“We Who Wear the Cloth of Our Nation”
Using Character Development and Education to Combat Partisan Polarization in the Military
Maj. Johnathon D. Parker, U.S. Army
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I believe deeply in the principle of an apolitical U.S. military. … In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the U.S. military. I foresee no role for the U.S. armed forces in this process.
—Gen. Mark A. Milley
Political partisanship and polarization in the military have become worrying at best and downright dangerous at worst. For instance, worrying evidence reveals that partisanship is a factor leading troops to decline the COVID vaccination.1 On the “dangerous” end of the spectrum, threats of extremism in the ranks prompted Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to direct “stand-downs” across the Defense Department to address the problem.2 While Austin and others have emphasized the importance of leadership engagement to allay the problem, leader emphasis on character development and education is the long-term answer.
Evidence suggests that partisan polarization is a problem military leaders should pay attention to and address. Failure to do so may lead to the erosion of internal and external trust and, ultimately, an erosion of the military’s ability to perform its constitutional duties. Character development and education can counter this polarization by providing a common framework that subordinates disparate partisan values to the military’s shared value system.
Partisan Polarization and Character
Exploring the national conversation on partisan polarization lies outside the scope of this article, but the concept is worth describing. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, Americans’ ideological views increasingly align with their party identity; most Democrats are self-identified liberals while most Republicans are self-identified conservatives, a fact that is not the historical norm.3 The same study indicates a corresponding rise in negative partisanship—animosity toward the opposing political party—and an increase in partisan identity influencing behaviors outside of politics, such as choosing where to live and whom to marry.4 Even if the polarization of the electorate is exaggerated, as some scholarship suggests, research also shows increased polarization in elected officials, especially in Congress.5 As one author points out, elected officials and the electorate influence each other in a “feedback cycle: to appeal to a yet more polarized public, institutions must polarize further; when faced with yet more polarized institutions, the public polarizes further, and so on.”6
In a 2018 study, authors with the research foundation More in Common explored the political and partisan factors driving Americans apart, finding “substantial evidence of deep polarization and tribalism.”7 When analyzing the morality of the American people, Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian A. Nosek found that across the five psychological foundations identified in moral foundation theory (harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity), liberal respondents consistently emphasized harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.8 Conservatives, on the other hand, valued the five psychological foundations generally equally.9 In other words, the polarization of the American population extends to issues of values, virtue, morality, and character.
U.S. Army doctrine describes character as consisting “of the moral and ethical qualities of an individual revealed through their decisions and actions” as embodied in the character attributes of the Army Values (loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage), empathy, the Warrior Ethos and Service Ethos, discipline, and humility.10 The same doctrine acknowledges that, like a person’s ideological and political beliefs, a person’s character is influenced by “background, beliefs, education, and experiences … developed over the years from childhood to adulthood.”11 However, the Army expects that “upon taking the oath of service, Soldiers and DA Civilians agree to live and act by the Army Values.”12
Existing research examining common American beliefs and values is founded on an important premise: “Harnessing what is shared can help indicate the direction of an American identity capable of bringing Americans together.”13 In that spirit, harmful partisanship in the ranks of the military can be ameliorated through leader emphasis on shared character development and education. Conveniently, a framework from which to build already exists, born from a history of the U.S. Army struggling to understand, teach, and develop character.
A Brief History of U.S. Army Character Development and Education
Historically, the Army has fared poorly at clearly defining the term “character” and its attempts at character development and education. Good character has been a desirable military attribute since at least the colonial period. In a letter to Congress dated 25 September 1776, Gen. George Washington lamented the lack of funds to afford recruiting better officers that he described as “Gentlemen of Character [and] liberal Sentiments.”14 He placed more value on officers’ ability to lead, the “Characters of Persons,” than on their recruiting abilities.15 Little changed by the start of the Civil War. According to the Revised United States Army Regulations of 1861, leaders sought good “moral character” when appointing commissioned officers, “good character and habits” when recruiting enlisted men, and “evidence of good moral character” when appointing medical storekeepers.16 In these cases, the exact meaning of “character” was left to the men charged with making the hiring decisions. As evidenced, the early Army was more concerned with recruiting those who already possessed desirable character; it had no official interest in developing that character.
