Why Polarization in the Military Is a Growing Concern for Democracies
Military institutions often reflect the characteristics of their societies, so there is little reason to believe militaries are immune to social polarization.
The past few years have seen a wave of concern over how increasing political and social polarization is negatively affecting the political systems of the United States and other democracies. To clarify, social polarization refers to the growing divide between different social groups, which is often characterized by deep political, ideological, and cultural differences. Rising polarization can lead to increased distrust and even hostility between social groups, to the point where the domestic stability of both developed and developing countries are threatened—particularly in democracies. As people view those on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum as a threat or enemy, the likelihood of justifying violence to “protect their country” or “take it back” from “others” increases. Experts have examined the unfavorable impacts of polarization on several political dynamics, such as civic engagement, social trust, and trust in government.
However, we have a poor understanding of how polarization in society would affect militaries, particularly their performance and relations with their parent governments. After all, military institutions often reflect the characteristics of their societies, so there is little reason to believe militaries are immune to social polarization. Military officers have their own political views, and increasing political partisanship and polarization among the ranks has become worrying, if not detrimental, for national security.
The Military Consequences of Polarization
The first and perhaps the most serious such consequence is the decline of public trust in the military. When people perceive the military as representing one particular ideological view, especially one that is opposed to the views held by a significant segment of the civilian population, a military’s traditional neutral and non-partisan role is eroded, creating a divide between the military and the civilian public. Such a public perception would threaten a military’s ability to maintain the support of a broader population, making it difficult to elicit public support for military-related matters, particularly concerning funding, equipment, or training.
Second, polarization also increases the risk of politicizing the military appointment process. Politicians are incentivized to appoint partisan loyalists in military leadership, since they may not trust other military leaders who disagree with their political beliefs. Moreover, this would also affect the appointment of mid-level officers, since military leaders themselves might prefer working with subordinates who share similar political views, and distrust those who do not.
Beyond the appointment process, polarization could even affect the basic recruitment process in the military. The Turkish military is a prime example of this: polarization among ultranationalist, secularist, and religious communities in Turkey has deepened under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule over the past two decades, affecting the country’s military as Erdogan divided and dispersed it, taking complete control of what was once an institutional force. One of Erdogan's strongest allies, SADAT, officially a defense consultancy contractor, has been involved in choosing the desired candidates for the Turkish Military Academy (recently rebranded as National Defense University) and determining the list of questions in cadet selection interviews. Instead of questions that measure the qualifications of the candidates, SADAT’s questions are designed to recruit candidates who share their political views. Consider the following example questions: “Should Turkey be governed by democracy or theocracy?” “If both the Chief of the General Staff and the President give you an order at the same time, whose order would you follow?”
Third, social polarization can also impact the battlefield performance of militaries. The breakdown in social trust caused by polarization can be felt across the ranks, making it difficult for militaries to create strong bonds and cohesive units. This can deteriorate morale, and negatively impact soldiers’ performance on the battlefield. Additionally, polarization can make it difficult for militaries to undertake important efforts, such as intelligence gathering. If a military is perceived as closely aligned with one particular social group, or out of touch with certain social groups, it will find it hard to gain trust and cooperation from those groups. This could degrade a military’s ability to gather vital intelligence about an adversary, particularly in a counterinsurgency context where gathering information from locals is critical.
Polarized Military as Menace to Democracy
The dangers of a polarized military are not limited to the military itself—they can spread and even threaten the existence of fundamental democratic values, such as democratic civilian control over the military, that the military should possess non-partisan character, or even the acceptance of political transitions.
Consider for example recent political events in Brazil, where now-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in an election. Following Bolsonaro’s electoral defeat, a mob of his supporters attacked Brazil’s federal government buildings, including the nation’s Congress. Lula though noted that individuals in the military facilitated these insurrectionists’ storming of government buildings, indicating that polarization between right- and left-wing supporters in Brazil has affected the country’s military.
