Rank and File

06/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the nation's senior military officer, recently published some strong words to the force about the need to steer clear of the upcoming presidential election:

"The US military must remain apolitical at all times and in all ways. It is and must always be a neutral instrument of the state, no matter which party holds sway. A professional armed force that stays out of the politics that drive the policies it is sworn to enforce is vital to the preservation of the union and to our way of life."

Powerful words... and important ones. The chairman is absolutely right to reinforce one of the cardinal rules of the American military -- we do not get involved in partisan politics. Now it's easy to point out that this retired general or that retired admiral has endorsed this candidate or serves on the board of advisers of that candidate. That's true, and although it seems to be splitting hairs, it's important to note that the key word there is retired. The prohibition exists on partisan political participation by members of the active military. It's been part of our traditions ever since George Washington rebuffed the Newburgh conspiracy in 1783, and it remains a critical aspect of American military identity to this day.

Which is part of why I'm so bothered by a part of a recent series of ads criticizing some of Senator Obama's positions. I have no beef with the ads themselves or those who made them -- whether you agree with their positions or not, they are a legitimate part of the marketplace of ideas that surrounds every election. What concerns me is this specific question:

"And when will you finally decide to meet one-on-one, unconditionally, with General Petraeus?"

Let's be very clear here -- in our system, the rawest new Congressman freshly elected from the 24th District of the great state of Podunk still outranks the most senior military officer. Period. I'm not saying that Representative should immediately seek to assume command of the nearest tactical formation -- I'm simply saying that in terms of binding orders and respect due, the elected civilian official always trumps the appointed military officer. That may seem unfair, and it sometimes leads to decisions that military professionals don't care for -- too bad. That representative was directly elected by the voters, and that gives him/her a legitimacy in our Republic that is paramount in matters of civil-military relations. This derives directly from the constitutional provisions that grant the President powers as Commander-in-Chief, and the Congress the power to raise and levy an Army. So it is as inappropriate to demand that Sen. Obama meet "unconditionally" (what the hell does that mean, anyway?) with GEN Petraeus as it is to demand that GEN Petraeus meet "unconditionally" with a random rifleman in the 3rd Infantry Division.

For a soldier, there is a fine line between debating the issues of the day as a concerned citizen and injecting yourself into the partisan fray. That line becomes even finer when that partisan fray dominates the issues, squeezing the oxygen out of nearly all other topics. Below, I offer two humble pieces of advice for those troopers who seek to do the former while avoiding the latter:

1. Debate the policy, not the person. This seems somewhat at odds with our prevailing personality-driven culture. You can't heave a brick in our current debates without finding someone seeking to pin a plurality of the world's ills on George Bush or Dick Cheney (or, if they hail from the other side of the aisle, on Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid.) Such simplistic blame memes are great at stirring up righteous anger among the true believers, but they ignore the nuances and shades of current policy and how it's impacted by so many levels of the current bureaucracy. Additionally, attacking an elected official -- nearly any elected official -- in a major election year will almost inevitably draw in charges of partisanship. Focus on how the policy has failed those it's meant to serve, and how it can be improved.

2. Pick your fights and know your ground. There are so many things to get mad about, right? As the saying goes, "if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." But dispersing your energy and attention onto many things inevitably dilutes the impact you can have on a given one. As you do, make sure you understand the rules that govern what you can and can't say. The most current DoD directive on political activities is a good place to start -- IAVA's "Legal Rights to Get Involved" is another, more plain-spoken resource. A thoroughly unofficial but common-sense compendium of rules can be found here, courtesy of the Yankee Sailor.

What's all the fuss? Why the big deal about those in uniform speaking out? Because when it goes wrong, it goes terribly wrong. If there's any doubt of that in your mind, the latest news from Zimbabwe ought to help persuade you. The Admiral has it exactly right when he says, "the only things we should be wearing on our sleeves are our military insignia."