By the early twentieth century, the Army began dabbling in character education by outsourcing it to the YMCA before and during World War I.17 Based on an executive order signed by President Harry S. Truman in 1948, the Army launched a deliberate, internally sourced character education program, tasking the Chaplain Corps with overall responsibility.18 Unfortunately, the Character Guidance Program and its successors suffered from poor command support and even a lack of enthusiasm among chaplain instructors until it was formally discontinued in 1977.19
In the 1990s, after a years-long gap without a formal character program, the Army recognized it had a disjointed approach to character education. In 1994, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan directed the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel to create a new service-wide character development program. Dubbed “Character Development XXI,” the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel discovered that “there was no systematic horizontal and vertical integration of programs related to moral leadership or character development in the Army. Most organizations developed their own curriculum or programs.”20
To date, the Army does not appear to have “cracked the nut” on character development and education across the entire force. As recently as fiscal year 2015, the Army Capabilities Needs Analysis identified Gap #501028: “The Army lacks the capability to identify attributes of character and to assess the success of efforts to develop character so that Army professionals consistently demonstrate their commitment and resilience to live by and uphold the Army Ethic.”21 Of note, current efforts such as the service-wide alignment of the leadership requirements model (LRM) and the rollout of tools like Project Athena promise to close the gap and offer support to quantitatively assessable character development and education. Ultimately, however, Army leaders at every echelon must prioritize the development and education of their troops’ character, and doing so must be a priority as evidence already suggests that partisanship is nipping at the margins of the force’s good order and discipline.
Evidence of a Problem
Since 9/11, the U.S. military has generally enjoyed the highest confidence of the American people when compared to other institutions, a long-enduring trend that lasted well after any “rally ‘round the flag” effect following the attack.22 But in recent survey results released by the Ronald Reagan Institute, American trust and confidence in the military has declined over the last three years.23 Perhaps more alarming, 22–23 percent fewer Democrats and independents report a higher degree of trust and confidence in the military than Republicans do.24 While not as bleak, a June 2020 Gallup Poll News Survey confirms a similar partisan gap.25 This is a stark partisan divide.
Anecdotally, there may be reason for public concern. The most visible lightning rod related to military partisanship in 2021 was Active and Reserve Component troops and veterans participating in the 6 January Capitol riot.26 While certainly an extreme example, the events of 6 January were not the first time service members publicly overstepped partisan bounds. In one example in 2019, a South Carolina National Guard major endorsed then presidential candidate Joe Biden while in uniform at a political rally.27 In 2012, a uniformed Army Reserve corporal endorsed then Rep. Ron Paul at a campaign rally.28 While these anecdotes might be considered minor and “one-off” incidents belying any trend, they may also betray an education gap that must be closed.
Even the perception of partisan activity led Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to issue an apology after sparking criticism for his appearance with then President Donald Trump and other political officials at Lafayette Square in June 2020. His message was crucial: “Together our actions and words in the military will demonstrate that our differences do not divide us but only make us stronger.”29 The common ground for those actions, words, and strength is the character that leaders work to teach and develop in their troops.
Austin took the first step toward reducing polarization through the department-wide “Leadership Stand-Down to Address Extremism in the Force.” Leaders following the discussion framework distributed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense invested time educating service members and Department of the Army civilians about permissible behaviors, prohibited actions and activities, responsibilities to report, and extremism examples.30 This is a positive step toward stamping out the most reprehensible examples of polarization at the far margins of the ideological spectrum. However, leaders must invest effort and prioritize time toward character development and education to strike at the heart of partisan polarization through a common, shared character and values system.
Prioritize a common, robust initial character education. In related research, the author examined the differences in character education between the U.S. Military Academy and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs nationwide. Preliminary results indicate differences in curriculum emphasis, resources, and cadre/faculty training and education. Leaders should take note of the differences in these two commissioning sources and expand the investigation to understand force-wide character development and education programs for every initial entry point. Leaders should then prioritize efforts to make program content as uniform as possible, bolstering programs where they currently lag and maintaining them where they excel. A force-wide shared understanding of character will provide common ground upon which partisan differences can be overcome.
Endorse and use the Army leadership requirements model. Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession, offers a service-wide framework that “aligns expectations with leader development activities and personnel management practices and systems.”31 It provides a doctrinal, common language—beginning with character—that underpins the evaluation system and can likewise form the basis for performance counseling and professional development programs. By emphasizing the importance and habituating the use of this common framework and language, leaders can proliferate the LRM and inculcate in their service members the character and values that will supersede individuals’ partisanship. This recommendation is especially important when considering emerging assessment tools.
Embrace, use, and endorse emerging tools. Such tools include Project Athena, a leader assessment program spearheaded by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Mission Command Center of Excellence. In time, Project Athena will provide officers, warrant officers, noncommissioned officers, and Department of the Army civilians with longitudinal data over their careers, aimed at “informing and motivating Soldiers to embrace personal and professional self-development,” to include elements of character.32 In addition to managing emerging talent management tools such as the Army Talent Alignment Process and its assignment marketplace, leaders can set expectations for and encourage alignment with the commonly shared character attributes. Leaders who encourage the use of these tools by embracing, using, and endorsing them strengthen the primacy of the Army’s perception of character, building a culture that naturally subordinates divisive partisan values.
