Do Servicemembers Have Free Speech?
I know most people who read this story will want to side with the Marine, and I would like to do so as well, but there’s a reason I would urge you to reconsider, and it’s important that for those of you who have no military service experience to understand why his conduct, much as it is heartening in many respects, is intolerable for the chain of command. Part of the problem is that the full and specific text of his remarks haven’t been disclosed, but when Marine Sgt. Gary Stein, a 26-yo, 9-year Marine made his remarks, he did so in a public way that poses a problem to military discipline. I don’t like Barack Obama’s policies either, and I would hope that no Airman, Marine, Sailor or Soldier would ever follow an unlawful order, but to post remarks on what constitutes an unlawful order, in the context of the sitting chain of command, is a serious problem for the military.
Sgt. Stein is in trouble, and he says he’s surprised it’s a big deal, or that they’re seriously considering kicking him out of the Marine Corps, (note to Barack Obama: That’s pronounced like “core,” not like “corpse,”) but as a Non-Commissioned Officer of the United States Marines, he must know such things are not to be tolerated, and for very good reasons. Were he a discharged veteran, there would be no problem. He runs a Facebook page I have seen, but I wince because I know what will befall him.
I hate this sort of case, because I’m placed in the position of the “bad guy,” telling people some important truths they may not wish to hear. The fact that this young Sergeant made these remarks about a politician who I find to be detestable shouldn’t deter me from recognizing why it’s important that no service-member say such things, certainly not publicly, and why a non-commissioned officer must never say them so that his subordinates may hear or read of them. I realize that tempers flare, and that our service-members are entitled to their own political views, as they should be, but they are in the military to protect our freedom of speech, but not there to practice it. When every service-member enlists, or is commissioned, they swear an oath to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States, and to obey the orders of the President and those who the President appoints over them. The presumption is always that these will be lawful orders.
The military must function with a chain of command that conveys both martial authority and delegates responsibilities. When a service-member rises to become a non-commissioned officer, there are two things of note that occur: The newly minted NCO is now entrusted with additional authority, and a higher standard of conduct is applied to all his or her actions, on duty or off. This is because in function, to carry out a mission, the NCO will need the authority to issue orders, but with that authority comes a greater universe of responsibilities that extends to a higher standard of service and allegiance to the chain of command, and to the mission. This is the professional standard expected of Non-Commissioned Officers, and it is a demanding one.
It must be this way because in combat, or in a war-time mission, the NCOs are the element of leadership that becomes most important in the organizational structure. There are too few officers for them to be in every place at once, and NCOs are the professional core of the enlisted ranks upon which all military operations ultimately depend. If you have poor NCOs, it won’t matter if you have great officers, and great junior enlisted personnel, because the force will suffer a vacuum of leadership that will ordinarily be crippling. It is for this reason that the services spend billions of dollars each year developing its enlisted leaders. The idea of a professional NCO has been an important core of the American fighting force throughout the nation’s history, and when a Sergeant makes comments that seem to disparage the chain of command, it is a highly unprofessional bit of conduct.
Now, as to the substance of what this particular Sergeant said, it’s not altogether clear how bad his transgressions may have been. There is little reported on the substance of his remarks, but rather some generalizations. Here’s what is reported:
“Sgt. Gary Stein, a nine-year veteran, put comments on a Facebook page called the Armed Forces Tea Party page that said he would not follow unlawful orders from President Obama such as ordering the killing of Americans or taking guns away from Americans. He also criticized comments made by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about Syria.”
“The Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits uniformed personnel from making comments critical of their chain of command, including the commander-in-chief, or engaging in political activity in a context that suggests that are acting as military members.”
Stop. This is enough to land him in trouble. By specifying specific individuals in and policies of the chain of command, Sgt. Stein would have violated his obligations as an enlisted service member and particularly his station as a Non-Commissioned Officer. Unfortunately, they don’t offer any direct quotes for analysis, but if this reflects the actual nature of his remarks, they have a case, and he’s in trouble for good cause. The story continues:
“An investigation into Stein’s comments was ordered March 8 by the commanding officer of the weapons and field training battalion at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. On Wednesday, the Marine Corps announced that rather than file charges against Stein, the matter is being handled “through administrative action.”
“Stein, who hoped to reenlist, told the Associated Press that he plans to fight the Marine Corps’ intention to dismiss him.”
“I’m completely shocked that this is happening,” he told the AP. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve only stated what our oath states: That I will defend the Constitution and that I will not follow unlawful orders. If that’s a crime, what is America coming to?”
I’m sorry to be placed in the position of disagreeing with Sgt. Klein, but if he indeed criticized Panetta by name or position, and the specific policy as it applies to Syria(or anything else,) he has indeed violated the trust with which the military had privileged him. An NCO simply cannot go about disparaging the chain of command. No soldier should, but when it comes to NCOs, they are expected to exhibit a higher standard of professionalism, and this isn’t it. The remark about Obama and unlawful orders might not have been so bad, in isolation, because in that sense, he is stating a general premise about not obeying unlawful orders, although calling out this specific president conveys a certain lack of support for this particular chain of command that is unseemly for an NCO. They are and must be held to a higher standard, and again, Sgt Klein here fails to maintain that standard.
