On September 1, Business Insider published an article about recent posts on Reddit’s military site that showed service members in uniform holding signs over their faces protesting the president’s policy toward Syria. Since then a host of other media outlets have picked up on the story and Reddit/Military has been flooded with posts on both sides of the argument. In an all-volunteer force that defends a nation with a free and healthy discourse surrounding our foreign policy, these photos come closer to treason than whistleblowing.
Dissent in the ranks is not novel; it’s a tradition as old as military service. What’s new is soldiers’ ability to leverage social media to broadcast their views and the amplifying effect that occurs when the social media buzz is then picked up by major media outlets. It’s a process that has the potential to report on important stories drawn from within the ranks but it can also, as in the recent Reddit case, transform commonplace barracks gripes into national news. What some press outlets have depicted as widespread dissent within the military is really just a symptom of the newfound ability to anonymously question national security decisions without facing consequences.
The soldiers in this case are not only openly challenging the decisions being made by their commander in chief, a violation of their oaths under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, they are also shamefully utilizing the authority of their uniform to promote their own political views.
Enlisting in the military does not mean forgoing the rights of citizenship, soldiers can vote and out of uniform are free to express their political opinions. But when service members swear the oath they promise not to use the uniform to promote their own political views, whether they are for or against current policies. It’s a willful choice that every member of the military has made at a time when serving has never been less compulsory. The soldiers in these photos were not drafted and they all have plenty of other options if they no longer believe in the leadership of the Commander in Chief or their own ability to follow lawful orders.
There are clear paths to get out of the military. For those who are nearing the end of their service obligation, they may need only to initiate paperwork to enter a non-deployable status and begin the process of exiting the military. If urgent ethical conflicts make waiting to get out untenable, there is the option to file officially as Conscientious Objectors. A quick Google search turns up a number of resources that help soldiers with principled objections to war file petitions to exit the military. Under the right circumstances these individuals could be given honorable discharges and retain their veterans' benefits.
Of course, service members could also protest by taking another photo criticizing the president but this time not hide their faces and nametapes. Assuredly, their chain of command would ensure that they will never serve in Syria should we put troops on the ground there. A quick release from the services could then follow, though not likely under advantageous circumstances.
It’s not a sense of duty but self-interest that keeps these service members from leaving the military and entering the civilian world. Once out of uniform they would be free to voice any political opinion they wished but would be doing so without a government paycheck and outside of TRICARE and the military healthcare system’s ubiquitous protection. They want their cake and free healthcare too, the honor of wearing the uniform without the risk of serving at the will of the executive branch. This is not how it works, and if they somehow missed this when they signed up then they need to realize it quickly.
Asking that active duty members of the military honor their oath and refrain from politics in no way muffles national debate around defense and security issues. Rather, it protects a basic principle of our democracy—that the armed services do not dictate policy but carry out the will of the people and their elected leaders.
Debate and avenues for dissent were already wide open without the Reddit posts and will remain so. Since the president decided to take his case to Congress, there are Congressional office phones ringing from constituents sharing their opinions on the use of force in Syria. Voices on all sides of the issue are being heard within Washington and in news outlets, blogs, and social media platforms.
What’s clear is that the individuals who posted on Reddit did so, not to force a conversation that wouldn’t have happened without them, but as a self-aggrandizing stunt. Those who participated or supported the Reddit posters should be mindful of the allies they make through this sort of cheap publicity and consider that a pro-Syrian Army hacker group cracked a Marine Corps website and posted a message cheering the public dissent and calling for service members to refuse their orders.
When we put on the uniform we knowingly sacrifice a portion of our rights to free speech in order to protect all rights held sacred by our Constitution. By using the uniform to gain attention and try to influence the debate on Syria, a few service members are dishonoring this legacy.