• Nolan Hedglin

Civil-Military Relations in the Age of Social Media

Updated: Mar 23, 2020


As an officer in the Army, I care immensely about maintaining a positive relationship between the military and the people it serves to protect. Half a century ago, this was not a huge concern because nearly every person knew someone that was in the service. Even though not every member of the military works in outreach, they are still considered representatives of the organization in their daily lives. And in general, being friends or family of somebody that served would leave an individual with a positive impression of the organization.

But it has been a few generations since the draft and our now all-volunteer force managed to fight through several controversial conflicts such as the Global War on Terror, which has created somewhat of a generational gap concerning the the trust civilians have in the military to do the right thing. According to Pew Research Center, the military experienced the largest drop in trust between generations (by nearly 22%) compared to other organizations that can be labeled as professional servants to the country. While trust is still high in absolute terms, this drop should be taken seriously because it may reflect a broader trend that is here to stay unless the military identifies ways to bridge this gap.

In this post, I give an overview of Civil-Military Relations (CMR) and analyze how they have been impacted by the rise of social media. The reason for doing all of this is to see if we can get an accurate picture of what has caused this downward trend in institutional trust and perhaps identify ways that the military can fix improve their relationship with the public.

What are “Civil-Military Relations?"

Constitutional origins

If you are familiar with the Federalist Papers, then you probably know that, when architecting the US system of governance, the Framers wanted a way to ensure that no one government organization could gain absolute power over the others. The most popular of these instances is the creation of three branches of government, each with their own ability to check one another.

A little less obvious (but arguably equally as important) is how this applies to who controls the military. The military is a part of the Executive Branch, under the Department of Defense, which means that the president acts as commander-in-chief of all forces. However, even though the president has control of "the sword," they cannot declare war, which can only be done by Congress. Nevertheless, even though the US has officially declared war only 5 times ever (War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Spanish-American War, WWI, and WWII), the president still has the authority to send troops overseas to engaged in armed conflict, provided they notify Congress 48 hours before doing so and receive Congressional approval to stay in the region within 60 days after deployment.

Why we should care about CMR

The upshot is this: military leaders cannot choose which conflicts to engage in; they merely advise. Additionally, no single governing body has complete authority over the military's actions. This is nice because spreading out responsibility in this way reduces the risk of the military being swayed by institutional failure, thus minimizing possibility of a coup or engagement in an unlawful conflict. The other thing to note is that neither the president nor members of Congress can be active duty military.

We value civilian control of the military because it keeps the organization and its actions rooted in the will of the people. And since both members of Congress and the president are democratically elected, then maintaining a positive relationship with the public will equate to maintaining a positive relationship with both organizations that have authority over the military's actions. But there is an inherent push and pull of resource allocation between the military and its civilian counterparts, which I will explain next, that can strain this relationship.

The principal-agent theory

The primary tension that arises between the military and elected officials is that one party, the military, performs the work (making them the agent) while the other party, the government, possesses both the resources and the authority to tell the other what work they want done (making them the principal). Normally this would not be a concern if the agent faithfully carried out the desire of the principal AND the principal provided them all the resources necessary to do so. However, each group has a natural tendency to gravitate towards behavior that would maximize their benefit. The agent wants to perform the least amount of work necessary while accruing the maximum amount of resources, whereas the principal wants to spend the least amount of resources for the most amount of work. Since the principal does not have perfect oversight over the actions of the agent, this information asymmetry often leads to moral hazard. The military may choose to act in ways that conflict with the government's intent, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing from an ethical standpoint. According to political scientist Peter Feaver, this natural tension is exacerbated in the military by the fact that elected officials reserve the right to be strategically wrong by Constitutional authority [1]. Altogether, the US needed to find some way of ensuring that this tension would never detract from day to day operations.

As a side note, this form of authority extends down through the entire chain of command. At all three levels (strategic, operational, and tactical), the subordinate must follow the orders of their superior. Fortunately, there is some leeway here and members of the military are allowed to disobey orders that violate the rules of engagement and Law of Armed Conflict.

Professionalizing the military

In response to the natural tension caused by the principal-agent theory, we chose to professionalize the military. On the surface, this label may not mean much, but it fundamentally changed how military service was treated in the eyes of the public. In addition to the standard culture of discipline, it introduced a whole host of other values that resulted in a much more capable and adaptable military. Colonel Suzanne Nielsen outlines three of these values:

  • Expertise - which involves prolonged education in history and application of military knowledge.

