How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Not that long ago, members of the Republican Party would never dream of criticizing men and women in uniform. But today, it is commonplace.
Take the May 20, 2021, tweet by Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas that “perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea.” Below was a link to a side-by-side comparison of a Russian military-recruitment ad with a U.S. one: the Russian ad showed shirtless men doing push-ups and soldiers shooting guns, while the American ad depicted the true story of a young woman, raised by two mothers, who joined the U.S. Army.
Or take the regular attacks on the U.S. military by the Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who has pilloried the military’s efforts to recruit and retain women, saying in March 2021 that China’s military was becoming “more masculine” while the United States’ was becoming “more feminine.” Meanwhile Blake Masters, a Republican who lost his campaign for Senate in Arizona last week, tweeted in November 2021, “Our top generals have turned into woke corporate bozos, and our troops deserve better.”
Such comments go well beyond the usual politicization of the military in American politics. Right-wing politicians and members of the media allied with former President Donald Trump are actively undermining the military’s standing in society, while paradoxically claiming its popularity as their own. By condemning generals as politically correct conformists, this group of Republicans is signaling to military personnel that they should be subservient to Trump’s agenda. If Trump and his allies had their wish, the military’s nonpartisan ethic would be replaced by a loyalty test to one faction in U.S. politics.
Should these methods succeed, they would undermine the meritocratic foundations of the officer corps and could even reduce the military’s effectiveness in war. As the historical record shows, militaries that recruit and promote personnel based on their qualifications versus those that require allegiance to a political faction perform better on the battlefield. Those attacking the military may say they are protecting it by keeping it from being undermined by diversity initiatives. In reality though, their attacks weaken the military by undermining its internal unity and support within society.
Civilian attempts to draw the military into partisan politics typically take one of several forms. The first builds on the military’s popularity. For decades, the U.S. military has topped polls as the most trusted institution in American society. Small wonder, then, that politicians make over-the-top references to military service in campaign advertising and seek the endorsement of retired officers. To be sure, military service is one among many potentially important experiences that qualifies one for office. But most campaign ads highlighting military service go well beyond that, often amounting to a form of virtue signaling about a candidate’s patriotism or character.
Beyond elections, politicians also seek to associate the military with particular policies, such as when Trump, a week after his inauguration, signed controversial immigration legislation in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, a room dedicated to the people who have received the Medal of Honor. These tactics also leverage the military’s expertise in policy debates to neutralize critics and sell controversial moves to the public, such as when David Petraeus, the four-star U.S. Army general who was leading American troops in Iraq, became the principal spokesperson for the troop surge there under President George W. Bush. Politicians may use military opinion and expertise as a cudgel against their opponents. In August 2021, for example, many Republicans criticized President Joe Biden for going against his generals’ advice and removing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
At other times, politicians use the military to underscore the gravitas of the moment or as a political prop. Presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama often journeyed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to announce new foreign policy priorities, while not doing the same at civilian universities. In September 2022, President Biden gave a major speech on challenges to democracy with two marines standing at attention in the background.
Even more concerning are efforts to portray the military as a partisan constituency. In February 2017, to give one egregious example, Trump told a uniformed crowd at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida that the 2016 election was “wonderful” and that it was clear from the results that “you liked me and I liked you.” Trump’s message: the troops were partisan allies who were expected to view him the same way.
It is a common refrain on the right that U.S. military wokeness breeds weakness—that is, the military’s efforts to recruit a diverse workforce are undermining the quality of its personnel. In March 2021, Carlson mocked the U.S. military’s introduction of maternity flight suits and said it made the military more effeminate. Before he was elected to the Senate, J. D. Vance, a Republican from Ohio, tweeted a story from the Financial Times about Chinese hypersonic missiles with the comment, “Meanwhile our generals are focused on white rage and the manicure policy of the armed forces.”
Some might protest that these criticisms merely reflect legitimate concerns about current personnel policies in the U.S. military. To be sure, one could debate how much the military can and should mirror society and represent its values in its ranks, as academics have done in the past.
Regardless, today there are important reasons for the U.S. military to recruit and maintain a diverse military. The pool of recruits that meet existing fitness and other standards is dwindling, while recruiting shortfalls have for years been an issue. The right blames these problems on diversity and inclusion initiatives, saying they turn off potential recruits. Today, though, 41 percent of the military identify as coming from a minority group. The real danger to the military is not that it embraces diversity, but that the right’s wokism attacks alienate some groups in American society so that they no longer feel welcome to serve.
A bonus is that as long as the U.S. military continues to recruit from varied demographic groups, it has an advantage in wartime. Scholarship shows that more egalitarian militaries perform better on the battlefield.
Today, 41 percent of the military identify as coming from a minority group.
But all of this also misses the point of these attacks. They are not part of a good-faith effort to debate personnel policy or to ensure the military remains strong. If they were, critics on the right would be more worried about how their inflammatory rhetoric harms the military’s status in American society.
Those critics also would not be undermining the military’s unity by publicly excoriating the country’s generals. After all, Trump and his allies are not only complaining about what they perceive as a leftist agenda being imposed on the military; they are also frequently disparaging the country’s senior officers. Once Trump soured on the generals he had vaunted at the start of his presidency, he resorted to calling them “overrated,” “a bunch of dopes and babies,” and “losers” in charge of failed wars, while lauding enlisted personnel as the country’s true patriots. Trump’s allies have since jumped on the bandwagon, singling out senior officers for their political correctness or alleged incompetence, as Masters’s and Vance’s comments illustrate.
In some ways, these statements are not so different from more familiar efforts to use the military as a wedge issue in U.S. politics. The twist is that instead of playing on the military’s popularity to bolster criticisms of a political opponent, Republican politicians are criticizing the military as weak or too leftist under a Democratic administration in order to do the same.
