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A talk given to NYMAS on January 20, 2006

Breaking Ranks:
The History, Limitations, and Importance of American Active Duty Issue Advocacy

Raymond Kimball
Iraq and Afghanistan
Veterans of America


Breaking Ranks: The History, Limitations, and Importance of American Active Duty Issue Advocacy

By Raymond A Kimball

            Members, honored guests and friends of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, thank you very much for your kind invitation to address this distinguished group. It is my great privilege and pleasure to speak today on behalf of IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America), the nation's first and largest group dedicated to the troops and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the civilian supporters of those same troops and veterans. For more information on our work, please feel free to visit

I am proud to serve as a blogger and public speaker for IAVA, even as I continue to serve my country as an officer in the United States Army, and it is that conjunction of public service and private advocacy that I wish to address. My topic tonight is "Breaking Ranks: The History, Limitations, and Importance of American Active Duty Issue Advocacy." By issue advocacy, I mean actions taken by members of the armed forces to increase public visibility on issues within their field of expertise that directly impact the public good. More specifically, I will discuss actions taken by military personnel to address pressing issues of concern on defense policy and veterans’ affairs. Such advocacy is at the heart of what we do at IAVA – although many of our members have left the military, a sizable portion remain in service on either active duty or in the reserve component. Indeed, such continued service gives our members’ speech both relevance and weight in the ever-shifting marketplace of ideas.

I should also take a moment to clearly define what issue advocacy isn’t. Specifically, issue advocacy does not encompass conduct specifically intended to undermine the authority of either the civilian or military leadership over members of the armed forces. Such actions are normally referred to as "Article 88" violations, after the section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ, that addresses such conduct. Article 88 specifically holds that:

Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

Among the more recent and widely publicized instances of such activities was the use of contemptuous language by a few senior officers against then-President Clinton, including one statement that he was a "draft-dodging, pot-smoking, womanizing commander in chief." In a republic where civilian control of the military is paramount, such speech is clearly intolerable and prejudicial to good order and discipline. Issue advocacy also does not include the participation of military personnel in conduct of partisan political activity – as I will make clear later in this talk, such participation is bounded and strictly limited by custom and law.

Simply put, servicemembers such as those in our organization speak out because they feel a strong personal and professional responsibility to do so. By choosing to speak out, they must enter an area of free speech with multiple pitfalls and grey areas with minimal consensus. In order to understand why this is such an ill-defined area, we must literally begin at the beginning of our Republic. To help put these actions in the proper context, I will begin by discussing selected historical case studies of issue advocacy in US military history. This discussion will not be comprehensive – such an approach would easily overfill the time allotted for this talk; instead, I hope to provide examples of both the positives and perils of such actions. I will then discuss the current limitations and restrictions on active duty issue advocacy, and conclude with a few reasons why I believe such advocacy is needed now more than ever.

It seems vital to note that, although Article 88 has its roots in a 1776 directive to the Continental Army drafted by none other than Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, there does not seem to have been any similar concern in the minds of the Founders over the exercise of free speech by members of the armed forces. Indeed, although the Federalist Papers touch on several issues of concern with regards to war-making powers and the creation of an army, there is no discussion of how military members might seek to redress grievances of their own against their government. The closest paper to addressing this topic is Federalist Paper 10 in which James Madison discusses his concern about "factions", which he defined as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion or interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Madison discusses various means of blunting the impact of factions or preventing their ascension, all of which he ultimately dismisses as impractical or more tyrannical than the problem. He finally concludes, "Extend the sphere [of society], and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other." Clearly, Madison and the other founders intended for as many voices to be heard as possible, to prevent such a majority of the whole from exercising tyranny over others.

