You are here: Home / Outreach / Blog / Free Speech and Democratic Criticism in the Military

Free Speech and Democratic Criticism in the Military

Reflections from the West Point Student Conference on U.S. Affairs

By Ethan Paul

In early November, I had the privilege of visiting West Point, the United States Military Academy, as a Penn State delegate to the 69th Student Conference on U.S. Affairs, or SCUSA. The four-day conference attracted participants from across the U.S. and the world, giving us the opportunity to deliberate over the future of the world order and U.S. foreign policy with academics, policymakers, military officials, and cadets enrolled in West Point. The theme of the conference: “The Forgotten and the Aggrieved: Remaking the World Order."

At the end of each conference day, the visiting students returned to the cadet’s barracks to sleep. Walking into the lobby of each barrack, the first thing you see is an impressive line of framed pictures featuring the most powerful military officials in the country: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford, Secretary of Defense James Mattis … and, at the end, President Donald Trump. 

I was struck by this— Trump’s squinting eyes and pursed lips were the first thing cadets see when they leave their room at 6:30 a.m. every day to go train for the moment they might have to sacrifice their lives under his command. This moment made prescient the key question that I was interested in answering at the conference: Would West Point cadets be willing to criticize, or accept criticism of, their Commander-in-Chief?

I was interested in this question as I believe that any proper analysis of U.S. foreign policy and the current state of the world order must necessarily feature President Trump, both the man and his policies, prominently at the fore. He has ordered the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, ceding the normal leadership role that has been occupied by the U.S. to rising countries such as China. He has weakened the diplomatic tools of the state department, brought into doubt our commitment to our closest allies, questioned the usefulness of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and heaped praise on human rights violators such as Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin.

Back at home he has sharpened internal political divisions, preventing us from focusing uniformly on serious global problems, by attacking and delegitimizing the free press and facts, calling for a ban on members of an entire religion, and endorsing a Senate candidate accused of molesting minors. Perhaps more important than analyzing the man himself is the forces that allowed his election victory to occur in the first place: a public that has shown either an inability or unwillingness to separate real news from the fake, a decade-long a violent ethnic nationalism, an unresponsive and aloof political system reliant more on campaign contributors than voters, and an economy that offers little opportunity for the many while enriching the few.

In short, the foundations of both domestic and global stability are under serious, constant strain. Without understanding, and more importantly acknowledging, these realities directly associated with our current Commander-in-Chief, I feared any deliberation pursued and policy prescriptions offered would have felt hollow and irrelevant.

This presented West Point cadets, and the institution generally, with a dilemma: Is it right to criticize an individual who is supposed to represent the idea they have committed their life to protecting and, if necessary, dying for? How defensive should cadets or military officials be when a civilian, who has no idea what it is like to serve, starts openly disrespecting the president? Is it their duty to preempt such criticism? 

A skeptic of military culture generally, I went into the conference unconvinced that these issues could be properly identified and addressed. Regardless of my suspicions, I had come to believe that the core reason for inviting non-military students to the conference to begin with is to push the intellectual boundaries that West Point might naturally build up and open the cadets to new ideas and horizons. 

So, I came ready for a fight, ready to push back and to speak out when I felt thorny issues were being purposefully avoided or misconstrued.

But, to my surprise, no fight was necessary. The first plenary discussion, which every participant including cadets and military leaders was required to attend, featured relatively open criticism of the president on most of the issues I identified, and also featured discussions about seemingly-lefty concerns such as income inequality. 

While I could feel the tension in the room grow at the first negative mention of President Trump’s name, the discussion nonetheless continued and the tension eventually dissipated. To West Point’s credit, the panel ended up being one of the most open, informative, and intellectually honest discussions I have ever attended. 

The main brunt of SCUSA’s deliberation occured within policy tables that visiting students and cadets were sorted into, such as “NATO and the Future of U.S. Alliances” and “Terrorism.” Each table was required to present an analysis of and recommendation for U.S. foreign policy in that domain by the end of the conference, which was to be informed by the plenary discussions and keynote speeches featuring high-ranking officials, such as the U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO and a former White House Deputy National Security Advisor. 

I was assigned to the China table, where both cadets and civilian students alike laughed when we realized that the best policy prescription toward China we could offer was simply “Re-enter the Paris Climate Accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” essentially a direct rebuke of President Trump. 

At one point during the discussion, the topic of criticism against Trump was specifically introduced, and a cadet, without hesitation, reminded me that she swore an oath not to any man, but to the Constitution of the United States. At the same time, she reminded me that she is not allowed to directly criticize the president while in uniform. So, criticism was mostly left up to the civilian students, but it was never met with serious resistance or pushback. 

In another instance unrelated to President Trump, I made an off-hand and snarky comment about the Iraq War, implying that we entered Iraq without knowing what we would do when we got there. Not only were several cadets in the room at the time, but I said this directly to a high-ranking military official who was participating in our table’s discussion. I immediately felt the temperature in the room increase, and I regretted the comment somewhat— but nothing ever happened. 

In fact, although I wasn’t able to see the facial reaction of the military official, my friends who could see it told me that he smirked, tacitly agreeing with my argument. Criticism, of both the president and past military policies, was accepted and met with little pushback at the most prominent military college in the United States. Democracy and free speech within our military is alive and well.

This dilemma, about how and when to criticize the president, is not just something facing soldiers and military officials: parents, educators, and journalists constantly confront it as well. How can educators foster a platform for open and nonpartisan dialogue that is meant to serve as the foundation of a democratic education when the leader of one political party jokes about committing sexual assault? How can journalism coverage be unbiased and neutral when the president retweets videos framing Muslims as inherently violent? When is it appropriate to proclaim something wrong and undemocratic, and when does that proclamation violate certain spoken and unspoken institutional norms?

These questions will never be fully answered, but if my experience at SCUSA left me with anything, it was this: our loyalty, as educators, journalists, and democratic citizens, is not to any single political figure or party. Rather it is to the ideal of democracy. When our political leaders fail to uphold that ideal, it is not only okay to critically identify their failures; it is our duty to do so. While this may spark pushback from parents or online commenters, it will help ensure that any single person is not allowed to erode the ideals that this country strives to represent behind a veil of “respect” or “nonpartisanship.”

Ethan Paul is a Penn State senior and 2016 Nevins Fellow.