Aim to inculcate character while emphasizing the pragmatic. Unless extremist or otherwise incompatible, the military does not seek to eliminate a service member’s preexisting character or partisan identity. However, it does ultimately intend for service members to follow regulations and to prioritize the military’s conception of character when conflicted. Doctrine acknowledges that this is a long-term “process that involves day-to-day experiences and internal fortitude.”33 While leaders strive to teach about and develop character, it is reasonable for them to acknowledge pragmatic reasons for tempering outward partisanship. Partisan language and behavior can sabotage a leader’s credibility. While it is clear that partisanship exists in the military, and service members are authorized to vote and participate in politics in some limited ways, failing to self-regulate partisanship may cause a leader to disaffect troops, thus hamstringing the leader’s credibility and possibly the readiness and effectiveness of the organization. Leaders can overcome partisan polarization in this way by emphasizing both character and the pragmatism of nonpartisanship.
Some critics of character development and education suggest that character (or at least some elements of it) is inherent—imparted at birth—and cannot be developed or taught. The Army’s doctrinal conception of character generally rejects this stance, noting that “modifying deeply held values is the only way to change character.”34 Army doctrine recognizes the difficulty of the process but places the burden on leaders to accomplish the task.
The Character Program at the U.S. Military Academy, spearheaded by the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic, accepts that character is “caught, taught, and sought” by students, a methodology championed by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.35 In other words, character is taught and developed through several approaches, including formal and informal education, organizational climate, and cultural reinforcement and encouragement. Military leaders at all levels have an implicit mandate to engage with these approaches and prioritize character development and education.
“The Most Important Thing”
In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee in 2019, Fiona Hill, the senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council, remarked, “When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each other, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.”36 U.S. military leaders must emphasize and prioritize character development and education to eliminate the threat of that partisan rancor.
The partisan polarization of the American public is old news. However, recent events have focused attention on the detrimental effects of partisan polarization within the military. Despite this attention, it is not a new concern; many authors have directly warned of the dangers of partisanship in the military.37 To be sure, it is not the only problem challenging the Armed Forces, but it is one that threatens the military’s ability to perform its most critical duty: defending the Nation. By investing in character development and education—through prioritization in initial education, endorsement and use of the LRM, embracing emerging tools, and emphasizing pragmatic reasons for nonpartisanship while developing character—leaders can reduce partisan polarization in the ranks. The above recommendations aim to do so by following Milley’s guidance to the National Defense University Class of 2020 graduates: “We who wear the cloth of our nation … must hold dear the principle of an apolitical military that is so deeply rooted in the very essence of our republic. It may be the most important thing each and every one of us does every single day.”38
- “1 in 4 Say ‘No Thanks’ to Vaccine,” Monmouth University Polling Institute, 3 February 2021, accessed 24 May 2021, https://www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/monmouthpoll_us_020321/; Andrew McCormick, “The Military Can’t Get Troops to Take the Covid Vaccine. Come Again?,” The Nation (website), 1 March 2021, accessed 24 May 2021, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/military-covid-vaccine/.
- The Joint Chiefs of Staff, memorandum for the Joint Force, “Message to The Joint Force,” 12 January 2021, accessed 24 May 2021, https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/JCS%20Message%20to%20the%20Joint%20Force%20JAN%2012%2021.pdf.
- “Political Polarization in the American Public,” Pew Research Center, 12 June 2014, accessed 24 May 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/.
- Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel A. Abrams, and Jeremy C. Pope, “Polarization in the American Public: Misconceptions and Misreadings,” The Journal of Politics 70, no. 2 (April 2008): 556–60, https://doi.org/10.1017/S002238160808050X; Cynthia R. Farina, “Congressional Polarization: Terminal Constitutional Dysfunction?,” Columbia Law Review 115, no. 7 (November 2015): 1701, https://columbialawreview.org/content/congressional-polarization-terminal-constitutional-dysfunction-2/.
- Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2020), xix.
- Stephen Hawkins et al., Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape (New York: More in Common, 2018), 5.
- Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian A. Nosek, “Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96, no. 5 (2009): 1029–46, https://doi.org/10.1037/a0015141.
- Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2019), 2-1.
- Stephen Hawkins and Taran Raghuram, American Fabric: Identity and Belonging (New York: More in Common, 2020), 13.
- “From George Washington to John Hancock, 25 September 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed 24 May 2021, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0305.
- U.S. War Department, Revised United States Army Regulations of 1861 (Philadelphia: George W. Childs, 1863), 12, 130, 518, accessed 24 May 2021, http://www.civilwarlibrary.org/civil-war-manuals.html.
- William Howard Taft et al., eds., Service with Fighting Men: An Account of the Work of the Young Men’s Christian Association in the World War (New York: Association Press, 1922), 103.