Thus, for the first century of the country’s history, there was almost no check on the ability of members of the military to sound off on topics relating to service issues. Even during the Civil War, at a time when Lincoln’s administration was occasionally closing newspapers and censoring reporters’ dispatches, officers on both sides of the fight routinely sounded off to the press on campaigns they felt were ill-led or poorly supported. Only the most extreme cases that directly challenged the authority of the President or Congress were brought to trial. One notable exception is the case of Second Lieutenant George Wiseburne, who in 1863 publicly stated that "the executive has seen proper to make the army the emancipation of the negro slaves" and "has seen fit by his recent proclamation to say that all colored persons, of good condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States, thus making the Negro my equal." Lieutenant Wiseburne was originally sentenced to two years of duty on Ship Island, Mississippi, the home of Admiral Farragut’s fleet; a review board commuted the sentence to simple dismissal from the service, which probably says more about Ship Island than Lieutenant Wiseburne. Wiseburne’s speech does not seem to transgress into the realm of "contemptuous words", but rather is a straightforward policy critique (albeit one we would now view as repugnant) made by a serving officer. In fact, it may be among the first recorded instances in American military history of an Army officer complaining about so-called "mission creep."

In fact, Wiseburne was prosecuted under the equivalent Article of War to what is now known as Article 134 of the UCMJ. Article 134 is often called the "General Article" and allows commanders to prosecute conduct such as:

Disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces, and crimes and offenses not capital, of which persons subject to this chapter may be guilty.

Such a provision is clearly important for both morale and standards, but an interesting aspect of Article 134 is how it has evolved from the simple beginnings of maintenance of good order and discipline. In fact, the second clause ("all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces") was not added to the General Article until 1916, and, according to the Judge Advocate General of the Army at the time, was done so for the sole purpose of subjecting enlisted men to punishment by court-martial for the same conduct for which officers were already punishable under the previously mentioned Article 88, as well as Article 133 ("conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.") This second provision has great import for the discussion of issue advocacy in the Armed Forces, since opponents of such advocacy often claim that it diminishes the fighting spirit of units and unnecessarily tarnishes the military’s reputation. Advocates such as myself counter that it is the silencing of dissent and failure to address systemic problems that is most corrosive to morale and order.

This "good order and discipline" clause had one of its most prominent usages against issue advocacy in the case of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, the post-World War I airpower advocate who famously clashed with the Navy over his statements that the airplane would replace the battleship as the primary weapon for coastal defense. After becoming nationally famous by staging an airpower demonstration that sent a captured German ship of the line to the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, Mitchell was held back by other officers within the War Department who sought to retain the air service as a subordinate component to the land campaign. Sidelined but by no means silenced, Mitchell publicly agitated for a separate and fully independent air service, and stated that the government’s inattention to airpower bordered on treason. Mitchell was brought to court-martial under the provisions of the General Article, although the specifications of the charges alleged that his speech was "insubordinate to the administration of the War Department" and "highly contemptuous and disrespectful of the War and Navy Departments." These charges, as Professor Detlev Vagts of the Columbia Law Review noted in an article on the subject in 1955, sought to imitate the contempt provisions of Article 88 even though none of the individuals protected by that article was involved. Mitchell was convicted and suspended from rank and command for five years, and ultimately resigned after the sentence was affirmed by the Army JAG. Some military historians point to the rapid rise in importance of airpower since that time as proof that Mitchell was unfairly treated; for our purposes tonight, it is most important to note that it was Mitchell’s acts of speech and advocacy, rather than the ideas themselves, that ultimately saw him removed from service. This case study helps illuminate one persistent difficulty in issue advocacy: one man’s vital national issue is another man’s partisan conduct.

After World War II, it was the Navy’s turn to engage in issue advocacy, both over the rising role of the long-range bomber versus the utility of sea-based naval aviation and the larger issue of defense unification. Many senior naval officers feared that the original proposals for the Chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense would lead to an eclipsing of naval power and maritime defense in favor of land- and air-based forces. Senior figures from the Navy argued vociferously against the planned unification, with Admiral Halsey famously labeling it as "a wild-cat scheme" and "un-American, un-democratic, and damn dangerous." The so-called "Revolt of the Admirals" was partially successful in weakening the powers of the new Defense Department, despite an unprecedented direct order from the White House directing that "officers of the Navy and Marine Corps are expected to refrain from opposition [to a Department of National Defense] in their public utterances except when called as witnesses before committees of Congress." The dispute flared up again in 1948 when Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson proposed curbing the supercarrier program in favor of expanded production of the Air Force’s B-36 bomber. The open opposition of many senior naval officers to the decision led General Omar Bradley to remark:

I believe that the public hearing of the grievances of a few officers who will not accept the decisions of the authorities established by law, and charges as to our poor state of preparedness, have done infinite harm to our national defense, our position of leadership in world affairs, the position of our national policy, and the confidence of the people in their government.