  • Responsibility - which is essentially practicing one's expertise in the field.

  • Corporate-ness - which is individual dedication to a unified professional organization committed to upholding common values [2].

Together, these three values elevated the role of the military from order-taker to trusted adviser. It also subsequently nested the purpose of the military in that of the public by aligning the values of professionalism with ones valued by all members of society.

Being a member of the profession also meant, unsurprisingly, being apolitical. Nielsen viewed this as a necessary value to the military because it meant the organization would remain steadfast in their resolve to do what was best for the country from one administration to the next. In addition to managing constant administrative change, there is a broader clash in cultures between the military and the general public because one group prides itself on rule-following and personal discipline while the other promotes individual freedom. Political scientist Sam Huntington notes that the attitudes and values held by the military (mostly conservative) and those held by the civilian world (mostly liberal) further necessitate a form of objective (i.e. non-partisan) stability [3]. The next step in professionalizing the military was finding a way to ensure individual soldiers remained non-partisan.

The role of politics in the profession

We now get to the more interesting part of this story: should the government allow any room for political activity in the life of a service member? Furthermore, is it unconstitutional to restrict the political activity of a soldier/sailor/etc. or is it a violation of the First Amendment? In short, the courts have ruled that military regulation of free speech is constitutionally valid because the military is a professional organization in which discipline and obedience are paramount.

The case that set this precedent was Parker v. Levy in 1974, at the height of the Vietnam War [4]. An active duty officer, Howard Levy, was being charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for speaking out against military operations in the country and the court chose to rule in favor of censoring speech that would otherwise damage the military's efficacy. The problem was not necessarily that Levy was speaking out against the war, but that he was doing so in a setting where he was a representative of the military. It would have been perfectly fine if Levy voted for a candidate that opposed the war (which in itself is a form of political speech in which military members can participate), but to publicly support a policy while wearing the uniform is harmful to the organization. There have been many cases of officers getting in trouble for similar actions. Each one is usually accused of violating Article 133 of the UCMJ, which states:

Any commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman shall be punished as a court-martial may direct. [5]

"Conduct unbecoming an officer" has become the catch-all article used for charging any officer that the military believes is acting in a way that is harmful to the professionalism of the organization, even if their actions do not violate the law. This, of course, includes using your status as a member of the military to endorse or critique a given policy. You cannot attend an election rally in uniform; you cannot write "communism will win" inside your service cap and then post a picture of it on social media; and you definitely cannot wear a QAnon patch on your uniform during a security detail (though this was a member of a SWAT team the principles of professionalism still apply). In conclusion, the military lets a service member exercise their right to be politically active, so long as they are not doing it in a way where their views can be misinterpreted as the official stance of the military.

What about retired officers using their military influence to endorse a presidential candidate?

During the 2016 election, 88 retired military leaders signed a letter in support of then presidential candidate Donald Trump. I cannot verify if this is the first time something like this has happened, but it has led to several others in recent years using that exact same tactic to support other political stances, such as criticizing DoD budget cuts and opposing the military's transgender ban. The content of the message does not matter much here, but what does is the fact that retired service members are using their clout--which they built up during their military career--to push for a specific policy. They may no longer be in the uniform, but they are still using their military status to take an unofficial political stance on behalf of the rest of the military.

Perhaps it's just a naive junior officer view, but I think that retired officers who "go public" like this weaken the professionalism of the organization just as much as active duty service members who do the same. When the public reads stories about generals that do this, they can easily mistake the opinions of a small group of important retired officials as the official stance of the military. If these individuals desperately want to fight for a certain policy, perhaps instead of going public and abusing the power given to them by previously wearing the uniform, they can instead work with an organization that wants the same policy as them.

How social media changes CMR

The Internet Breaking Democracy: social media’s impact on an institutional level

Social media has developed into a tool that anybody can use to reach a national audience with their rhetoric. And it can be argued that this property of social media is what enables misinformation campaigns to be so successful (which is something worth further exploring in a different post). Based on events in the past three years (re: the Mueller Report), it is pretty obvious that these misinformation campaigns have fundamentally damaged the public's trust in our democratic institutions. It can be surmised that a broad shift in how the public perceives the democratic process as a whole will subsequently affect their perception of certain organizations, like the military, that fall under the purview of the government.

