No Comment — September 1, 2007, 8:13 am

A Politicized Military?

A recently retired flag officer friend of mine, who describes himself as a “once solid, and now wavering Republican” tells me :

Most officers, you know, are Republicans, but we all do our best to ensure that we wear no party allegiance when we put on our uniforms. It’s common to think that the Republicans love the military and the Democrats despise us. But our actual experience over the last couple of decades is that the Democrats, whether they despise us or not, leave us free to manage our own affairs and don’t interfere too much. Whereas the Republicans seem to love us so much that they know better than the career officer corps about just about everything. I’m really close to thinking that I prefer those Democrats, whether they despise us or not.

He went on to tell me that one of the things that bugged him the most about the Pentagon in recent years was the fairly overt process of politicization. “The White House was always involved in picking the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a handful of other positions, of course, but the process further down the line, especially two-stars and lower, was really peer-review. There is still a peer-review, but now it’s politicos who make the decisions, and their suspicion of where people stand in terms of party politics seems to weigh very heavily. This just ain’t right.”

American tradition, reinforced by statutes, has mandated that party politics be kept out of the military. In theory military officers should refrain from overt displays of political involvement; specifically, wearing a uniform to a political function is prohibited—with just a few narrowly delineated exceptions (the armed forces routinely provide color guards for political events, for instance). However, with the arrival of the Bush Administration, a double standard has emerged: military personnel are welcomed to participate, in uniform, at Republican functions; at Democratic functions, this is prohibited. One of the best demonstrations of this was Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, who wore his uniform while giving speeches at a series of political rallies linked to the Republican party. An inspector general’s report recommended he be disciplined over this. Instead, he was promoted. Soldiers caught wearing a uniform as a function associated with the other party have a distinctly different experience, as Cpl. Adam Kokesh discovered.

Recently, the process of politicization of media messages within the Armed Forces and transmitted by the Armed Forces has expanded dramatically. This effort has been led by political appointees, and most prominently by Dorrance Smith, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Here are some for-instances:

Internet Censorship; Blog Inequality
The Department of Defense has limited access of military personnel to certain websites. In general, in the area of political commentary and reporting, the DOD view is that websites tightly aligned with the Republican Party or firmly committed to support the administration are fine. Websites associated with the Democratic Party or critical of the Administration are off limits.

A good example of this was recently reported by the Center for American Progress’ blog,

ThinkProgress is now banned from the U.S. military network in Baghdad.

Recently, an avid ThinkProgress reader — a U.S. soldier serving his second tour in Iraq — wrote to us and said that he can no longer access The error message he received:

Victory Base Complex (VCB) Blue Coat Message.
See below for message details.
Access Denied (content_filted_denied)
Your request was denied because of its content >>categorization: “Political/ActivistGroups/Blogs/Newsgroups”

The ban began sometime shortly after Aug. 22, when Ret. Maj. Gen. John Batiste was our guest blogger on ThinkProgress. He posted an op-ed that was strongly critical of the President’s policies and advocated a “responsible and deliberate redeployment from Iraq.” Previously, both the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times had rejected the piece.

Here’s what Major General Batiste, a Republican–but apparently not a sufficiently loyal Republican–had written that appears to have provoked the ban:

It is disappointing that so many elected representatives of my [Republican] party continue to blindly support the administration rather than doing what is in the best interests of our country. Traditionally, my party has maintained a conservative view on questions regarding our Armed Forces. For example, we commit our military only when absolutely necessary . . .

The only way to stabilize Iraq and allow our military to rearm and refit for the long fight ahead is to begin a responsible and deliberate redeployment from Iraq and replace the troops with far less expensive and much more effective resources–those of diplomacy and the critical work of political reconciliation and economic recovery. In other words, when it comes to Iraq, it’s time for conservatives to once again be conservative.

Of course, Rush Limbaugh, the team at Fox News, National Review, the Weekly Standard, and Commentary can all be read with no interruption.

