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“If the Army wanted your opinion, they would have given it to you” and other counterproductive lies.

Even with all the swearing in the military, opinion is a dirty word. We share stories of disgraced leaders who were inappropriate on social media. We reference McChrystal, Patton, and MacArthur as examples of why it’s better to keep your mouth shut.

When I joined the Army during the second surge, media training included all of the reasons to avoid talking to the media. We learned how off-the-cuff remarks from an 18-year-old Soldier could be national news the next day and hamper our operations.

From a leader’s standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. In theater, bad publicity’s damage vastly outweighs good publicity’s benefit. But the damage of this mindset is more subtle, pervasive, and permanent. By training a generation of servicemembers to stay out of sight, we have deprived the American public of a critical perspective on national issues. Furthermore, special interests use the absence of a robust discursive environment to politicize military service to suit their needs.

For example, you can hop on Google at any moment and find hundreds of articles, blog posts, and interviews claiming that the military is fascist and ultra-conservative. And one search later, you can peruse hundreds of claims that the military is suffering from “wokeness” and losing its ability to fight because of its interest in increasing equity.

It is hard to find the voices of people still serving. Most of the loudest voices on social media are older men who did a few years in the 90s and now wave their experience like a bona fide Doctorate of War. Within the ranks, opinion writing is limited to high-ranking officers or military publications with negligible civilian readership.

The military does not need a unified voice on all issues. Instead, it needs to serve as an example for professional debate and disagreement. To that end, we must improve the diversity and regularity of engagement and discussion. So, I’d like to present a few considerations when writing as a servicemember, specifically for civilian publications.

  1. If you believe in what you’re saying, you can’t be totally wrong. Opinion is just that, opinion. This is different from conjecture or journalism. You must remember that you are writing for your opinion alone and make it clear in your writing. Don’t make guesses about other decisions, especially not political or military leaders. It is easy for your reader to assume you speak for the military. On day one of your service, you are an “expert,” whether you believe it or not.

  2. Understand the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). As you learned the day you joined, service sets you apart from civilian citizens, and as long as you work for the Armed Forces, you are subject to the rules of the UCMJ. As a military representative, you must understand where the lines are and stay within them. This is not as difficult as many of us have been led to believe, but essential to understand. I’ve highlighted some of the punitive articles here.

  3. Good writing requires understanding the other side. As I discussed here, a good opinion column should include a concession. Your concession demonstrates your understanding of the other side of your argument. It allows you to get ahead of your first critics and builds credibility. Most importantly, a weak concession does precisely the opposite. If you are writing to persuade, a weak concession shows people that you haven’t tried to understand the whole issue. As a result, you become easy to ignore, write off, or counter.

Keep these in mind, be honest with yourself about your intentions, and challenge your beliefs as much as others. If you follow these steps, you can keep yourself out of trouble without setting your thoughts aside. America needs to remember how to engage in civilized debate, and you are vital to that aim.


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