As someone who has served in two branches of the military, I completely support service members rights to free speech, but only to a point. Now, before you jump up and down on me about that, I would point out that anyone who has served for any length of time knows that there are limits to what we are allowed to say while on active duty. Under Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, for example, commissioned officers are not allowed to make "contemptuous" statements against the President, the Vice President or quite a few other people. You can believe, as I do, that there are good reasons for these prohibitions -- the maintaining of good order and discipline; protecting enlisted soldiers from being coerced to serve not only their country but a political party; etc. -- but, like it or not, it's the law and those who can't follow those rules should either be punished or simply asked to leave.
Recently, certain members of the military have been using their positions for the opposite purpose of that outlawed by Article 88: Attempting to garner support for George W. Bush. For example, there's Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who thinks that Jesus wants George in charge:
Gen Boykin has repeatedly told Christian groups and prayer meetings that President George W Bush was chosen by God to lead the global fight against Satan.
He told one gathering: "Why is this man in the White House? The majority of Americans did not vote for him. He's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this."
Politics aside, if Republicans believe that "negative" reporting about the situation in Iraq will lead to further attacks from Islamist terrorists, they've got to believe that a man saying that God is on our side and that Allah is a false "idol" might be equally bad for business. Especially when he's the man who's hunting Osama bin Laden.
But that's speculation. Who can say (even in this rather obvious case) what might happen as a result of statements like this? The better point to make here is that the Pentagon is now covering for this man, despite the fact his statements are a clear violation of the rules of military conduct.
Wait. What's that, Gen. Myers?
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said "there is a very wide gray area on what the rules permit" but that "at first blush, it doesn't look like any rules were broken."
Au contraire. Department of Defense directive 1344.10 says that an active duty military member may not make partisan political speeches and, frankly, this goes double for guys who do it while wearing their uniforms.
Boykin has embarrassed himself and should be relieved.
But he's not the only one.
As was discovered recently, Army Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo, commander of 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, wrote a form letter and then passed it around to be signed by soldiers (and in some cases those signatures are said to not be real) and then sent to American newspapers as letters to the editor.
Where's the harm? The letters were basically pro-soldier, right? Yes, but they were clear violations of 1344.10, too. The directive allows soldiers to
Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper expressing the member's personal views on public issues or political candidates, if such action is not part of an organized letter-writing campaign or concerted solicitation of votes for or against a political party or partisan political cause or candidate.
You see. The law allows soldiers to express their personal views, but not as part of a letter-writing campaign. That, in itself, is a violation. This case, however, is made much worse by the fact that it was the battalion commander who organized this activity. For one, his actions could have put his soldiers' careers at risk because they are now violators of DOD directives. Even worse, many of his soldiers may disagree with the position taken in the letter, but felt coerced into signing it because it came from their C.O.
Again, there are reasons for limiting the free speech of members of the military. Caraccilo and Boykin should know better, especially after enlisted soldiers were threatened with discharge for badmouthing Rumsfeld and Bush, even though they weren't covered under Article 88 (because they weren't commissioned officers). Caraccilo and Boykin are both high-ranking officers and should be held to a higher standard than the enlisted soldiers under them. If there's any justice, both will be looking for positions in the private sector very soon.
Update: I would like to add that, in Boykin's case, he's proven that, from even an apolitical view, he can no longer do his job.
In order to become a general, Boykin had to have at some point attended the Army's Command and General Staff Course, which teaches leadership skills to officers who are preparing to take the step to colonel and higher. I refer you now to Chapter 2 of the CGSC Hanbook, "The Leader and Leadership: What the Leader Must Be, Know, and Do." In a section on "Character and Beliefs" (2.100-2.103), we find the following:
The Constitution reflects our deepest national values. One of these values is the guarantee of freedom of religion. While religious beliefs and practices are left to individual conscience, Army leaders are responsible for ensuring their soldiers’ right to freely practice their religion...
(N)o leader may apply undue influence or coerce others in matters of religion—whether to practice or not to practice specific religious beliefs.
Call me crazy, but I think that I might be negatively influenced if I were a Muslim and my commander said that I was placing my faith in an "idol" who was not a "real god."
I have no problem, really, with Boykin believing that's the case, but when he stands up in public and in uniform and says that it's so, he's made it clear that he is not, as the CGSC says, "Army leader" material.
Update: DHinMi has an excellent post on this issue over at the Daily Kos. The post points to DOD 1344.10 (two hours after I did -- toot, toot), but adds an even more damning tidbit from Army Regulation 670-1, which any good soldier knows is the regulation regarding the wear of the uniform.