Not by accident, General Bradley’s remarks directly echoed the "conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces" clause of Article 134. The clash ultimately culminated with the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy and the firing of the Chief of Naval Operations, the senior naval officer.The crowning irony of the entire episode was that six years later, the B-36 program was canceled and the Navy had its supercarrier program running at full speed. Successful issue advocacy can therefore be said to at least partially be a function of careful timing.

One final anecdote is useful in completing our survey of memorable episodes of American military issue advocacy, that of Colonel David Hackworth. COL Hackworth was one of the most decorated soldiers in American history, serving in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and earning two Distinguished Service Crosses and ten Silver Stars. His exploits were the stuff of legend within the Army, having risen from the ranks as an enlisted soldier, earned a battlefield commission in Korea, and turned a dysfunctional American unit in Vietnam into a skilled group of counter-insurgents who were feared by the enemy. Hackworth collected his lessons learned into a book called "The Vietnam Primer" and urged other commanders to adopt its tactics. During his tours in Vietnam, Hackworth became increasingly disillusioned with the way the war was being fought. His frustration culminated in a June 1971 interview on the ABC News program Issues and Answers, in which he savaged US commanders and their tactics, declared Vietnam to be a "bad war", and called for an immediate withdrawal of US troops. This was issue advocacy direct from a combat zone, and it provoked a fierce reaction from the Army. Court-martial charges were drawn up, which Hackworth only avoided by resigning. After leaving the service, Hackworth founded Soldiers for the Truth, a non-partisan advocacy organization that continued his work by encouraging soldiers to come forward with items of concern on defense policy and veterans issues. In fact, Soldiers for the Truth was the first to break the story currently raging in the press about the Marine study which suggested that dozens of casualties in Iraq could have been prevented by better body armor currently available on the commercial market.

Having discussed some memorable episodes in the history of US issue advocacy, it is now worth examining current rules and restrictions that are in place which guide the actions of servicemembers. As I mentioned earlier, both Articles 88 and 134 of the UCMJ remain in effect and serve as broad-based guidance for soldiers engaging in advocacy. However, more detailed and refined guidance has emerged in recent years to address current aspects of both the political climate and technological sophistication of today’s America.

The most far-reaching of these restrictions is Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, entitled "Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces on Active Duty", most recently updated in August 2004 in the midst of the recent presidential campaign. Broadly speaking, the directive prohibits servicemembers on active duty from "participat[ing] in partisan political management, campaigns, or conventions", but allows them to "register, vote, and express [their] personal opinion on political candidates and issues, but not as a representative of the Armed Forces." The key terminology within the directive deals with the definition of nonpartisan vs. partisan political activity; the former is defined as "Activity supporting or relating to

candidates not representing, or issues not specifically identified with, national or State political parties and associated or ancillary organizations." Therefore, for instance, servicemembers may join political clubs, sign petitions for legislative activity, and write letters expressing the servicemember’s views on political actions or issues. Servicemembers are barred, however, from advocating "partisan political causes" or serving as advocates for a particular candidate or party. The difficulty, of course, comes in defining when a cause or issue crosses the line from being one of general interest to a partisan issue, especially if a high-profile politician of one particular party becomes an advocate for that cause. In today’s increasingly polarized political climate, it becomes more and more difficult to conduct issue advocacy without having the appearance of partisan political conduct.

