At one point in my marginal military career, I was a wing commander’s executive officer. Part of my job was reviewing enlisted and officer fitness reports sent up for his endorsement. Maybe once a week I’d get one praising a ratee’s off-duty political activities (always Republican and conservative, never Democratic or liberal) or extolling his or her Christian faith (always Protestant, never Catholic or Jewish).
I’d circle the inappropriate comments in red and send the reports back to be rewritten. Most of the questionable reports were written by officers senior to me, a mere captain. Sometimes they’d pull rank and demand I send their stuff on as written. The boss, though himself a conservative Protestant, would always back me up. You don’t promote partisan politics or religion on duty or in uniform. The Uniform Code of Military Justice makes that perfectly clear.
You may remember an Army general named William Boykin. During the George W. Bush administration, Boykin began giving speeches denouncing the Muslim religion and promoting Christian fundamentalism. He wore his uniform during those speeches, in violation of the UCMJ. His speeches were widely denounced in the media, and while the Army and the Department of Defense investigated him, Boykin was never punished. I said at the time that was a mistake, one that will have consequences. Here’s a short excerpt from that post:
Now we come to … the thing that’s really bothering me: military personnel abusing the uniform to advocate for political causes. Officer or enlisted, active duty or retired, the UCMJ says you can’t do that. Period. You can vote for whomever you like, and you can speak freely as a private citizen. But the minute you associate yourself with the military, whether by wearing a uniform or introducing yourself with your rank and branch of service, you’ve crossed a line. Why? Because people will assume, at some level, that you are speaking with the approval of the military and thus the government, that what you say is somehow sanctioned.
The military should have come down hard on General Boykin, the Christian fundamentalist who crusaded against Islam to civilian audiences while wearing his Army uniform. But it didn’t, and now who’s to tell another politically active general he or she can’t speak out in uniform?
White House reporter Jennifer Epstein, who accompanied Trump on this week’s surprise visit to front line troops in Iraq, took these photos of USAF personnel lined up in a hangar to see their commander-in-chief during a brief stopover in Germany on his way home from Iraq.
Some of the airmen in the first photo are waving MAGA hats. The officer in the second photo, an Air Force captain, is holding a Trump MAGA flag. She dropped it as soon as she saw Epstein taking her photo. That is slightly encouraging because it tells me that some military members, even though openly engaging in partisan political activity in uniform, at least still understand it’s illegal. As for this officer, she’d better be running for cover … it’s one thing to be General Boykin, but another thing entirely to be a no-name captain.
Whatever happens to the airmen in these photos, the fact is we’re growing accustomed to seeing photos and videos of uniformed military officers, NCOs, and troops lending their support to Trump in what are, no matter what the administration calls them, political rallies.
Trump has only one mode when he speaks to the public, and that mode is political rally. In Iraq, he staged yet another political rally. Although this is the first time he’s visited serving troops overseas, he’s spoken to military personnel here at home many times, and always—always—his remarks are partisan and political.
Just by the mere act of sharing the stage with him while wearing their uniforms, let alone waving partisan flags and campaign hats, these military personnel are violating the UCMJ (and more importantly, undermining our trust in the military to stay out of partisan politics), and their commanders know it. That they are allowing it to happen is a direct consequence of military leadership letting General Boykin off the hook. The military is being—has been—politicized, and no one seems interested in stopping it.
Trust me, we don’t want our military politicized. That’s what happens in dictatorships and banana republics. I just hope it’s not gone too far to reverse.