In addition to active-duty officers, social polarization also influences retired officers. For instance, there is a recent trend of retired U.S. officers adopting partisan positions and weighing in on subjects not related to military expertise. 124 retired generals and admirals released a letter in 2021 advancing a false claim that the presidential vote in 2020 was rigged in Joe Biden’s favor and opined about various domestic issues, such as the construction of a border wall. Retired generals in the United States also sometimes get directly involved in politics by speaking at political party conventions and endorsing political candidates. By involving themselves in these kinds of political activities, officers fail to preserve a military’s non-partisan character.
Polarization can create challenges to another democratic norm: civilian control of the military. If the military is perceived as being more powerful or influential than other institutions in society, the potential for abuse of power or erosion of democratic accountability can manifest. Additionally, if the military is perceived as being more respected or trusted than other institutions, this can produce a sense of entitlement and overconfidence among military leaders, making it harder for civilian leaders to provide effective oversight and guidance. This argument is consistent with professor Peter Erickson’s view that high levels of social polarization, combined with high military prestige, is a dangerous mix.
Overcoming Military Polarization
Despite this gloomy picture, there are also several potential solutions to the problem of polarization.
One solution is for militaries to engage with communities that perceive them as representing a different ideological group. There are several ways to achieve this, including diversifying the pool of recruits by including people from marginalized communities. Doing so can increase contact between people with different worldviews and foster a shared sense of purpose among those from diverse backgrounds, which can help alleviate the adverse effects of polarization.
Moreover, military organizations can partner with local organizations that serve their communities to better understand local needs. This partnership is particularly crucial during times of crisis, such as when militaries provide assistance during natural disasters—especially when marginalized communities are disproportionately affected. By paying special attention to helping these communities in a timely manner, militaries attain trust and break down barriers.
Furthermore, accountability is crucial for strengthening efforts to contain polarization. Not all officers are equally professional, and some may not even be aware of their implicit political biases. To prevent the possibility that such biases might poison the culture of professionalism and accountability in the military, senior leadership must take certain necessary measures, such as offering specialized training and making reporting channels open. Training can help officers become more aware of their implicit biases, foster a culture of open communication, and being able to raise concerns within legal limits against polarizing rhetoric or behaviors can help neutralize the harmful effects of polarization.
Together with the military’s own efforts, civilian leaders must do their bit to hold politicians responsible for their own deeds that could exacerbate a military’s polarization problem. To stop the politicization of uniformed troops or military resources in partisan contexts, the public ought to speak out and advocate for changes to laws on civil-military relations or the educational doctrine of particular militaries. These changes should aim to strictly restrict politicians from taking advantage of the reputation of their militaries for their own political agendas.
Lessons Learned from History
History is the most powerful teacher, and historical examples aptly demonstrate how polarization has led to defeats on the battlefield or undermined a military’s ability to respond to threats. Using these examples to demonstrate the consequences that a military faces, if polarization is left unresolved, might encourage individual military personnel to do their part to fix the issue.
The Ottoman military’s performance during the Balkan Wars (1912 to 1913) is a case in point. The Ottoman defeat in the First Balkan War was attributed to polarization among the officer ranks and the lack of a clear ideological message to unite soldiers.
The Balkan Wars marked the beginning of the Ottoman empire’s final decade. While conscription of non-Muslim males eligible for military service was legal since 1856, it was only enforced after 1909. While some Ottoman elites believed a more inclusive military was necessary to promote Ottomanism and save imperial unity, others believed it would exacerbate the already existing fault lines in the polarized Ottoman forces. The defeat in the Balkan Wars and World War I revealed the political tensions within the Ottoman political and military elite over Ottomanism, Islamism, and Turkism. The wars and the military coup of 1913 led to a de facto military dictatorship by the Committee of Union and Progress’ triumvirate until the end of the empire. Aware of the dangers of a politically polarized military, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the founding father of the nascent Turkish Republic, enforced a strict separation of the officer ranks from politics through legislation and constitutional amendments.