As a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet, my personal growth in college has not only focused on development of my intellectual capabilities, but also on my conceptions of duty and professionalism. Both are integral parts of being a U.S. Army officer. When Americans think of an officer, these are two of the foremost ideas that come to mind. Civil society holds officers — both commissioned and noncommissioned — to the highest standards of ethics and morality. They are the leaders of the military and represent the best of society when our country engages with other nations abroad. In this sense, duty signifies an obligation not only to serve, but to do so in a way that is becoming of society.
The duty of U.S. military personnel is not only tied to our foreign missions. Our domestic duties have carried importance since before the United States’ founding. The long-standing tradition of the American citizen-soldier continues to this day. Since before the Revolutionary War, America’s force has relied heavily on locals, ranging from local militiamen to reservists to the National Guard, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. The complexity of the U.S. military is diverse and tied to its local communities. With this in mind, a conflict of interest arises when personnel, coming from a history of the citizen-soldier, face the voting process.
In the political maelstrom of a general election, the serviceman faces an ethical dilemma different from other sectors of society. If he votes, he is voting for his commander in chief. As a citizen, the voting serviceman has the right to do just that — vote. However, the different set of voting incentives — or criteria — he has that the average citizen does not can create a conflict of interest. As a citizen voter, he can vote based off his opinions of candidates’ stances on domestic social issues or their foreign policies. Unlike the civilian citizen, however, the voting serviceman is affected differently by the results of the general election because it will also affect the structure of his superiors. The conflict of interest: The voting serviceman shapes the authority to which he reports.
This dilemma of the voting soldier usually divides the military into two camps. Camp One believes that the voting serviceman’s conflict of interest should result in complete abstention from voting. This school of thought uses the civil-military divide as its grounding principle. In the language of duty, since the military has a duty to the civilian contingent of society, it should be impartial in political matters — both domestic and international. It sees the ethical dilemma as insurmountable, usually citing subordinates’ discontent with a president for whom they did not vote as being detrimental to unit cohesion. Many soldiers happily abstain under this conviction.
On the Camp Two side of the debate, the logic is a little more convoluted and the implementation is trickier. Those personnel who choose to vote in the face of this ethical dilemma must do so with the acknowledgement that they will follow the orders and directives of a president whether they voted for that candidate or not. In this case, military personnel must distance their personal politics from the commitment they have made to serve their country. Some do this by voting based on domestic policies that do not incorporate the military. Some simply acknowledge the dilemma and vote knowing they may have to carry out orders from someone for whom they did not vote. In the end, it is the individual’s choice whether voting or abstention is the more professional option in the election.
Another layer of complexity comes into play when we consider how this affects the military’s leaders. The military’s officers, both commissioned and noncommissioned, are charged with developing the professionalism of the force. They influence their subordinates and their professional development. Very few professions offer the opportunity to vote your boss into office. Bringing politics into your unit as a leader is a dicey decision.
For cadets, this ethical dilemma has even more complicated implications, as we have yet to receive our commissions. If all goes well, I will receive mine under the administration of the next commander in chief. This means that we face an election that determines the president who will dictate U.S. foreign policy and the military’s use in it.
In this election, one filled with much bombastic rhetoric, it is often hard to distinguish between the signal and the noise of the policies that make up candidates’ platforms. As a cadet in the Hoya Battalion, I don’t want to argue for either Camp One or Camp Two. That should be for the reader to grapple with and decide on. What I would recommend to my fellow cadets, service personnel and citizens is this: The voting-abstention decision is a choice — make it. Be deliberate about it. Approach the election cycle with a critical mind. Educate yourself on the policies of candidates. Evaluate whether you think abstention is the best option. If you have already decided that it is, reconsider. We are fluid beings, and capable of changing our minds. That is the beauty of the American system. We have the freedom to repeatedly express our voices. If that means not speaking, that is fine. But be sure that is what you want. Be deliberate.
Noah Taylor is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.
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