MilitaryMentors.org has never engaged in any political discourse. That’s not to say that politics isn’t present in our minds our that it isn’t a part of discussions within the military. That being said, we just voted and the shape of our nation’s leadership has once again adjusted. Politics and social media are confounded and will never again be separated. In light of this certainty, retired Major Brett Lewis has authored this guest post reminding us, especially officers (and leaders), what the bounds of political discourse on social media are. Given our nation’s political climate, now is as an apt time as ever for this post.
Over the past several months, I have read troubling commentary on social media from a number of active-duty, Reserve and National Guard Commissioned or Warrant Army officers. The following are three examples of such social media commentary along with a perspective and advice, especially for junior officers who are still feeling out their way:
**Commentary that disrespects or disparages the Commander-in-Chief (CinC), Secretary of Defense (SecDef), members of Congress, or superior officers. Such commentary may be a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) Articles 88, 89 or 134, as applicable, and could result in disciplinary action up to and including a court-martial:
Article 88: “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Commonwealth, or possession in which he [or she] is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.”
Article 89: “Any person subject to this chapter who behaves with disrespect toward his [or her] superior commissioned officer shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.”
Article 134: “Though not specifically mentioned in this chapter, all disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces, and crimes and offenses not capital, of which persons subject to this chapter may be guilty, shall be taken cognizance of by a general, special, or summary court-martial, according to the nature and degree of the offense, and shall be punished at the discretion of that court.”
Also, many retired Army officers are actively engaged with social media, such as Facebook, and guilty of similar disparaging and disrespectful commentary. The following UCMJ-related action may be an extremely rare occurrence but a significant number of retired officers may not realize that if they receive retirement pay, they are still subject to the UCMJ and could technically be recalled to active duty to face charges. Please note that Army Regulation 27-10, Military Justice, states: “Retired members of a regular component of the Armed Forces who are entitled to pay are subject to the provisions of the UCMJ … and may be tried by court-martial for violations of the UCMJ that occurred while they were on active duty or while in a retired status.”
** Commentary that politicizes or challenges policy decisions or pronouncements by the CinC, SecDef and similar government officials. A classic and historical example of improper politicized behavior and commentary was Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur who, while commanding US forces during the Korean Conflict, had political aspirations to become President of the United States and publicly challenged Pres. Truman’s policies and orders. He was relieved of his command by Pres. Truman. Another example occurred as a result of a Rolling Stone magazine interview when Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff criticized Pres. Obama, administration officials and Obama advisers. Pres. Obama relieved General McChrystal of his command. More recently; West Point graduate and now-former 2Lt Spencer Ramone received an other-than-honorable discharge for other-than-appropriate sociopolitical beliefs.
Officers should publicly remain apolitical, perform their duties without regard for political considerations and follow DOD 1344.10 (Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces). This longstanding apolitical tradition and protocol is steeped in the principle of civilian control over the US military as stated in Article 2, Section 2 of the US Constitution. In other words, leave opinionated political discourse to the civilians.
** Commentary that may touch on a classified subject or a subject that a commander declares off-limits for public discussion is posted on social media yet some officers comment anyway. In such situations, the only guidance for these officers is to remain absolutely silent on social media. Also, company-grade officers should not blindly accept social media commentary from veteran or retired field-grade officers as being acceptable in the active-duty military orbits because, on occasion, they aren’t. Most veteran or retired officers will not know what is currently classified and will definitely not know or be subject to a particular commander’s social media or otherwise public communications guidance.
Keep in mind that most social media, such as Facebook, is on vulnerable and often hacked public platforms and nothing prevents posts, comments or pictures from being copied-and-pasted and/or screen-shot without the owner’s permission. This may find its way onto other Internet forums or to the attention of commanders, promotion boards and security clearance vetting agencies. Some officers naively view social media as protected communications sanctuaries or safe havens – they aren’t. As such, (1) be very diligent, (2) know your commander’s guidance, the Army regulations and related directives regarding social media and (3) religiously abide by them and not what you read on civilian social media. Also, remember that you are “in uniform” 24/7 even when you are off-duty or on social media.
In this regard, Department of Defense Instruction 8550.01 provides guidelines for military use of social media. Additionally, the All Army Activities message emphasizes that soldiers are held to the standards of the UCMJ and Army Values when using social media, even when off duty. Again, commenting, posting and linking to material that violates the UCMJ, Army regulations or directives are prohibited and failure to follow Army regulations or directives regarding social media behavior could also be a violation of UCMJ Article 92: “Any person subject to this chapter who violates or fails to obey any lawful general order or regulation; having knowledge of any other lawful order issued by any member of the armed forces, which it is his [or her] duty to obey, fails to obey the order; or is derelict in the performance of his [or her] duties; shall be punished as a court-martial may dire.”
To avoid compromising situations, proceed with caution, err on the side of silence on social media and remember this iconic wartime adage: “Loose lips sink ships.” And, as this adage applies to social media and officers: “Loose lips and keyboards sink ships, Officer Efficiency/Evaluation Reports (OERs), and careers.”
Please click on the hyperlinks above and take time to know what your rights are as leaders. Spark the right type of conversation…