It’s wrong to suppress the military vote

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The New York Times published a profoundly troubling op-ed by an active-duty Army major in which he claims that it is his “professional duty — and that of [his] fellow officers, in all branches — not to vote.”

Of course, he can make his own choice about voting, but it is very wrong for a military officer, especially one still in uniform, to involve himself in any sort of public effort to suppress the vote of others. It really is that simple.

{mosads}No one — regardless of party affiliation — ought to be pleased when an active-duty military officer publicly tries to shape voting by others, particularly in this bitterly partisan election season. Voting is, after all, the central act of a democracy.

It should to be deeply disturbing for all Americans for a member of the armed forces to not only seem to disparage its vital importance, but to also be actually trying to suppress it in an entire class of the uniformed citizenry.

Why? Among other things, this kind of activity subverts civilian control of the military. While any member of the armed forces may choose to vote or not, it is simply wrong for a serving officer to publicly defy the longstanding policy put in place by the civilian leadership, that is, to encourage all military members to vote.

In our democracy, it is the civilian leaders who make the policies, not Army majors.

Of course, advocating that military members not vote is itself a distinctly partisan political act. Polls show that both historically, and currently, military members as a whole generally favor particular candidates. Though the officer corps numbers are more balanced, if the rank and file follow this officer’s view and not vote, it will clearly have a partisan effect.

And don’t think any candidate supports not voting. In fact, I defy anyone to show that our current commander-in-chief or either candidate for that job wants to suppress the military vote in any way.

The logic the major employs to support his anti-vote argument is rather bizarre. Here’s what he says:

The trouble is I will have exercised a personal, partisan choice, committing myself to a candidate, party and set of beliefs and policies. I would like to believe that I can separate my political and professional views, but I worry that, years from now, my decision could undermine my military judgment.

Are we to assume that if he doesn’t vote, he would have no “set of beliefs and policies”? Who, let alone military officer, has no “set of beliefs and policies,” regardless of voting?

Moreover, voting does not “commit” anyone to anything; in a democracy, we have the right to change our minds. In any event, most voters don’t agree with everything their candidate or their party espouses, but rather make a judgment as to who, on balance, they think will be better for a particular office. This is one reason ticket-splitting is a deeply-embedded tradition in this country.

The fact of the matter is that life is filled with hard decisions, and in many cases, there is no perfect choice. But leaders and thinkers must be able to exercise judgment and discernment so that they make the best choice they can when tough decisions are needed.

Advocating sitting on the decision-making sidelines is no solution.

What is more, a true military professional can — and must — separate his or her personal views from professional obligations. This is why military law will not justify or excuse disobedience of an otherwise lawful order based on the “dictates of a person’s conscience, religion or personal philosophy.”

In the military, officers especially must be able to compartmentalize even their strongest sentiments. For example, in combat officers are often required to insulate their deep affection for their troops so as to prevent their feelings from unduly distorting their professional judgment.

In his brilliant memoir, “One Bullet Away,” Marine veteran Nate Fick made the melancholy observation that military professionals must “be able to kill that which they love most — their men” in order to accomplish their crucial but perilous warfighting mission.

So what should be done?

Both candidates, along with senior military and civilian leaders, need to immediately denounce the Army major’s scheme and actively encourage military members to exercise their voting franchise.

At the same time, they need to make it clear that regardless of who is elected, America’s armed forces stands ready to serve whoever may be the new commander-in-chief as faithfully and as honorably as they have done since the nation’s founding.

Dunlap is a retired Air Force major general and currently professor of the practice of law at Duke University School of Law, where he is also executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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