As the 2024 presidential election approaches, an effort to censor young military members on social media is gaining support from a small, misguided and elitist group. Reference the recent War on the Rocks article titled: “It’s Time to Revise Guidance on Political Activities for Members of the U.S. Military.” The writers are validated and approved to communicate their opinion because they achieved the 0-6 military rank. At least two have PhDs. One teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy and another at Georgetown. Together, they write:
"The [defense] department should consider a prohibition on active-duty servicemembers liking, sharing, retweeting, or posting partisan content on their personal social media accounts… Posting on social media is not akin to writing an op-ed, which is an allowable form of non-social media expression under the current [military] guidelines. An op-ed must meet certain publication and editorial standards… Tweets or posts face no such scrutiny or review and can be unlimited in their volume."
Beyond asking for a total “prohibition” on speech from personal social media accounts, the authors also propose that military members of all ranks and education levels restrict their dissenting political opinions to published editorials. This logic is dangerous for a few reasons.
First, the authors assume the military can remain apolitical in the current American society. Unspoken is the complexity required of military members remaining apolitical while serving political policy. In some respects, it appears that modern Supreme Court justices can publicly demonstrate more partisan behavior than 19-year-old military members on Twitter.
Second, assuming that every young enlisted person writes with the prose expected from the PhDs, there is still another glaring problem with the proposal. Limiting the military member to published editorials allows media owners to filter communication supporting their own world view, or the world view of those they hope to encourage. Attempting to illustrate this filter, I submitted a proposal to War on the Rocks editors for a rebuttal to the published article.
In my proposal, I expressed concerns that the War on the Rocks owner, Ryan Evans, has documented political contributions to only one political party—Democratic politicians. Examples are donations to Amy McGrath and Steve Bullock. I also pointed out that two of the three authors of the article in question served as Congressional fellows for Democratic congressmen. Furthermore, I expressed that War on the Rocks incentivizes publishing PhDs with no military experience at exponentially higher rates than service members with combat experience below the rank of E8.
To be fair to the publication, I expected they would not publish an opposing view in the name of free speech if it reflected poorly on the owner. I submitted the proposal fishing for the anticipated rejection.
Quoting a passage of my email to the publication:
The article in question advocates for centralizing and filtering young service members’ political views in an attempt at maintaining the military’s political impartiality, yet at no point addresses the bias of the op-ed filter. I am a resigned LtCol from the USMC. I have a master’s in military science. I would be happy to attach two PhDs to my article if that helps with the importance of the ‘peer review process’ as referenced from the article in question. If your publication, and others like it, are the beacon for the open debate required in our highly political polarized time, I sincerely look forward to an opportunity to offer a different opinion.
The response I got from Ryan Evans and Aaron Stein, the editor, was simple: “We are going to pass.” Next, they recommended I reach out to certain other publications. After some short Google searches, the publications they recommended appeared very conservative-leaning.
I tell this story to illustrate a publication bias, that published work has merely been filtered by someone according to undefined standards. This feeds my central concern: There is a group of people with a similar world view influencing the Defense Department and capitalizing on the growing political divide in American culture by centralizing messaging and censoring dissent. I believe published opinion pieces are a tool used to influence opinion incrementally in pursuit of this agenda.
Censoring dissent of a particular political line of thinking may reflect an apolitical force or, more likely; it will end up reflecting the political opinions of senior leaders at a given moment in time. It appears the military leadership, rather than accepting dissenting opinions, prefers forcing upon every military member the same opinions, passions, and interests. Because when senior military leaders post on social media, it sends a clear message: “Post on social media only if your political views are in line with our views.”
A great example is the incoming commander of the joint chiefs, General Brown, who posted a video in 2020 titled, On Race Relations and Civil Unrest. In uniform, the general discussed the pain he felt when thinking about George Floyd and stated that America “didn’t always sing of liberty and equality.” Shortly thereafter, General Milley, General Berger, and the other joint chiefs released a signed letter on social media denouncing the political January 6th protests. When senior military leaders are the only people discussing political views on social media, then the rest of the military inherently acquiesces to their political ideology.
Now, the naysayers will argue that the military must remain apolitical, that young service members shouldn’t be able to communicate political preferences on social media. But to quote the mission statement of War on the Rocks: “We seek to teach people how to think about the world, rather than what to think about it.” Is it unreasonable to believe that senior military leaders can teach young service members how to think about politics rather than what to think about politics? I agree that the military policy on American service members’ social media behavior could be updated or clarified, but there should be allowance for dissenting opinions of all varieties. We shouldn’t accept only the peer-reviewed and approved opinions of the “educated.”
Fear of political polarization doesn’t justify silencing political opinions. In fact, this misguided initiative contradicts the ideas that every military member swears to support and defend. Military leaders should have the courage to empower—not control—the voices of young service members.
Stuart Scheller is a former Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is the author of Crisis of Command: How We Lost Trust and Confidence in America's Generals and Politicians.