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What the Jan. 6 hearings did and didn’t say about the military

The U.S. military has a strong tradition of staying out of politics. And that’s a good thing.

- July 22, 2022
Virginia national guard in front of the U.S. Capitol
Virginia National Guard at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 13, 2021 (cc) The National Guard

Editors’ note: In this archival piece, contributor Carrie A. Lee explains the U.S. military’s long tradition of staying out of politics — and new and troubling trends in the relationship between the military, veterans and American society. Her analysis, originally published in the Washington Post in July 2022, is spotlighted again on the third anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The Jan. 6 commission’s hearings in the summer of 2022 investigated the role of President Donald Trump in inciting the riot that took over the U.S. Capitol in early 2021. The hearings featured some previously recorded testimony from U.S. defense officials, including Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Joint Chiefs chairman, but largely focused on people in Trump’s inner circle who attempted to subvert the election ratification process.

However, despite the initial lack of attention on the Department of Defense during these hearings, the U.S. military is back in the spotlight. What’s more, national security credentials became critical to the commission’s argument. This could cause problems between the military and America’s civilian-led government — an area of study better known as civil-military relations.

The military isn’t involved in U.S. domestic politics

The U.S. military has a strong tradition of staying out of U.S. politics, especially power transitions between elected leaders. There’s a reason for that. After all, the military is the profession responsible for what political scientist Samuel Huntington called the “management of violence.”

Most scholars agree that the military has a special obligation to refrain from acting as an arbiter in U.S. domestic politics. To do otherwise risks instigating the very thing that could most threaten U.S. democracy: a coup. Milley himself has been clear on this point, declaring in August 2020 that the U.S. military plays “no role” in elections.

Yet the military still looms large. The two congressional leaders of last night’s hearings have burnished their credentials as veterans and highlighted witnesses’ military backgrounds. Also, testimony that Trump wanted to use the military to seize voting machines — and that he refused to call out the National Guard to quell the riot — prompted a number of retired military officers to publicly declare that he was derelict in his duty.

Trump’s moves reinforced the (false) notion that the military has the obligation and ability to intervene in U.S. domestic politics. However, both history and contemporary research show that military involvement in a country’s electoral politics almost always does more harm to the democratic processes than good — and such trends are difficult to stem.

What happened to the National Guard that day?

The testimony during last night’s hearings sought to answer the big question: What happened during the three hours it took for the National Guard to arrive on the scene and secure the building. Crucial to this question is the complex arrangement around the status of the District of Columbia and the potential for the overt politicization of the D.C. National Guard by federal officials. Indeed, while the National Guard is often placed on standby during events that have the potential to turn violent — whether in D.C. or elsewhere — that wasn’t the case early on Jan. 6, when only a few hundred guard members were deployed to assist with traffic.

This is significant because unlike state governors, the D.C. mayor does not have control of the D.C. National Guard. Instead, these troops are under the control of the president, who traditionally has delegated that authority to the secretary of the army. While this arrangement has not historically been problematic, Trump’s willingness to use the military to stay in power generated additional concerns that he would abuse the D.C. guard, as well. And, as the case for D.C. statehood continues to gain traction, this already complex issue will probably become even more politicized between the parties.

The hearings also detailed troubling trends about the relationship between the military, veterans and American society. Last week’s testimony and evidence revealed that militia-like groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers maintained close ties to top Trump allies seeking to overturn the election. What’s more, it appears that senior members of these groups expected Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act — an early-republic statute that allows a president to use federal forces to suppress domestic unrest — in defense of the mob.

U.S. paramilitary groups pose a challenge for civil-military relations because they often recruit explicitly from veteran populations, seek out and provide military training, and advertise their close ties to the military and law enforcement. These groups intentionally blur the line between active-duty and veteran status for the sake of prestige — while encouraging extremism within the militias themselves.

This blurs the line between military service and political extremism — a process known as politicization — and it causes three problems. First, politicization harms military effectiveness. Soldiers are taught that a politicized military has a harder time offering effective military advice that will be weighed seriously by elected officials, regardless of party. When civilian leaders become more likely to view advice through a partisan lens, that erodes trust in the civil-military relationship. Without trust, neither side can effectively communicate and bargain in the ways necessary for good strategy-making. And without good strategy, military effectiveness in both war and peace will suffer.

Second, Congress will probably find it tougher to deal with a politicized military, complicating even routine tasks. As the military becomes increasingly identified with partisan political issues — from critical race theory to “woke-ism” to extremist groups — it becomes harder for Congress to pass bipartisan defense budgets, perform meaningful oversight and otherwise pursue a healthy civil-military relationship.

Third, politicization hurts public confidence in the military, which in turn hurts recruiting and retention. As I’ve written before here in TMC, when the military becomes politicized, its ability to retain top talent is directly affected. In particular, politicization reduces the military’s ability to recruit service members from all cross-sections of society, leading to a smaller talent pool and long-term problems for the legitimacy and effectiveness of the institution.

The Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol represented a dark point in the nation’s history and required exceptional judgment and patriotism by civilian and military leaders. However, the hearings reveal not just a one-time issue but troubling trends in civil-military relations that may stay with the country for years to come.

Carrie A. Lee (@CarrieALee1) is the chair of the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of the U.S. Army War College, Department of the Army or Department of Defense.