The Partisan Soldier: social media’s impact on an individual level

The second aspect to consider is how social media has greatly expanded the audience that a service member can reach, thus opening up the military to face more scrutiny over the behavior of individuals in their organization. (At this moment, I do not have enough evidence to support the claim that the existence of social media itself has altered the behavior an individual, but it is something worth considering as well.)

For example, when a young soldier acts in a reckless manner which is then broadcasted to a social media platform, their behavior can easily be misattributed as a reflection of the training and discipline they received in the military. It very well might be a reflection of how the military instills discipline, but that is not worth debating here. The real problem here is that these reckless individuals are representing an organization that is larger than themselves and now their individual behavior is being held up to a microscope at all times. I am not advocating that we cover up mishaps in the military, but the development of this new digital reality where everything is public and permanent can have consequences for the relations that we build with others.

As far as keeping the military a non-partisan organization is concerned, we observe two effects:

  1. It is now much harder to conceal the political views of members in the military when they have a platform where their views can be broadcasted 24/7.

  2. Strong-willed opinions about politics--which gain the most traction in on social media platforms--inevitably rise to the top.

The consequence of this is that the public might get a wrong impression about the political leanings of military members. This also ties back to the criticism I previously made about retired officers who use their military clout to push a political agenda. I argue that there would not be such an influx in officers going public if social media never developed into the tool of influence it has. At the very least, we want public perception to be consistent with the values that we espouse as an organization. And now accomplishing that goal is not as easy as it once was.

What can we do to maintain positive CMR now?

It is hard to offer up solutions to a problem caused by trends in social media that do not seem to be going away in the future. Soldiers' lives are much more public now than they have ever been before and this will become the new status quo unless the military chooses to ban social media entirely. And it appears as though the misinformation campaigns launched in the US have permanently damaged the public's faith in our government's ability to do their job properly. So now, I will offer a couple of recommendations that might, at the very least, ameliorate the situation.

Mount a robust, national-scale defense against information warfare

Seems like a pretty easy task, right? The resources required to accomplish this goal in its entirety are massive, but any place where progress can be made will have a net positive on our ability to run this country and repair relations between the government and its people. I cannot get too specific about the right way of doing this, but it might be by formally establishing Cyber as a new branch of service so we can properly unify the fight in cyberspace and information warfare, or maybe just by increasing funding across the board for all government organizations doing cyber operations.

Social media training early and often

Speaking from the perspective of being in the Army, social media awareness seems to be something that the organization now deeply cares about. So training soldiers on how their digital life becomes a personal portrait of the values they espouse and the organization to which they belong is always a good idea. Maybe have them sit down with a social media expert and completely clean up their profiles during basic training.

Create a culture against retired officers going public on social media

In case you could not tell, I find this trend to be incredibly bothersome because it damages the professionalism of the military. Since they are no longer active duty, leveraging UCMJ to restrict political speech will not work. But at the very least, we should educate officers about how such activity actually does more harm than good in regards to building a more capable organization.


It is pretty evident that social media has touched every part of society and changed it in some fundamental way. Civil-military relations are no different. Establishing a good rapport with the public is crucial to the military's success as an organization with civilian oversight. It is important, then, to identify trends in technology, such as the meteoric rise in social media, that may influence this relationship so we can work to identify solutions to dilemmas that may arise. In this post, I identified two broad trends in how social media has altered the trust that a person has in both their government and others. Understanding these trends will allow us to develop solutions for improving CMR and it may require a cultural change in how members of the military view their relationship with the digital environment. This will be a very slow-rolling process, but the military is a long-standing organization that can manage gradual change.


[1] P. Feaver, Armed servants : agency, oversight, and civil-military relations. Harvard University Press, 2003.

[2] S. Nielsen, “The Army Officer as Servant,” Military Review, vol. 83, p. 15, 1 2003.

[3] S. P. Huntington, The soldier and the state : the theory and politics of civil-military relations. Harvard University Press, 1957.

[4] “Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman: US Code 10 Sec. 933 Art. 133”

[5] “Parker v. Levy : 417 U.S. 733,” 1974.

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