At the same time, the Department of Defense and the US Army have actively taken steps to address concerns raised by the wide proliferation of military blogs, or milblogs for short. Many (though not all) of these are short narratives posted by personnel serving in combat zones, and often contain frank and graphic descriptions of soldiers experiences. In April of 2005, Multi-National Corps (Iraq), the headquarters responsible for command and control of US combat forces in Iraq, published a policy memo directing that all blogs maintained or supported by soldiers in Iraq would have to be registered with the soldier’s chain of command, to include the name of the webmaster operating the site, the site IP address, and the company hosting the site. This registration requirement even extended to soldiers who did not operate such sites themselves but contributed content to other sites on a routine or recurring basis. Soldiers affected by this policy are not required to obtain their chain of command’s permission prior to publication, but are potentially responsible for any classified or sensitive information published on these sites. Additionally, unit commanders are required to review the contents of all registered websites within their command on a quarterly basis to ensure that the regulations I have previously discussed are being obeyed. It is important to note that this policy only affects soldiers in a deployed theater of war, specifically Central Command. At home, the Army Chief of Staff has repeatedly expressed concern over potential security violations in milblogs, and in an Aug 2005 message to the Army told commanders that "some soldiers continue to post sensitive information to internet websites and blogs, e.g., photos depicting weapon system vulnerabilities and tactics, techniques, and procedures. Such OPSEC [operational security] violations needlessly place lives at risk and degrade the effectiveness of our operations." He concluded that message with the following directive: "Get the word out and focus on this issue now. I expect to see immediate improvement." Certainly there is no excusing conduct that deliberately endangers the lives of other soldiers in harm’s way; the challenge for the issue advocate is to decide whether the potential OPSEC violation is outweighed by the long-term danger of the issue to members of the military.

It is difficult to accurately gauge the impact of these restrictions and directives on active duty issue advocacy. There is no centralized database or record of websites shut down or actions taken against soldiers, since most of the actions fall into the category of administrative or non-judicial punishment. Perhaps the best-known case is that of SPC Leonard Clark, a National Guardsman from Arizona serving in Iraq who was arrested by his chain of command in July of 2005, threatened with court-martial, and forced to shut down his blog. Although OPSEC was originally cited as the reason for the shutdown, later details emerged that seemed to support the contention that this was, in fact, both an Article 134 and DoD 1344.10 violation. Specifically, Clark’s postings contained disparaging remarks about both the President and several cabinet officials, and also contained exhortations for his Arizona readers to support him in a campaign for public office upon his return. It should be noted that this case does not qualify as an Article 88 violation, since Clark is not an officer. My point in bringing up this particular case is not to voice support for one position or the other, but to highlight how blurry the lines are between issue advocacy, which is permitted, and partisan political speech, which is not. The practical result of all of this is that active duty servicemembers who wish to practice issue advocacy within the bounds of current speech restrictions much keep such speech rigorously non-partisan, which often leads to significant semantic contortions. For instance, in my own writings, I frequently limit myself to discussions of policy, rather than include the individuals who created or implemented those policies. This often leads to angry comments from readers who demand to know why I’ve let such-and-such particular public official off the hook. By the same token, there are currently several Iraq and Afghanistan veterans around the country who have declared themselves candidates for public office in 2006 and are speaking on many of the same issues that I regularly address in my writings. Although it would seem to be a natural fit to address their platforms activities, I have typically refrained from doing so to avoid any appearance of supporting partisan political activity.

As I hope I’ve made clear to this point, soldiers wishing to engage in active duty issue advocacy face a bewildering range of restrictions and rules, both formal and informal. It therefore begs the question of why any sane individual would choose to burden themselves with such things, on top of an already stressed operations tempo. Our reasons for doing so are as varied as the individual – I personally view such advocacy as part of my officers’ oath, which charges me to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States", especially the charge to "provide for the common defense." Beyond the personal reasons, I would like to offer you three reasons why I believe such actions are worthy of public support and in fact imperative for the maintenance of our Republic:

First, it’s good for the soldier – In many cases, soldiers choose not to speak about their experiences for fear of being misunderstood or having their words taken out of context. Many times, soldiers simply choose to keep their experiences to themselves, not sharing any of their actions with friends or family. And yet, more and more of the literature emerging on dealing with issues related to soldier homecoming and post-traumatic stress suggest that "storytelling" is in fact a vital component of dealing with these issues by processing what has happened to them in the violent and unpredictable arena of combat. For instance, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) David Grossman, a noted scholar and author on the study of killing and its aftermath, suggests that debriefings are a time to "put everyone back together"; his research and others who have imitated it suggest that talking about combat helps soldiers to deal with aftereffects such as memory loss and distortion and irrational guilt. Such studies suggest that the long transit times for returning home that were common for soldiers of the past helped facilitate such storytelling among peers; now, in an era where a soldier can literally move from a combat zone to a loved one’s arms in the space of 24 hours, we must find other outlets for storytelling. Speaking in a public forum about their experiences and concerns can help soldiers come to grips with their own set of circumstances and understand how their experience has changed them and their relation to the world around them.