Understand that my appraisal here is that of a man who was a Sergeant at roughly the same age that this young man is now, and I note with some sadness that when I was an up-and-coming NCO, I had a pretty solid chain of command, so I wouldn’t have suffered from such doubts. With that in mind, however, I cannot fail to mention that he should not have said these things, and certainly not broadcast publicly on the Internet. I’d urge all soldiers to hold their tongues on political matters, precisely because this is harmful to the United States, whether you agree with this President’s policies or not. I realize that none would carry out unlawful orders if they were issued, but the presumption of a soldier, particularly a mid-career Marine NCO, must be that the orders he will be issued will be lawful. To spout about non-existent, highly speculative future unlawful orders in the context of a particular president is not prudent, and exhibits a lack of professional judgment, even if I agree with is political views.
In combat, or even in training, the military relies heavily on its non-commissioned officers to carry out the mission, and it cannot tolerate, not even in minor ways, what constitutes the threat of mutinous conduct, or rabble-rousing in its ranks. I know. He said “unlawful orders.” Fine. The problem is that under certain circumstances, the President may order the killing of Americans or the seizure of guns. Those are limited circumstances indeed, but the discretion to determine which instances constitute an unlawful order lies not with a Marine Sergeant make conjecture about some unknown future order. There are only very limited circumstances where such discretion is left to the individual service-member. Sgt. Klein knew or ought to have known better than to let his public pronouncements go this far. Whether the punishment fits the crime is a matter of judgment on the part of local commanders, and the problem we have in assessing it is that we don’t have the full facts, or even the full text of Sgt. Klein’s remarks. Let us hope that military authorities are not over-reacting here. Chances are that they are not.
I realize there are those of you who will take issue with me over this, and that’s fine, but the problem is that I also understand how important the integrity of the corps of military Non-Commissioned Officers is to the safety of our nation. Our military must not be undermined, neither from without or from within, and the conduct of Sgt. Klein threatens to do so, whether he sees that or not. While I agree with his general assessments, to the degree they have been presented, that doesn’t mean I endorse the fact that he pronounced them publicly. My advice to service-members who have similar views is very simple, and I know that most of them will understand me as I explain it:
For the term of your service, keep your mouth closed in public, and on the Internet still your fingers in saying or writing things publicly that would tend to place you in such a situation. In other words, while you are right to practice politics via your vote, as long as you are in the services, you need to be as apolitical as you are able, although in your talks with family, friends, and others in closed circumstances, you might still enjoy some of your limited freedom of speech, but you must do so with caution and an abundance of reverence for the oath you swore, that did not specify the party or politics of the Commander-in-Chief. In other words, brothers and sisters, you must not permit your expressions to compromise your ability to lead, or shake the confidence of those who serve under you, in the chain of command. Please remember this, and serve out your time in honor, and with respect for your oaths. For those of you who are entrusted with positions of leadership, please remember that yours is an important role, and to undercut it with loose talk about the politics of the chain of command is to undermine yourselves.
I know the vast majority of our servicemen and women know and practice all of this, and it’s unnecessary to say it to most of you, but for those who are frustrated most with what you see coming out of Washington, I ask you to keep your cool. This presidency and this particular chain of command is not permanent, so if you’ll wait around a while, it will change. Whether you like that or not is your affair, but how you give voice to it is a matter of military discipline. We need good and patriotic Airmen, Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers, and you had better believe that if things ever do go to hell in this country, we will have special need of you then. Keep the faith, and stay strong, but do not put your careers at risk for temporary expressions of your frustrations. We need you to stay strong, and I will do what I am able to support you.
To my friends in the Marine Corps, “Semper Fidelis.”
To those of you who are non-veteran civilians, I would remind you that you have a special responsibility too. These young men and women in whose hands we place the security of our nation need your support too, and part of that is knowing not to ask or urge them to make statements of this sort publicly. If they make them to you privately, that’s one thing, but do not expose them to legal liability on this basis. Instead, as family members and friends, go be their voice. They’re serving your security interests, and the least you can do is to try to represent their interests and support them. Veterans, you will know precisely what I mean, and because you do know, having served, and because you now have your freedom of speech restored, you have a special responsibility because only you can express to those who do not know, what it is that soldiers must give up to serve their country. It isn’t always measured in blood and lives, but more commonly the right to speak out publicly. Let we veterans resolve particularly to be their voice so that our active-duty brethren feel no need to expose themselves to trouble, and so that our non-veteran neighbors can know the special meaning we hold the trust to which they have entrusted our fighting forces.