But there is a more insidious logic and purpose to these comments—one that that goes well beyond using the military as another tool in the partisan wars. Although those making these attacks may not view them as part of a master plan to politicize the military, that is exactly what they do. Such attacks encourage military officers to support the Trump-aligned right’s agenda on policy and other partisan priorities while subduing any opponents who might question the wisdom of doing so.
At first glance, the right’s strategy looks puzzling. The officer corps skews strongly Republican, as surveys have shown for decades. The Republican Party, meanwhile, has long prided itself on its pro-military stance. So why attack military officers as woke leftists, when they are in fact already inclined to sympathize with your worldview and even to vote for you?
The answer is that those attacking the military are not seeking officers’ votes—or at least that is not all they are after. Rather, their attacks on the military signal that loyalty to Trump’s faction of the GOP is an essential prerequisite for success—it is necessary, appropriate, and ultimately beneficial to military officers’ careers and the organization they lead.
Consider the way these attacks politicize the military. For starters, they undermine the military’s overall popularity and trust, especially among the Republican base. This helps neutralize any potential opposition to its politicization that might come from within the military. A public already inclined to doubt the institution is more likely to discount complaints from those in its ranks. The success of these methods can be seen in efforts to delegitimize otherwise well-respected former officers, such as Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general who served as Trump’s first defense secretary. In June 2020, Mattis was belittled for having publicly condemned the use of active-duty military forces against people protesting the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Evidence for this dynamic is also found in the falling popularity of the military, among Republican voters in particular. The Reagan National Defense Survey from February 2021 shows a 17-point drop in confidence in the military among Republicans since 2018.
These tactics also politicize the military by signaling to Trump’s base that it is appropriate, even desirable, for the military to behave as a partisan ally. This encourages the public to think that the military should not strive to be nonpartisan, but should instead advance the values and worldview of a specific political party. Consider the way that Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Scheller was embraced by right-wing politicians and media personalities after he was fired in October 2021 for publicly criticizing his chain of command about the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in a series of viral social media posts. His celebrity status now includes appearances on right-wing podcasts, where he advocates for eliminating teaching the ethics of warfare in military education.
Senior officers should remain attuned to the pressures emanating from those attacking the U.S. military.
Less obvious but equally pernicious is the way these attacks erode the nonpartisan ethic within the military. By arguing that the military should be ideologically aligned with them, politicians and commentators cast doubt on the need for the military to stay on the partisan sidelines. Breaking down professional norms of nonpartisanship is essential to turning the military, or parts of it, into a partisan ally.
Calling some generals “woke” also sends a signal to other officers. Their ability to evade right-wing attacks, protect the organizations they lead, and even safeguard their promotions might depend in the future on their complicity in Trump’s agenda. These pressures will only intensify if his faction gains more power in Washington.
Take the comments by Arizona’s senatorial candidate, Masters. On several occasions, he has said that the country’s currently serving senior officers should be fired for being too woke and that conservative colonels should be promoted to take their place. “I would love to see all the generals get fired,” he said in August 2021. Hyperbole aside, consider the message this sends to those active-duty colonels (and to any senior officers who might push back): if you want to get promoted, you need to toe the ideological line.
Fortunately, there are already some guardrails in place against the politicization of the military. Military law prohibits speaking contemptuous words against a president and certain elected and appointed officials. Department of Defense regulations also ban active campaigning and other overt involvement in many forms of partisan politics. Overall, the military has retained its professional commitment to the nonpartisan ethic.
Still, there are worrying signs of erosion in support for that ethic among some within the military. This includes the election denialism propagated by retired officers, including former Trump national security adviser retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, as well as senatorial candidates in the 2022 election, including retired Brigadier General Don Bolduc and Colonel Doug Mastriano. Flynn also pressured Trump to impose martial law after he lost the 2020 presidential election. Many veterans and even a handful of currently serving military personnel participated in the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Active-duty officers have also occasionally been disciplined for crossing the line, not least Scheller. So far though, there are no indications that a partisan cohort in the officer corps is willing to openly profess its loyalty to Trump’s wing of the Republican Party and do its bidding either within the military or in domestic politics more broadly.
Senior officers should nonetheless remain attuned to the pressures emanating from those attacking the U.S. military. They should make sure that their oath to the Constitution remains paramount and, especially, that the meaning and content of the principles and institutions it embodies are understood within the ranks. Some veterans have suggested the military bolster education within the services about the Constitution. Senior military officers can also do more to ensure that the benefits—to the country and to the military—of remaining nonpartisan are fully grasped.
While many military personnel are certainly aware of laws, regulation, and conventions that preclude partisan activity, research suggests that they do not always understand why adhering to those rules is important. Senior Pentagon leadership, both civilian and military, should make that case. For example, when they were serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey and Admiral Mike Mullen regularly spoke about the importance of the military remaining apolitical. After the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a memo affirming the military’s commitment to support and defend the Constitution.
Members of Congress, especially those in the Republican Party, should also both publicly and privately warn their colleagues and allies in the media of the consequences of hyperbolic attacks on the military’s supposed wokism and competency. Commentators and journalists in turn should do as much as possible to explain to the public why the military’s nonpartisanship ethic is so essential to the military’s internal cohesion and to the democracy it upholds. Getting out in front of these issues will help ensure the guardrails against politicization remain secure.
The dangers of failure should give pause to even those skeptical that civil-military relations are at risk in the United States. History has repeatedly shown that militaries that privilege political loyalty over merit in the ranks are both less capable on the battlefield and less reliable servants of democracy.
Right-Wing Attacks Are Eroding Trust in the Armed Forces