05 January 2012

Good Soldiers Never Bad-mouth the Boss

When U.S. Army Cpl. Jesse Thorsen, West Des Moines, Iowa, a drilling member of the U.S. Army Reserve, put on his combat uniform and took a Des Moines, Iowa stage with Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, the not-so-strategic corporal officially crossed the phase line between "dumb" and "stupid." In doing so, he helped illuminate the potential consequences of a warrior class at odds with the society it protects, and the need for both citizens and soldiers to recommit to their respective roles within the republic.

Bottom line up front: Army regulations do not allow allow you to wear the U.S. flag on your shoulder while also waving the banner of a political candidate. Particularly if your mere presence is an implied criticism of your commander-in-chief.

(Side note: Unless you're currently in the military, you don't have a "commander-in-chief." See this nicely observed essay inspired by another presidential candidate's recent remarks in Iowa here. And another homegrown military-and-politics-don't-mix article from 2011 here.)

Every Joe knows this. Particularly in Iowa, which becomes a political no-man's-land every four years. Other states have primary elections, but Iowa has its first-in-the-nation caucuses. A caucus is an inherently partisan event, run by party volunteers, at which participants can be expected to publicly advocate on behalf of politicians and platform planks.

If you're headed to your precinct caucus immediately following your duty day, you take off the uniform and put on civvies. With apologies to George Washington: "When you assume the citizen, you leave behind the soldier."

Caucus meetings can involve a lot of raucous political prodding and poking, jibing and joking. Some of it may even be good-natured. If you want the essential flavor of the thing, consider a few of Iowa writer Trevor Meers' notes from his rural precinct caucus:
GOP Neighbor opened the session with the Pledge of Allegiance, even though there was no flag in the room. “Well,” he said, “just look, um, somewhere.” We sat down to start the caucus, and the old guy in the flag cap said, “This feels a lot like the Possum Lodge.” [...]

Mitt’s man went right to Romney’s status as a family man. “He’s been married almost as many years as I have. I, uh, don’t know how many that is.” Laughter rolled through the community hall. “43 years! That’s it! 43 years.” [...]

No one volunteered to speak for Newt, then GOP Neighbor asked, “Is there anyone who wishes to speak on behalf of Jon Huntsman? No? I didn’t think so.”
Bottom line: The Iowa Caucuses are not private, closed-curtain and secret-ballot kinds of affairs. They're more like neighborhood block-parties.

Unlike the U.S. Army Reserve, the U.S. National Guard falls under the peacetime commands of the 54 state and territorial governors. Because of this, the National Guard is more likely to be called to help civil authorities respond to natural and manmade disasters. When the National Guard shows up to help sandbag against the flood or clean up from the tornado, every Joe knows that—while the uniform conveys a certain amount of knowledge, capability, and authority—the civilians are decisively in charge. The citizen-soldier, the oft-heard saying goes, is only "there to help."

(Side note to U.S. Army Reserve: The more appropriate term is "citizen-soldiers." That's "citizens" first, "soldiers" when necessary. Your repeated attempts to substitute "warrior-citizen" seems a dangerous play to militarize the populace. This is not Sparta. Not yet, anyway.)

I remember sitting in a stateside Tactical Operations Center in 2010, prior to Iowa's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) deployment to Afghanstan. News of Michael Hasting's Rolling Stone reports regarding the snarky culture of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal's Afghan command had just hit the airwaves, and we were watching cable news programming in-between drone flights. One go-to sergeant observed that any of the "jokes" described would be unacceptable in the Iowa National Guard, if they were directed by a soldier toward a governor or other elected official. I have never forgotten Sully's sage advice:

"You don't bad-mouth the boss, even if you didn't vote for him."



Here's how the Wisconsin National Guard (home to the 32nd Infantry "Red Arrow" Brigade Combat Team, a unit affiliated with 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division) put out the post-Thorsen word in typically plain-spoken Midwestern-speak:
The Dairy State gained national attention in 2011 for the large political demonstrations at the state capitol, and this year’s presidential election promises further political carbonation in a swing state.

So what can a Wisconsin National Guard member say or do in this politically charged environment?

