Party, Politics, and the Post-9/11 Army

  • Published

Party, Politics, and the Post-9/11 Army by Heidi A. Urben. Cambria, 2021, 324 pp.

In a world of data-driven decision-making, Dr. Heidi A. Urben brings data. Her book, Party, Politics, and the Post 9/11 Army, is ambitious and illusory as she works to identify trends in the political composition, political partisanship, and acquiescence to civilian control in the officer corps of the US Army. While the book’s subject matter of the book is the Army, Airmen should not rush to dismiss its lessons because the book is not inherently about the Army or the Air Force but the military’s professionalism in a civilian-controlled democratic society.

As previously stated, the book’s strength revolves around its data presentation. Dr. Heidi Urben draws this data from several surveys administered to National Defense University, Army War College, and West Point students at various times across a decade of study. The surveys conducted, also included as appendices in the book, investigate three interwoven concepts in civil-military relationship discourse, the political leanings of the officer corps, degree of partisanship, and resistance to civilian control.

The data stretches across several years, incorporating multiple surveys.  This includes the “Civil Military Relations in Time of War Survey” (2009) utilizing a random sampling of Army officers, the “Politics and Social Media Study (2015–16),” which focused on West Point and Senior Developmental Education Students, and the National Defense University Civil-Military Relations Surveys (2017–20), which again drew its data from West Point, National Defense University, and Army War College. The sheer amount of data is daunting, and it is a credit to Urben’s efforts to collect, analyze, and present her findings in this book. All this was to investigate the assertion (and thesis of the book) that behavior by uniformed members during the past decade has contributed to the politicization and subsequent degradation of the traditional nonpartisan standard for the US military.

The first part of her book, analyzing the political make-up of the officer corps, yields several interesting points but few real surprises. Testing the hypothesis that the officer corps is overwhelmingly Republican, Urben’s analysis identifies a consistent trend that most surveyed officers identify as Republican, with those identifying as Independent or Democrat varying over the years.

Further analysis, using wider response options such as “Lean,” “Weak,” or “Strong,” the political preference versus simply checking a political party box gives a better picture. Primarily, the officer corps, the past 10 years, simply leans or considers itself weak Republicans. This is encouraging, considering that such data would suggest that military officers are less a voting bloc than would otherwise have been believed. Of course, if the idealized, independent, apolitical military is the objective, the data is also concerning that officers who identify as independents are not the largest proportion of the officer corps.

Urben delves into the murky world of retired military personnel and political bias in her study of partisanship. Borrowing Richard Kohn’s expression that retired generals are merely “Princes of the Church” and never truly retire but instead continue to speak for their institution, Urben outlines several examples where retired generals’ entrance into public discourse has impacted policy debate. Namely, she highlights the rise of flag officer endorsements of political candidates but also refers to specific examples such as the “Revolt of the Generals” in 2006.

Urben compares the apparent growth of retired flag officers’ involvement (however tangentially) in public discourse with the survey data that found active officers generally find it acceptable, though that support decreased significantly between 2009–19. In her analysis of retired officers’ partisan political activities, she offers a legal constraint as a potential tool for curtailing extreme partisanship. Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 88, which prevents officers from using contemptuous words against civilian leadership, is a rarely used, but potentially effective tool against extreme cases. To her credit, she limits her analysis only to what the data provides, offering the Supreme Court Case Barker vs. Kansas (1992) as evidence that Article 88 could apply to active and retired military personnel. But she stops short of potentially divergent analysis from her main thesis that, while fascinating, would be a detriment from the overall study of this book. 

Her chapter on social media use in the military initially drew me to read this book, as well as the recommendation of other more established scholars. In its various forms, social media has and is changing the societal dynamics of the whole country, and the military’s relationship with it is just a piece of that. In the past few years, active duty and retired officers alike have used different platforms to voice disfavor or condemnation, resulting in public recourse by the military.

Urben adamantly argues that to combat this, the Department of Defense Directive (DoDD) 1344.10: Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces. This document that seemingly dictates proper activities for military members’ involvement in political activity be updated. Noticeably, she argues that the document has not been rewritten since 2008 but merely supplemented during elections or politically sensitive events. Of note, in the original document, the term social media is not mentioned, but later supplements still site DoDD 1344.10 as the authoritative document when addressing social media use.

This reviewer is inclined to agree with Urben that such guidance can and should be updated to reflect changes in the very domain the DoDD1344.10 seeks to clarify. Still, there is a bit of a catch-22. At a time when public personalities have championed their causes through declaring havens for freedom of speech on various platforms, and the debate over what constitutes civil discourse online has become a politically charged point of contention, the act of appearing to curb access to public forums could at least have the optics of being a partisan act. In effect, trying to prevent military partisanship would be considered an overtly partisan act. More succinctly, DoDD 1344.10 should be rewritten, but the guidance required must walk a fine line so as not to attract the very negative consequences it seeks to prevent.

The final chapter is by no means the least significant. Military acquiescence to civilian control remains the core tenant of civil-military relations in a democratic society. To that end, Urben found a substantial proportion of respondents demonstrated a higher degree of skepticism over civilian leadership when prioritizing domestic politics versus national security concerns. This is concerning.

A more optimistic revelation comes from a similar question arguing whether military officials should “run” the war instead of civilian leadership.  During the 20-year span of surveys, the rate of mid- to high-level officers who agreed with the statement dropped by 30 percent. Urben postulates this may have to do with the prolonged experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan versus previous shorter engagements experienced from 1980–2000.

The analysis here is not groundbreaking, as Urben lets the numbers talk for themselves. For example, officers who identify with a specific party are more likely to favor “advising” military policy when their preferred party is in power while favoring “insisting on” military policy when the perceived opposition is in place. While some of the data is uncomfortable, it is noticeable that the normative value of civilian control is never openly contested, but skepticism, if not outright cynicism, does persist.

Like any other study, the surveys analyzed are snapshots of a time and place. As time progresses, additional surveys will add to those Urben used, and more data will yield better trend analysis. If possible, sample sizes should expand beyond primarily Army officers to other services. Organizational culture and its influence on partisanship is a variable not thoroughly vetted by this book. While Urben’s assertion that the findings could be extrapolated to the other service branches, it is an assumption worth exploring. If anything, multiservice surveys will demonstrate that there is no significant variation in partisanship among the different colors of uniforms or that there are differences. Similarly, Urben’s data is pulled primarily from academic institutions (National Defense University, Army War College, and the United States Military Academy).  Surveying officers from bases or installations could present geographic variations as political influences from specific locations that could impact political opinions or perceptions.

These are not criticisms of Urben or her work. The data is so expansive that each chapter answers Urben’s initial questions and unlocks a litany of new questions and hypotheses requiring more exploration and discussion. To her credit, Urben does not allow herself to pursue these rabbit holes. Instead, her analysis is derived strictly from the data collected during her extensive survey work. This book is most likely on a civil-military relations reading list, but it does not take a civil-military relations student to understand and appreciate the work done here. Instead, this book is one any military professional should read.

Party, Politics, and the Post 9/11 Army forces a self-reflection of the uniformed officer’s role in a democratic society where it stands today and shines a light on potentially discouraging and encouraging trends. This book challenges popular assumptions, investigates curiosities, and still leaves this reader wanting another 300 pages of data and study. It is a fantastic book for lieutenants and lieutenant generals alike. 

Major James D. Corless, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."