Collaboration With Right-Wing Blogs
But it wouldn’t be right to say simply that blogs on the right are permitted without blocks. They are actually boosted, and this appears to be a Dorrance Smith policy initiative. Several of these blogs—Michelle Malkin’s being a good example—regularly get information sourced from political appointees inside the DOD which is not made available to ordinary reporters. They have become preferred means of disseminating certain types of information—especially attacks on mainstream media outlets. The experience of Newsweek’s Periscope piece discussing Qur’an desecration at Guantánamo is a good example. The collaboration between Smith’s office and the Weekly Standard and an army of fringe bloggers responding to the New Republic’s publication of the journal of a soldier recently returned from Iraq is a second.

My colleague Ken Silverstein has reported in more depth on the more formal aspects of this initiative here.

Sliming Democrats Generally
The Washington Post reports today for the first time on a process that has been noted for over a year now called “Green Zone sliming.” When Democrats visit Iraq, they find, unless their name is Joe Lieberman, that they get markedly different treatment from their Republican counterparts. In fact, they find that they get insulted in a systematic and programmatic way. Here are some clips:

The sheets of paper seemed to be everywhere the lawmakers went in the Green Zone, distributed to Iraqi officials, U.S. officials and uniformed military of no particular rank. So when Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) asked a soldier last weekend just what he was holding, the congressman was taken aback to find out.

In the soldier’s hand was a thumbnail biography, distributed before each of the congressmen’s meetings in Baghdad, which let meeting participants such as that soldier know where each of the lawmakers stands on the war. “Moran on Iraq policy,” read one section, going on to cite some the congressman’s most incendiary statements, such as, “This has been the worst foreign policy fiasco in American history.”

The bio of Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.) — “TAU (rhymes with ‘now’)-sher,” the bio helpfully relates — was no less pointed, even if she once supported the war and has taken heat from liberal Bay Area constituents who remain wary of her position. “Our forces are caught in the middle of an escalating sectarian conflict in Iraq, with no end in sight,” the bio quotes. “This is beyond parsing. This is being slimed in the Green Zone,” Tauscher said of her bio.

This is classic agitation propaganda, designed to insure that the congressmen get a sour, disagreeable reception in Baghdad. And perhaps a few news clips that can be played on Fox or Rush Limbaugh showing a confrontational meeting with soldiers or Iraqis.

The Other Model
The American model has been of a consciously depoliticized military that focuses on its core functions. The tradition has been that soldiers shed politics and political affiliations when they put on their uniform. When they take it off, soldiers are free to pick and support the political party that appeals most to them, with no pressure from the Defense Department. The importance of this tradition can’t be overstated.

In totalitarian societies, the party’s control of the military is a standard feature, implemented through formal requirements of political loyalty. The most effective and arguably the most repulsive model is the one that Leon Trotsky developed for the Red Army in the autumn of 1918. Trotsky crafted a system built around the office of the military commissar (??????? ????????). He was supposed to keep out of purely military matters, but as Trotsky wrote

In the sphere of political education it is the commissar who wields the conductor’s baton, just as in the sphere of operational command this will always be wielded by the commander. But that does not mean in the least that the commander has no right to ‘interfere’ in the political work, if this interests him, and a good commander cannot fail to take an interest, since the state of political work has a tremendous influence on the fighting capacity of a unit.

The more the commissar tries to understand the work involved in operations, and the more the commander tries to understand the political work, the closer they will come to that system of one-man authority in which the person placed at the head of a unit combines in himself both commander and commissar, that is, leader in battle and political teacher.

This system certainly did not require that every soldier become a member of the party. Indeed, that would not serve the interests of a totalitarian system. It simply ensures party discipline and control deep inside of military structures, and insures that no officer will advance far without demonstrated fidelity to the dictates of the party.

Today, it seems, there are Republican policymakers who look rather enviously at Comrade Trotsky’s plans. And that should be enough to give us all some pause.

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