Tensions rise in U.S. civil-military relations

Political polarization has damaged the relationship between the U.S. military and civilian society, potentially harming national security and eroding public trust.

A person in a suit and tie walks up an escalator
U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (Republican-Alabama) in the U.S. Capitol on September 6, 2023. Mr. Tuberville is blocking 300 promotions of high-level military personnel over a change in the U.S. Department of Defense’s policy of paying travel expenses of military members who seek abortions or other medical services in a different state. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • As support for Ukraine shows, the U.S. can still form a consensus
  • Military recruitment could suffer from deepening turmoil
  • The 2024 U.S. elections will offer stark choices in this area

Not since the nadir of the American participation in the Vietnam War have serious concerns over the state of civil-military relations governing the United States Armed Forces been so consequential. In large part, contemporary national politics has placed an unprecedented strain on the management of the military services. The events of the last two years have dramatically accelerated these tensions. Though unlikely to significantly hamstring the capacity of the U.S. to conduct military operations in the near term, the outcome of national elections in 2024 could significantly impact the future of how this issue unfolds, affecting the efficacy and employment of U.S. forces.

What has changed?

The increase in civil-military tensions reflects the changing political alignment in the U.S. In the past decades, the two major political parties have become less politically and geographically diverse. As a result, increasingly they reflect opposing policies at the national level that leave less space for bipartisan agreement. This divide has become increasingly apparent in national security and foreign policy matters.

The divide has not hamstrung U.S. capacity for national action. This is most clearly seen in U.S. policy in support of Ukraine after the 2021 Russian invasion. While there are political debates surrounding administration actions, dividing largely on political lines, there is nevertheless broad consensus in Congress to aid Ukraine as a matter of U.S. national interest.

Nevertheless, in many areas of policy, there are deep political divides that increasingly press the leaders of the armed services to take actions that are widely perceived as supporting partisan political divisions. This, in turn, has significantly hurt the respect and confidence of the armed forces. In addition, the divide has sparked partisan political debates that impact military policies and practices.

More by James Jay Carafano

Signs of turbulent times

There are several developments that reflect the increasing strain.

Perhaps the most notable is U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (Republican-Alabama) exercising his prerogative to place a hold on the confirmation and promotions of hundreds of senior military officers, in protest of a U.S. Defense Department policy that pays for travel expenses when a service member must go out of state to get an abortion or medical services for transgender care.

Senator Tuberville argues this is an effort of the administration to impose its political agenda of expanding abortion rights and services, as well as promoting progressive policies on gender.

The administration counters that the care is about military readiness and ensuring that service members have access to legal medical procedures. A White House spokesperson declared that these medical policies are part of a “foundational, sacred obligation of military leaders.” Further, they argue that Mr. Tuberville’s hold is significantly detracting from military readiness, blocking key assignments and promotions. White House protestations aside, gender and abortion issues are among the most controversial in the U.S.

Recently, the House, in a largely partisan vote, approved a version of the National Defense Authorization Act that would prohibit funding for the administration’s abortion and gender policies. Member of Congress Adam Smith (Democrat-Washington), a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, responded that the amended bill had “allowed an extreme and narrow contingent to bring their culture war to what was a bipartisan process and advance an agenda rooted in racism, misogyny, bigotry, ignorance and hatred.” His statement, and the Republican action, both reflect that the debate is much more about politics than defense policy.

Recruitment and public trust may suffer

The decision in Congress reflects popular attitudes toward the armed services. Recent polling by a panel organized by the conservative Heritage Foundation found “a growing politicization of the military, where politicization is defined as the imposition of policies, programs and messaging designed for political, not military, reasons. Politicization can lead to a decline in both American public trust in the military – which, in turn, negatively impacts recruiting efforts – and the military’s readiness to fight and win wars.”

Another issue exacerbating these concerns is that the U.S. military has had greater challenges in recruiting than at any time in recent memory. Last year, the armed forces had the worst year for recruiting since the end of conscription and the establishment of an all-volunteer force in 1973. This year is trending worse.

Republican Congressional leaders have argued that, in part, these declines stem from aggressive Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies implemented in the armed forces, which they argue push a liberal political agenda. According to reporting in The Hill, in one hearing Republican senators “pressured senior officials with the navy, army and air force on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training, which they said was among ‘woke’ policies that are compounding recruitment challenges across nearly all military branches.” In contrast, Democrats have argued that “diversity is a strength” and that DEI policies are essential to combat capabilities, retaining service members and recruiting from a broad range of groups. Current U.S. military leadership agrees. The Pentagon has pointed to various challenges, including a declining interest in military service among the youngest generation and a competitive labor market. Many Americans are also not eligible for service based on health requirements or prior criminal misconduct.

The clear divide between Republicans and Democrats is affecting public opinion. Some argue that recruiting difficulties spring partly from declining confidence in the military because of political interference. A poll by the Military Family Advisory Network found that the percentage of military and veteran families recommending military service declined by over 12 percent in three years but did not cite the reasons. This is instructive because recruits tend to come from military families. The U.S. Army Recruiting Command has stated that 79 percent of recruits have relatives who served.

A person in a suit speaking into a microphone
U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Republican-California) speaks during a news conference after the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on July 14, 2023, in Washington, D.C. The House of Representatives narrowly passed the controversial $886 billion NDAA containing Republican-backed amendments limiting abortion access in the military in a 219-210 vote. © Getty Images

What the botched Afghanistan withdrawal shows

In addition to domestic social issues, concerns that politics have harmed military operations are also on the rise. President Joe Biden’s administration faced criticism for the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 because it ignored military advice. Recently, a report by the State Department critical of administrative actions was released with little fanfare, triggering complaints against the White House. The administration has sought to downplay the fiasco, releasing a State Department review of its botched Afghanistan withdrawal the Friday before the July 4 holiday weekend. 

For its part, the Biden administration has argued that the politicization of the military is threatened by right-wing extremists serving in the ranks fostering radical ideology. Much of this threat is blamed on former President Donald Trump and his populist supporters. For instance, Jacob Ware wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations that in addition to “minority communities and those on the political left, far-right and white supremacist extremism threatens violence against institutions conservatives cherish as well, such as the U.S. military.” Conservatives have responded that the threat of extremists in the ranks is overblown and is a “witch hunt” intended to demonize and repress right-wing voices in the armed services.

Although there are no developments severe enough to suggest that partisan infighting is undermining the capacity of the U.S. to employ its armed forces, the management of the military has unquestionably become a front-burner political issue.



The most likely scenario is that national elections in 2024 will profoundly affect Defense Department policies on a range of issues including recruiting, training and personnel management. In addition, a Republican presidency could well bring sweeping changes in the senior ranks of the U.S. military who have endorsed President Biden’s agenda on DEI, abortion and other controversial issues. A Democratic victory would bring a continuation and possible acceleration of current policies.

It is unclear what the long-term impact of current policies or dramatic reversal of them would have on the military. Pentagon policies are only one variable. Other external factors affect both how the military is perceived and how it performs. Confidence in the U.S. military, for example, declined significantly in the 1970s, but then strongly rebounded for many reasons. What can be predicted with great confidence, however, is that the 2024 election will be a significant inflection point in the conduct of U.S. civil-military relations. 

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