The short answer? The Department of Defense does not endorse any political candidate or party. As a service member—whether active Guard and Reserve (AGR), federal technician or traditional drilling status—you cannot give the impression that any part of the military endorses a political candidate, party or movement.
Questions? Ask your JAG.



Blogger and reporter Carl Prine—himself a former Marine and National Guard soldier—offered a take-no-prisoners analysis of Thorsen's political actions. In it, he takes to task would-be activists such as Thorsen, should-know-better candidates, the dangerous military mindset that places soldiers above citizens, and even the support-your-troops culture at large. A couple of favorite Prine lines:
[To the military:] Thorsen is the monster you helped to create. It’s what happens when the speeches of your officers turn every REMF into a “warrior” and your press releases raise even lowly men like me into capital-s “Soldiers” standing typographically taller than all those mere little-c civilians.

[To the public:] You’ve trapped those who did their duty in the boneyards of Ramadi and Kandahar by slamming shut the iron gate of stoploss. And when our veterans returned home from battle, you refused to hire them.

“Thank you for your service,” you say. “And yes, I would like fries with that.”


Writer Michael Hastings, vilified in some mil-circles after his McChrystal profile resulted in the general's resignation, recently published a book. A couple of paragraphs from a recent Wired interview stand out as relevant to the Thorsen incident:
[T]he burdens of this war have fallen on so few. So, so few. Goddamn right the people who did serve should feel like their opinion matters, maybe even should matter more. But then you get into a Starship Troopers scenario [where citizenship is measured by military service]. I think the only way to combat against that is for everyone to do their best to understand what’s really going on. And to do their best to understand that just because someone has a uniform on doesn’t mean you need to genuflect. You can be respectful and thank them. But one has to be able to be as critical of four-star general as of Newt Gingrich. You have to treat these people like they’re flawed human beings like you.


Time magazine's Mark Thompsen, in describing Thorsen's mistake of wearing a uniform while rallying for Ron Paul, also noted:
Admiral Mike Mullen, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until last fall, made a special point of telling U.S. troops to remain apolitical. “Keeping our politics private is a good first step,” he said in an oft-quoted 2008 article he wrote for Joint Forces Quarterly, a Pentagon publication. “The only things we should be wearing on our sleeves are our military insignia.”


Afghan war veteran Rajiv Srinivasan, a spokesperson for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association (I.A.V.A.), chose to write about Thorsen's political performance in the best possible light:
We must recognize that, in each of our returning veterans, there is an internal struggle to reconcile the utility of their life’s work over the past decade with the hardships they’ve endured. Our society’s ambivalence gives veterans the prerogative to define their worth of service—and thus the American uniform—on their own terms.

If the American service uniform truly means something to our nation, then we must start taking better care of those who wear it, have worn it and who continue to bear its responsibilities. It’s more than a simple “Thank you for your service.” It means asking, “How can I help you get a job, care for your family, build a life back home?”


  1. Wonder how enthusiastic the lad is now that he's come to the attention of his chain of command in a less than good way.

    Also, a minor typo you might want to correct before you're the target of a barrage of those Red Arrows from the land of cheddar - it's the 32d BCT.


  2. Roger that! Conversations elsewhere on the Internet focused on what consequences the soldier might face, given that he was not on duty status. Lots of barracks lawyers out there, but it makes for interesting water-cooler conversation.

    Thanks also for the typo-correction! Had the link right, but the name wrong. The 33rd Infantry, of course, is/was the "Prairie" Division (now a BCT), last mentioned on the blog here: http://www.redbullrising.com/2011/03/golden-cross-roads.html

    The 32nd BCT still maintains some sort of nominal affiliation under the 34th Inf. Div. I'll look forward to figuring that relationship out sometime.

  3. Quick OT question, Sherpa - am I the only one checking the pictures of the cruise ship rescue and recovery ops, looking for Marko, Gatti, and Sergeant Major Z?


  4. @ oldbull11c: I'm tracking, too. It seems to me that this world would be a better place if more people lived the motto: "I am responsible for everything my squad/team/command does and fails to do."


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.