Countering Progressivism in the US Military

August 25, 2022 Updated: August 25, 2022


The rise of communist China requires the United States to employ the entirety of its capabilities, including a professional military. If the U.S. military loses its professionalism, it will eliminate its combat effectiveness and ability to innovate. In turn, this will weaken U.S. military power and ability to sustain alliance commitments in the competition with China.

Civilian control is assured if the officer corps sustains a highly professional institution with its own domain of control. In contrast, subjective control is the denial of an independent military sphere, the consequence of which is a politicized military.

The response to the China threat is hindered by the rise of progressivism in U.S. domestic politics. There are three major civil-military issues impacting the Pentagon today that stem from the rise of progressivism. First, how does the department sustain objective civilian control? Second, how does it maintain a culture that fosters an environment of innovation? And third, how can it address relevant problems while there remains time to retain objective civilian control?

Sustaining a professional military requires what Samuel Huntington termed “objective civilian control.” By this, he meant that the U.S. military possesses an independent military domain that will sustain the professional officer corps. A problem for maintaining objective control arises when there is pressure on political leadership to trespass on this domain for the achievement of other objectives, as required by progressivism.

However, military professionalism requires that the military domain be isolated from the cultural, ideological, and social pressures that impact the rest of the government. What those pressures are must be identified by the Department of Defense (DOD). Senior Pentagon leadership must address three fundamental issues: the threats to objective civilian control, the causes of these threats, and how leadership will resolve them to sustain objective civilian control.

The Threats

These pressures on the DOD are more than the historical problems of cynicism, careerism, or favoritism. These problems have always existed, but historically robust military professionalism kept them in check.

Today, the DOD faces a more profound problem—a progressive ideology that causes the department to confront a new hierarchy of principles, values, and culture. This ideological pressure erodes the independent military domain and, thus, the military’s professionalism.

As a result of the decline in professionalism, the department has less ability to restrain its historical problems of careerism and cynicism. Simultaneously, it faces a host of new challenges generated by ideological change. The bulwark of military professionalism is undermined by these problems—and they must be solved.

Lamentably, it is not just the U.S. military affected by this but also key allies like Great Britain. The chief recruiter for the Royal Air Force has made allegations that she was told to favor women and minorities over white men to meet government diversity targets.

Epoch Times Photo
U.S. Military Academy cadets attend the 2020 graduation ceremony at West Point, New York, on June 13, 2020. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The Cause of the Threat

The cause of the threat is an ideological change from traditional liberalism to progressivism. This change generates profound tensions and challenges for preserving objective civilian control. At root, the Pentagon’s leadership confronts this ideological change directly. Senior leadership must determine whether the requirements of objective civilian control, including the recognition of the independent military domain, will be respected in changing ideological circumstances.

If the answer is negative, then senior leadership must prepare for subjective civilian control and its consequences for national security, the force, and U.S. allies and foes. China would want nothing more than for this to occur.

If affirmative, then the senior leadership must devise solutions regarding how the military domain will be respected and insulated. To sustain objective civilian control, the warfighting ethos must be kept and internalized by the entirety of the force, particularly senior leadership. That spirit is warfighting. It requires officers and NCOs to be honest, critical, and forthright. These virtues must be preserved, and protection provided as they allow the DOD to avoid an intellectually listless, careerist, and apathetic officer and NCO corps. When officers and NCOs refrain from providing candid and sincere assessments of the weaknesses and adverse implications of those policies, they have lost the ethos necessary to develop superior strategies and solutions.

Recommendations to Address These Problems

To further these goals, the Pentagon might create an office tasked with identifying trespasses on the military domain from any source. The experience and opinions of veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as retirees who served in the Cold War and its immediate wake, should be solicited and documented so that their experiences may be preserved and shared. Another of its responsibility would be to preserve military tradition and history to provide a description of the military ethos in the hot and cold wars of the United States and how it might be sustained.

This office would not focus on the history of the services, which are already well done by each. Rather, the focus of the office would study what was the ethos that sustained American servicemembers throughout its wars, how that varied if, indeed, it has, what is that ethos today, and how it may be informed by historical lessons. Again, the experience and opinions of retirees who served in the Cold War and its immediate wake would be valuable to share, particularly concerning the ethos necessary for sustained high-intensity combat.

Second, regarding how a culture that rewards performance and fosters an environment of innovation may be sustained—while innovation has many sources, historically, a major source has been the members of the DOD who can identify opportunities for innovation or problems hindering it. Innovation requires the ability to speak and critique freely and honestly. Forging that environment has always been difficult to accomplish. But it is even harder in an environment where honest, professional criticism might conflict with favored principles—or be misinterpreted or misunderstood in an ideologically ionized environment—resulting in adverse professional consequences.

The DOD should evaluate whether it has an environment that promotes innovation from its civilian members and servicemembers. The department should be able to answer with confidence that civilians or servicemembers are able to identify problems that hinder innovation but that also intersect with ideologically favored policies or groups without fear of negative professional consequences. It must define how it would know it possesses such an environment and what it is doing to sustain it.

Fundamentally, the DOD must “sound the ship.” It must solicit honest and forthright information from civilians and servicemembers about the ideological environment in the department and its impact on innovation. It must do so without having such an exercise inherently tainted by ideological bias or fear of an adverse effect on a civilian’s or servicemember’s career.

Third, the Pentagon must act while there is time to sustain objective civilian control as the Cold War experience exists within living memory. Once objective control is weakened or lost, it will be exceedingly difficult to recreate. There are a few historical examples of a change from subjective to objective control since the professionalization of Western militaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Those cases that exist suggest that it is the consequence of military defeat, revolution, or, in peacetime, it takes many decades to obtain and introduces profound national security vulnerabilities within that window.

Once again, a cornucopia are U.S. veterans. Histories must be solicited from veterans regarding these questions: how they were taught about objective civilian control and military professionalism—what did they read, what ideas were advanced, how it was maintained in their careers, what problems or tensions did they witness and how they were resolved, and what recommendations do they have in the present circumstances.

Additionally, a review of the curriculum of professional military education to ensure that the value and necessity of objective civilian control and the consequence of subjective civilian control are taught to all ranks of officers and NCOs. Civilian members, most importantly senior civilian leaders, should receive a similar education that includes a review of the causes, necessity, and history of objective civilian control.

At root, the civilians driving progressivism do not care that the price of their ideological success will be the gratuitous weakening of the sole force protecting America. Ironically, if it is to China’s benefit, then progressives have made possible the triumph of an ethnocentric, racist, and xenophobic superpower and eliminated the only force that could have prevented it.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Bradley A. Thayer is coauthor of Understanding the China Threat and Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy.