For an old retired dude like me, Facebook has been a real blessing. One of the things I like best about FB is being able to see what my brothers and sisters-in-arms are up to – how their careers are progressing, how their families are growing, particularly if I played some small role in their development and/or lives. In many ways, for my wife Marcie and I, FB has been a fantastic way to mitigate what retirement from the military represents – an abrupt end to close membership in a great community, and, hopefully, a successful integration into a new one.
One thing I have not enjoyed on FB, however, are statements, posted or shared by active duty personnel, that are disrespectful towards the President of the United States. I could name several examples, but the posts starting with “Clown Obama…” were particularly disturbing, or the celebratory forwarding of posts showing some idiot rodeo clown wearing an Obama face mask. I cringe when I see them generally, and most specifically when I played a role in that person’s pre-commissioning training or later professional development. Here’s why:
You might want to interrupt here with a “Wait a minute, you pontificating jerk, my speech is protected by the Constitution – plus you can delete me on FB if you don’t like it!” Fair enough, but hear me out at least ok?
Most active duty folks know, at least in the abstract, that there are limits on free speech for military personnel. There are punitive articles in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice that proscribe both political speech and criticism of certain public officials, including the President. So when Marine Sgt Stein created a military Tea Party page, clearly identifying himself as a Marine and openly criticizing the President, well, Ray Charles could see he was going to get schwacked. I guess everyone but Sgt Stein saw that one coming.
But active duty folks also understand that they enjoy the same freedom of speech as any other American in their private capacity as citizens. You can express political views, you can criticize U.S. foreign policy, you can even vote democrat (though I’m guessing not), as long as you do so in your private capacity as Claude Hopper, not Claude R. Hopper, 1Lt, USAF.
So why the beef with FB posts? After all, nobody puts their rank and service as part of their name on FB right? So here is the root of my problem: Every one of your FB peeps knows you are serving as an active duty military member. If they didn’t, the posts showing your promotion ceremonies, or wedding(s), or Veteran’s Day profile pic changes would clue them in. To me, those two personas are merged in the minds of your “readers.” They don’t make any distinction between the two, because, IMHO, a Soldier, a Marine, a Sailor, or an Airman is who you are to them.
Is it illegal to post or share a picture of “Clown Obama” on your FB page if you are active duty military? I doubt it. But I’m not taking this stance because I think people who post these things are criminal, I’m posting this because I think they are using poor judgement. It also demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the historical context of America’s relationship with a standing military since the founding of the Republic, a relationship founded on deep distrust of standing armies and firm civilian control over the military.
Professional military members, especially after the Civil War, took great care to observe political neutrality. General George C. Marshall, WWII Army Chief of Staff and later Secretary of State, went to the extreme to demonstrate this, declining even to vote in elections. I assume General Colin Powell had/has conservative leanings, but not from anything I ever heard him say while he served as our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Watch the Joint Chiefs during the next State of the Union address. Watch when they applaud, when they do not. Studied neutrality.
Maybe I take this too far, too personally. I mean, I’m retired, I can say whatever the hell I like, forward whatever post strikes my fancy. But you might notice that I don’t forward posts like the those I described earlier. People still call me “Colonel” or “Sir” sometimes, and it reminds me I should still try to set a positive example. They knew me, and maybe still know me, in that role. I do vote in elections, and I have political opinions, but you won’t hear me speak with disrespect about our (elected) President personally. Ever.
Now Congress on the other hand…