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Why I Am Disinterested In Your Political Beliefs

  • Published
  • By Col. Deane Konowicz, 90th Missile Wing Vice Commander
  • 90th Missile Wing

With the 2020 elections less than a week away, I would like to take this opportunity to remind our active duty military and Department of the Air Force civilians of their obligations to follow U.S. law, Department of Defense directives and Air Force instructions, which set clear limitations on participation in political activities. The most prominent of which is our oath of office that states we ‘will support and defend the Constitution,’ not a political party or person. Though I am personally neutral to your personal political beliefs, and I encourage everyone to participate in our democracy and fulfill their obligations as citizens, to include exercising your right to vote. We have a long-standing tradition in the military of remaining apolitical that I expect to see upheld in the coming weeks by our dedicated professionals across F.E. Warren AFB.  While we pride ourselves on being an apolitical institution, that was not the case for most of the 19th century.

At the nation’s founding, the Continental Army proved very loyal to Gen. George Washington who became our first president. As members of the Federalist Party, Washington, along with his aide de camp, Alexander Hamilton, and his vice president, John Adams, who would become the second president, shaped the officer corps of the early U.S. Army. During the election of 1800, a two-party system had emerged with Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, defeating Federalists John Adams and Aaron Burr. This marked the first peaceful transition of political power in history between opposing parties through democratic means.

With the presidency, Jefferson inherited an army whose officer corps remained predominantly affiliate with the Federalist Party. Jefferson quickly used his personal secretary, Capt. Meriwether Lewis, to produce a list of every officer in the army and their political affiliation. He subsequently lobbied Congress to pass the Military Peace Establishment Act of 1802 which provided him two tools to reshape the military. First, the act enabled him to conduct a reduction in force that he used to reduce the commissioned officer corps by one third, based entirely on partisan political affiliation. Second, the act established the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, whereby officer candidates would be nominated by Congress. This ensured the future army would have politically-nominated commissioned officers representing all states and congressional districts, while continuing officer partisan political affiliation.

In 1843, Congress increased West Point nominations and the officers continued to hold open partisan political affiliations. This resulted in commissions that not only came and went with wars, but also presidential elections. In 1854, the Crimean War in Europe introduced war correspondents and photography to the battlefield, thereby linking the military, politics, and the people through the media for the first time. A few years later, the U.S. and our partisan military faced its greatest challenge in the Civil War, as commissioned officers chose opposing sides of a political conflict that turned violent, resulting in more than a 500,000 American casualties. As a result of the Civil War, the officer and enlisted oaths were separated in 1862, and the word “defend” was added to verify loyalty to the Constitution of the United States throughout the rest of the war.

By the 1870s, the U.S. military began to recover from the war just as Fort D. A. Russell (F.E. Warren AFB) was established here in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Within the U.S. Government’s Civil Service system, frustration had been building for some time as the “spoils system” allowed civil service employees to be hire and fired at will, largely based on political affiliation. Soon after the election of 1880, a man by the name of Charles Guiteau assassinated the newly-elected President Garfield over a post master patronage job that he believed he was owed for supporting Garfield’s election. As a result of the assassination, Congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883. The Pendleton Act established what we now know as the Civil Service system by which positions are awarded on the basis of merit rather than political affiliation. Dismissal and demotion based on political affiliation became illegal. By 1900, the majority of Civil Service jobs had migrated to this new, politically-neutral system.

As the 20th century progressed, challenges arose testing the Pendleton Act. By 1939, these strains on an increasingly partisan civil service compelled Congress once again to enact updated laws on political activity with the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act, renewed in 1993, not only protects government workers from being fired when a new party comes into power, but it specifies the political activities permitted and prohibited for career civilians. The Hatch Act does not apply to uniformed service members, however military personnel on active duty are subject to Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, Air Force Instruction 51-902, Political Activities by Members of the US Air Force, and the Uniformed Code of Military Justice Articles 88 and 92.

Since the founding of the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force in 1947, the military has strived to remain apolitical in the face of numerous challenges and conflicts around the world. In 1957, Harvard professor of political science Samuel P. Huntington documented what we now consider modern American military norms in his book, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. Hunting described the military as a profession whose qualities are expertise, responsibility, and corporateness. Furthermore, he stressed that professionalism included a “mutually binding relationship between society and its professionals,” and it “requires that the military officer fulfill its duties to its country by compliance with political officials running the state and government.” We continue to study our unique role in society as military professionals, while navigating today’s challenges of social media and the myriad communication technologies that impact American politics and our lives.

We have come a long way as a nation and as a military since our first partisan election, more than two centuries past. I think we can all agree that for personal, professional and patriotic reasons, we have an apolitical institution and tradition worth preserving. As a senior leader in the 90th Missile Wing, I could not be more proud of the team of professionals who, as sentinels of freedom, guarantee our nation’s nuclear deterrent. As your bother in arms, I love you and I am eternally grateful for you and your family’s sacrifices. As a fellow Airman, I am completely disinterested in your political opinion, that is to say, I am neutral to it. Your political affiliation has no bearing on our mission. I expect you to treat others with dignity and respect, to know the rules, and to live up to your oath and our core values of Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence In All We Do!

Col Konowicz has a Bachelor of Science degree in History from the U.S. Air Force Academy, a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Wyoming, and a life-long love of history. He has studied the history of partisan politics and the American military extensively at the U.S. Navy War College to improve his leadership skills and service to his nation.