conference room."
He noted that "part of the deal we made when we joined up was to willingly subordinate our individual interests to the greater good of protecting vital national interests."
Mullen took his message directly to the U.S. Navy's newest officers on May 23, when he spoke to the Naval Academy's graduating class. Military personnel are obligated to give their unvarnished, even critical, advice to their civilian leaders, he told the class.
"If it's followed, great," Mullen said. "If it's not, we only have two choices: obey the orders we have been given, carrying them out with the professionalism and loyalty they deserve, or vote with our feet."