This election has followed the path of its predecessors by having as one of the central issues in the campaign the role and use of the military, but this discussion has been fundamentally different than others. In recent weeks, there has been a Gold star family that advocated for their preferred candidate and a tweet that argues that the military needs military justice reform concerning sexual assaults. However, these issues, while important, treat the military as a tool; arguing that an experienced leader with a proper temperament is required and that the justice system in the military does not meet common expectation or understanding.
A far more difficult issue to contend with in this election cycle is the advocacy of influential, retired leadership of the military. From the former Secretary of Defense, to the former Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, to the retired General in charge of the Defense Intelligence Agency, military leadership has been vocal in this election cycle about the qualities that they believe that the next President of the United States should have, and who they believe has those qualities. GEN (Ret) John Allen, USMC, at the Democratic National Convention, and flanked by over thirty veterans, stated that Mr. Trump could cause a "civil military crisis, the like of which we've not seen in this country." In response, LTG (Ret) Michael Flynn, USA lashed out one day after the DNC, and on Fox News, blasted GEN (Ret) Allen for the endorsement. LTG (Ret) Flynn has subsequently stated that a number of Generals have been forced out under the current administration, and has publicly endorsed Mr. Trump.
Military personnel having an opinion on politics is hardly new. While the military tends to trend conservative, those opinions are generally constrained to the individual, and not placed in the public forum, due to both tradition and law. The Hatch Act of 1939 (officially, "An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities"), which was last amended in 2012, sets forth permitted and impermissible activities for servicemembers to engage in. Some of the impermissible activities include using one's official authority or influence to interfere with an election, soliciting or receiving political contributions, or engaging in political activity while on duty, or in a government office, or wearing an official uniform. Conversely, the permitted political activities of servicemembers include registering to vote and voting, contributing money to political candidates and political campaigns, and attending political campaigns and rallies assuming that the servicemember is not in uniform or otherwise engaged in impermissible action during what is permitted conduct.
One of the fundamental questions involved with the field of civil-military relations is "Who controls the military?" This question has been examined from the perspectives of the President and Congress, harkening to the President being the commander-in-chief and the Congress authorizing appropriations, but the bearing in mind the cultural and legal restraint that the military practices, the question is not that different from asking "Who owns the tool?" A more difficult presentation of the question of "Who controls the military" is when the military positions itself in an attempt to choose its leader; that is, the tool is attempting to choose its wielder.
This immediately presents at least two concerns - first, that the legitimacy of the institution is damaged by the support, and second, that the leadership of the military will not follow the orders of the commander-in-chief that it opposed, or alternatively, it will blindly follow the commands of the commander-in-chief that it supported.
In a 2016 Gallup poll on the confidence in institutions, that asked respondents how much confidence they had in various institutions - a great deal, quite a lot, some, or very little, 73% of those polled responded that they had either a great deal of confidence or quite a lot of confidence in the military. This number exceeded that of the police - 56%, the Presidency - 36%, the Supreme Court - 36%, and Congress - 6% In fact, of all the institutions that were polled, to include small business, big business, organized religion, public schools, and the aforementioned police and branches of the federal government. Arguably, the overwhelming confidence in the military is due to its apolitical nature, that it professionally manages situations that it is placed into, but that it does not itself go into those situations. The change in tone from being an instrument of the Executive to voicing opinions about the qualities of its potential future leaders signals a change in attitude that may destabilize the public's confidence in the institution.
Beyond the public's confidence is the issue military's loyalty and obedience. With its leaders aligning with one candidate or the other, there is a risk that either the President will be ideologically co-opted by the military position, or that the military leaders will be unable - or unwilling - to disobey what may be an illegal order due to fealty or an order that aligns with their preexisting ideological position. Such a shift would fundamentally change the role of the military from an instrument with its own morality and judgment to an amoral executor of Presidential commands and is something to watch for as the election - and its after effects - grow nearer..