- Exec. Order No. 10,013, 14 Fed. Reg. 6343 (1948), accessed 24 May 2021, https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/library/executive-orders/10013/executive-order-10013.
- Anne C. Loveland, “Character Education in the U.S. Army, 1947-1977,” The Journal of Military History 64, no. 3 (July 2000): 795–818, https://doi.org/10.2307/120869.
- John W. Brinsfield, “Army Values and Ethics: A Search for Consistency and Relevance,” Parameters 28, no. 3 (Autumn 1998): 6, accessed 24 May 2021, https://press.armywarcollege.edu/parameters/vol28/iss3/5.
- “Developing the Character of Trusted Army Professionals: Forging the Way Ahead,” Army White Paper (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Center for the Army Profession and Ethic, 19 April 2016), 3, accessed 24 May 2021, https://capl.army.mil/character-development-white-paper/.
- “Confidence in Institutions,” Gallup, accessed 24 May 2021, https://news.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx.
- “February 2021 Reagan National Defense Survey,” Ronald Reagan Institute, 2, accessed 24 May 2021, https://www.reaganfoundation.org/reagan-institute/centers/peace-through-strength/reagan-institute-national-defense-survey/.
- Jeff Jones and Lydia Saad, “Gallup Poll News Survey: June Wave 1,” Gallup News Service, 8 June–24 July 2020, 9, accessed 26 May 2021, https://reason.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Gallup-confidence-poll-2020.pdf.
- Gina Harkins and Hope Hodge Seck, “Marines, Infantry Most Highly Represented among Veterans Arrested after Capitol Riot,” Military.com, 26 February 2021, accessed 24 May 2021, https://www.military.com/daily-news/2021/02/26/marines-infantry-most-highly-represented-among-veterans-arrested-after-capitol-riot.html; Cassidy McDonald and Eleanor Watson, “Active Duty Marine Arrested for Allegedly Pushing Officer during Capitol Riot,” CBS News, 13 May 2021, accessed 29 May 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/capitol-riot-christopher-warnagiris-active-military-arrested/.
- Kyle Rempfer, “Unit Looking into Army Major in Uniform Telling Biden She Prays He’ll Be President,” Army Times (website), 29 August 2019, accessed 24 May 2021, https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2019/08/29/unit-looking-into-army-major-in-uniform-telling-biden-she-prays-hell-be-president/.
- Leo Shane III, “Army Reservist Who Endorsed Ron Paul Receives Reprimand,” Stars & Stripes (website), 30 March 2012, accessed 24 May 2021, https://www.stripes.com/army-reservist-who-endorsed-ron-paul-receives-reprimand-1.173096.
- “Gen. Mark Milley’s Keynote Address to National Defense University Class of 2020 Graduates,” YouTube video, posted by “Joint Staff Public Affairs,” 11 June 2020, 13:13, accessed 24 May 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7AKmmApwi0M.
- “Leadership Stand-Down to Address Extremism in the Force,” Office of the Secretary of Defense, accessed 24 May 2021, https://media.defense.gov/2021/Feb/26/2002589872/-1/-1/1/LEADERSHIP-STAND-DOWN-FRAMEWORK.PDF.
- ADP 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession, 1-6.
- Randi Stenson, “TRADOC’s New ‘Project Athena’ Initiative Promotes Personal, Professional Self-Development,” Army.mil, 27 January 2021, accessed 24 May 2021, https://www.army.mil/article/242694/tradocs_new_project_athena_initiative_promotes_personal_professional_self_development.
- ADP 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession, 2-1.
- The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, “Character Education in Universities: A Framework for Flourishing” (Birmingham, UK: The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues; Oxford, UK: The Oxford Character Project, 2020), accessed 24 May 2021. https://www.jubileecentre.ac.uk/userfiles/jubileecentre/pdf/character-education/Framework%20for%20Character%20Education.pdf.
- Impeachment Inquiry Hearing Before the House of Representatives Permanent Select Comm. on Intelligence, 116th Cong. (21 November 2019) (opening statement of Dr. Fiona Hill), accessed 29 May 2021, https://intelligence.house.gov/uploadedfiles/2019-11-21_fiona_hill_opening_statement.pdf.
- Jim Golby, “The Danger of Military Partisanship,” Small Wars Journal, 1 July 2018, accessed 24 May 2021, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/danger-military-partisanship.
- “Gen. Mark Milley’s Keynote Address.”
Maj. Johnathon D. Parker, U.S. Army, is an Art of War Scholar and a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Officers’ Course, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He holds a BA from Tarleton State University, an MA from Texas A&M University–Central Texas, and an MPP from the University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. He recently completed a teaching tour as an assistant professor in the Social Sciences Department at the United States Military Academy.
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