Second, it’s good for the public – The American public currently holds a very positive view of its military; in fact, the military consistently ranks highest among all public institutions in Pew Surveys, often by margins of 20% or more. The paradox here is that the public seems to hold higher and higher opinions of the military even as it becomes more and more detached from it. The numbers of members of Congress who have served in the armed forces are low and getting lower; few than 10% of Americans have served in the armed forces, and less than half can claim relation to or friendship with someone who does. Much of this is due to the creation of the all-volunteer force and the fact that we have not fought a major war that greatly taxed the resources of the nation in generations. Let me be clear on one point here – the fact that a vast majority of our citizens have no first-hand experience of war is a good thing, and is directly attributable to the decades of relative peace and prosperity that we enjoyed and still enjoy. But we must be honest with ourselves and admit that this trend of separation is likely to increase in the future. For instance, current plans for Base Realignment and Closure as approved by Congress and the President call for the closure of small, outlying military facilities and consolidation of troops and facilities into more insular communities. Although there are valid force protection and economic reasons for such consolidation, one unintended side effect may well be the creation of heavily military communities that feed upon themselves. In fact, one observer has warned that we are on the verge of creating a "warrior class" within our society, something arguably unknown to this point in American history. The result is a public that is woefully ignorant of both the realities of war and the challenges facing the men and women who fight. Like so many other aspects of popular discourse, public opinion on this subject is heavily shaped by visions created in popular media; for instance, Evan Wright in his recent book Generation Kill noted that completely fictional representations of military actions such as Apocalypse Now had become part of the culture and mythos of the Marine unit with which he was embedded. The recent surge in popularity of milblogs shows that there is a public interest in the lives and activities of active servicemembers – if those men and women do not tell their own stories, outsiders with fewer nuances and understanding will fill the gap, much to the public’s loss.

Finally, it’s good for the country – Our military is increasingly being used as the primary instrument of foreign policy, often to the neglect of other traditional tools of statecraft. One only has to look at the images from places like Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq to see the pre-eminent role our military is assuming in projecting our influence abroad. Dr. Thomas Barnett, a prominent defense theorist, recently constructed a paradigm using the idea of "billable hours", such as a consultant or lawyer might use for a client, and applying it to as a scalable measure to track military overseas missions. He defined a "billable day" as being a day spent by one US servicemember deployed abroad in support of a crisis response. This method has particular utility since it can be applied equally to both combat and stability and support operations, and is not constrained by often-nebulous unit definitions. By his measure, the number of "billable days" skyrocketed from 17,382 in the 1980s to 66,930 through the late 1990s; this figure, unimaginable at the time, is of course now dwarfed by our missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet only recently have both the civilian and uniformed leadership of the military embraced stability missions as a core competency of the Department of the Defense, on a par with conventional warfighting. Whether or not one believes that such a change is for the better, the voices of those who are actually engaged on the ground in such operations are vital additions to the national debate on how and when such missions should be conducted. This is not to say that voices of non-veterans and soldiers have no weight in debates over defense policy; in fact, such a mixing of views helps widen the conversation and hopefully improve the quality of debate.

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I and others like me do not claim to have a monopoly on truth. We do not claim to speak for all or even a majority of US servicemembers. Far from the monolithic block it is often depicted as, the military truly reflects the diversity and plurality of our society, right down to individual beliefs. We simply see our speech as being part of the expression of those beliefs and our desire to fully perform our duty as citizens. I hope that my talk tonight has given you some insight as to why some servicemembers feel compelled to speak out, and why such speech is so important to our troops and to our Republic. Thank you very much.


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