Tuesday, May 27, 2008
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has written an unusual open letter to all those in uniform, warning them to stay out of politics as the nation 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 and in all ways,” wrote the chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, the nation’s highest-ranking officer. “It is and must always be a neutral instrument of the state, no matter which party holds sway.”
Admiral 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 essay is the first Admiral Mullen has written for the journal 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 military, which is paying the highest price in carrying out national security policy, may be drawn into politicking this year.
The war in Iraq has already exceeded the length of World War II and is the nation’s longest conflict 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, who have publicly called for a change in policy or who serve as television commentators on the war.
Among the most outspoken were those who joined the so-called generals’ revolt in 2006 demanding the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, 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,” Admiral 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.”
Admiral Mullen said he was inspired to write the essay after receiving a constant stream of legitimate, if troubling, questions while visiting military personnel around the world. He said their questions included, “What if a Democrat wins?” and, “What will that do to the mission in Iraq?” and, “Do you think it’s better for one party or another to have the White House?”
“I am not suggesting that military professionals abandon all personal opinions about modern social or political issues,” Admiral 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.”