• Matthew Levengood

Rethinking Principled Abstention: Why (Most) Military Officers Should Vote



Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not represent the official position or policy of the Hoya Battalion, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Civil-military relations in the United States are at an inflection point. Events over the past few years have eroded long-standing norms that keep the use of military force separate from partisan politics. In June, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley apologized for creating the “perception of the military involved in domestic politics” during protests against the murder of George Floyd. With the deployment of the National Guard and active-duty units to major American cities, the image of the military’s highest-ranking officer marching through the streets in his combat uniform sparked worry that the president might rely on the military instead of civilian authorities to resolve domestic problems.


Additionally, an unprecedented number of retired national security officials, many of them former generals, have openly spoken out against the president. Normally, retired generals refrain from politics in their retirement, cognizant of their influence and identification with the military. For many former generals, including former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, criticism of elected officials breaks a career-long adherence to political agnosticism. Though retired, many citizens incorrectly assume that these officials speak for the military. Though candidates gain political clout from endorsements or denunciations, the overall effect is an erosion of the military’s ability to remain aloof of partisan politics.


The actions of these officials have created the perception of a politicized military. Some worry that this military may play a role in a potential constitutional crisis after the election. John Nagl and Paul Yingling argue that General Milley must be prepared to “give unambiguous orders directing U.S. military forces to support the Constitutional transfer of power”. In response, Jim Golby and Kori Schake contend that “Nagl and Yingling encourage Americans to see our military as the arbiters of political outcomes, something that would indelibly change the soul of our military and the character of our nation.” Though rejected by most of the defense community, Nagl and Yingling understand that the military has the trust of the American people, more so than any other American institution. Nagl and Yingling appeal to the anxiety of the election, fraught with partisan battles, and place their faith in a military that citizens perceive to be above such arbitrary conflict. It is because of this allure that Golby and Schake are right to denounce such an unprecedented intervention.


Amid this turmoil, military officers might find themselves at a crossroads. How might they respond to politically motivated orders? How can they balance their professional responsibilities with their rights as citizens? Writing for the New York Times, Army Officer Matt Cavanaugh argues that military officers should not vote in federal elections. Speaking just before the 2016 election, he notes that his professional duties as an officer sometimes supersede his rights as a citizen - “This is principled abstention, a silent form of speech… By not voting, I am saying as loudly as I can, as quietly as I am able, that I will never make my political preference an obstacle to the best military decisions for the defense of our nation.”. This is a position popular among high-ranking officers in American history – George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, David Petraeus, Martin Dempsey, and notably Ulysses Grant in 1864.


To be clear, neither Cavanaugh nor any proponent of this “principled abstention” would suggest that servicemembers should not have the right to vote. On the contrary, it is out of immense respect for the sanctity and importance of voting that Cavanaugh and others speak. Additionally, their position does not include local or state elections, though one could argue under their logic that officers in the National Guard should not vote for their state Governor. With programs like the Federal Voting Assistance Program, the military must enable every soldier to vote as they would in civilian life. Even so, the reality is that today neither military officers nor even the entire military form a large enough block to substantially influence an election. 81% of officers reported to voting in 2008, so Cavanaugh’s position is not popular. Regardless, if we believe that one’s vote is a representation of personal principle, we must still consider the question.


Military officers, especially senior officers, find themselves today at a juncture similar to Grant in 1864. In such times, officers who vote must seriously consider Cavanaugh’s advice. There is perhaps no better way to mend civil-military relations than to reject partisan endorsement, however anonymous and minute. However, military officers who do not vote must also consider that their vote might not mean as much as they think. At a time when Americans are rethinking what it means to vote, military officers must do the same. As George Washington admonished in 1775, “When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen”. Equally so, there are times when in assuming the soldier, officers may transcend the citizen and incur certain obligations.


Though all military officers hold the same commission, not all officers hold equal authority. Senior officers like Petraeus and Eisenhower held powerful offices closely connected to the political level of the military; many directly advised the president and Congress. On principle, their vote could affect their military careers. As George Patton noted, “If I vote against the administration, I am voting against my commander in chief. If I vote for the administration in office I am being bought.” However, a staff lieutenant fresh out of West Point is not in the same position. Military officers who are far removed from the political level influence very little with their vote; officers close to political decisionmakers influence a great deal.


There are only a handful of junior officers who hold any influence over partisan politics. If a special operations commander finds their mission routinely uplinked to the White House situation room, perhaps they should count themselves among senior officers, politically speaking. Almost as a rule, however, this is not the case. Junior officers should not feel any reservation about voting in federal elections. Indeed, junior officers often bear the brunt of the fighting, bleeding, and dying right alongside enlisted soldiers in our wars. To suggest that junior officers should not vote is to ignore Washington’s admonishment, especially since most junior officers are closer to citizen-soldiers than military professionals. Though admirable, principled abstention ignores that junior officers are nowhere near political decision-making. They feel the effects of policy more than they could ever influence it. On the contrary, senior officers have a responsibility to not let their partisan preferences – which could directly affect their careers – interfere with their responsibility to their soldiers and to the American people. If an officer has anything to directly gain from a vote, casting a ballot should give them pause.


Admittedly, the moment in an officer’s career in which they become “political” is not clear. It could be at the moment of promotion from O-3 (Captain in the USA, USMC, and USAF/Lieutenant in the USN and USCG) to O-4 (Major/Lieutenant Commander), where the Senate must confirm their promotion (in July, Senator Tammy Duckworth withheld these promotions as political leverage to ensure the fair treatment of Alexander Vindman). It could be upon assuming command of a Brigade Combat Team (the smallest self-contained unit that can be deployed), where a vote for a more hawkish candidate could mean deployments, unit decorations, career advancement, and even future political clout. As a rule, one can consider all General Officers to hold politically salient positions by virtue of their rank. It is only “field grade” officers that occupy politically unclear roles. Regardless, the consideration remains the same – senior officers must consider how their vote affects their job.


To be sure, all levels of military command are political. Clausewitz’s conception of war as a “continuation of policy by other means” is de facto doctrine among senior officers. When military scholars refer to the “strategic corporal”, they mean in all sincerity that the actions of 18 to 21-year old riflemen can have drastic effects on policymaking and grand strategy. One must remember how the actions of a few NCOs and lower enlisted at Abu Ghraib affected the war in Iraq. Regardless, a corporal’s routine duties are not intrinsically political - they only become “strategic” by chance. It is for this reason that Brigadier General Janis Karpinski was reprimanded for Abu Ghraib along with all other perpetrators.


Military officers must understand their profession as inherently political but at the same time must refrain from partisanship. As a professional in the profession of arms, there is an important nuance to voting that senior officers must carefully consider and that junior officers must take to heart. Now is the time to reconsider principled abstention, both in its virtue and in its shortcomings. Amid great civil-military change, there is much to be done to mend damaged perceptions and hurt faith. Each officer must find their own path to affirm their commitment to the Constitution and our democracy.


Matthew Levengood is a staff columnist at the Agora. He is a third-year Political Science major with minors in Economics and Philosophy, as well as a member of Army ROTC at American University.


Image courtesy Josephine Pride, Creative Commons

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