Military Freedoms and “Good Order and Discipline”

Tony Carr, a retired C-17 squadron commander, has begun to make a name for himself in his public commentary on Air Force issues on his John Q. Public blog. He speaks in terms other Airmen recognize — and often in a tone that others wish they were allowed to muster.

He recently took retired General Roger Brady to task for the General’s dressing-down of Airmen who dared to contact their congressmen about the future of the A-10. The General had written a letter that was published in the Air Force Times, and Carr highlights an interesting point. While criticizing the Airmen’s decision to talk to their congressmen — a point he says General Mark Welsh agreed is a right — General Brady explicitly said 

But this is not about free speech. It is about good order and discipline.

This is a surprisingly common refrain. As has been noted before, military commanders can make virtually anything fall under the auspices of “good order and discipline.”

There are substantial regulations regarding what US troops are allowed to do in the political arena. Because there are explicit restrictions, there are also explicit permissions: US service members are explicitly permitted to contact their members of Congress. In fact, such communications are explicitly protected. That’s why Carr expresses incredulity when he says [emphasis added]:

Brady…attempts to criminalize a protected right to speak with Congress. Like Post, Brady fundamentally misapprehends the limit of general officer authority. If the right to communicate with an elected representative is protected — which it is — there can be no judgment by Brady or anyone else as to the content of that communication.

Realize that in the political realm, this is in the face of an explicit protection.

Now consider the realm of religious freedom — where no such explicit protection exists.

For decades there were limited protections on religious freedom within the military. The simple rule was that the military accommodated religious exercise to the extent the mission would allow. As public expressions of Christianity became more disfavored in American society, it resulted in a hypersensitivity toward religious expression in the military. This hypersensitivity was fed by external organizations whose purpose was to attack or censor religious freedom wherever they found it — like Michael “Mikey” Weinstein’s awkwardly named Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

Because religious freedom was generally, if not always specifically, protected, Weinstein and his fellow critics had to find a policy under which to lodge complaints about religious expression. Their tool?

“Good order and discipline.”

The perception became that religious freedom — particularly religious expression — was summarily restricted under the vague auspices of “good order and discipline,” not unlike the military’s habit of firing all of its commanding officers for the broadly-worded “loss of confidence.” To combat that perception, Congress attempted to add wording to annual Defense Authorization Acts that would have required “actual harm,” not preventative censorship over hypothetical offense.

That language didn’t quite make it into military regulations, though the new policies say the military “will” accommodate religion, meaning they have to…unless it adversely affects — wait for it — good order and discipline.  Unfortunately, members of Congress have still scolded the DoD for failing to explicitly protect religious expression, which was the intent of the law to begin with.

It is not uncommon for people to attempt to restrict rights in the military — including religious freedom — under the auspices of “good order and discipline.” Ironically, those who do so fail to notice that restricting those rights adversely affects “good order and discipline.”  Nonetheless, there are still some — like Weinstein — who would like to “criminalize a protected right,” and there are still some within the military who agree with him.

Carr made one other point worth repeating:

A retired Air Force 4-star just proved that you can achieve the highest rank in the military and still be wrong.

Airmen are human, whether they wear one stripe or four stars. To posit either extreme — that the 1-stripe Airman is clueless or the 4-star General is god-like — is to judge based on the outward appearance, rather than either the individual’s soul or the merit of their performance.

As has been said before, JAGs, Chaplains, and, yes, even General officers can be wrong. What sets them apart is how they respond when challenged.