U.S Military Intervention in Vermont Town Meeting
There was a time when pretty much every American understood that the U.S. Constitution provides for civilian control of the military. And there was a time when Americans understood that uniformed military were not to engage in civilian politics. Generals were free to be presidents or other high-ranking officials, but not till they were out of the military. Retired officers remain subject to a less stringent military code regarding political activity. The current president relies on several former generals, despite the five-year ban on such service, because it was waived.
Civilian control of the military is bedrock American constitutionalism. The president is the commander in chief. There is no parity, it is not a negotiated relationship—we have civilian control of the military. And most military officers have understood that the correct response to that assertion was “Yes, Sir,” that seems to have been some time ago, back before American militarism started to spin way out of control. That was when generals knew that if they dabbled in politics, they were taking a risk. General Douglas MacArthur took the risk; President Truman fired him in April 1951. MacArthur knew he was risking his career in defying his commander in chief publicly, controversially, and dishonestly. Relieved of command, he accepted the legal consequence and faded away. Although he is a 34-year veteran of military service, Major General Steven Cray apparently doesn’t give a fig about civilian control of the military. General Cray is Vermont’s adjutant general, elected by civilians in the Vermont legislature. General Cray is in charge of the Vermont Air National Guard—VTANG—and he has jumped into the political arena on the issue of the F-35. And if that weren’t reckless enough, he has played politics without integrity, and in violation of Army Regulations.
According to Command Policy, Army Regulation 600-20 (revised November 2014), both Chapter 5 (section 5-3) as well as Appendix B, section B-3 (see also military publications, i.e., Major Matt Parsons, Fort McCoy Judge Advocate) the rule is clear: a soldier will not: use official authority or position to interfere with an election, affect the course of an election, solicit votes for a candidate or issue, or require or solicit political contributions from others.
In General Cray’s case, the issue is ballot item #6 on the Burlington town meeting warrant, asking city voters whether or not they want the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter based in a neighboring town, at an airport owned by Burlington. The ballot item is advisory only and will have no force of law regardless of the result. A town meeting ballot item is a quintessentially civilian matter requiring no input from the military beyond an individual’s vote.
Cray may well know that the military has no proper role in a town vote, but he has not honored it. For whatever reason, he has inserted himself inappropriately and dishonestly into a political process, using his military authority and position to influence voters in a civilian matter. General Cray’s action is not merely dishonorable, it is an abuse of the power of his office. And General Cray’s action is fundamentally corrupt as a result of his huge, unaddressed, obvious conflict of interest. This is not an expression of traditional American constitutionality, it is behavior deserving of reprimand.
Bad as his behavior is, the substance of General Cray’s intervention is worse. It is fundamentally dishonest. He misrepresents a difference of opinion as if it were misinformation by the other side. This appears to be a form of lying. The preamble to the ballot item reads: “Shall we, the voters of the City of Burlington, as part of our strong support for the men and women of the Vermont National Guard, and especially their mission to ‘protect the citizens of Vermont,’ advise the City Council to …and it goes on to ask voters if they want the F-35 based in South Burlington or if they would prefer a quieter, less militarily aggressive mission for VTANG.. ”
General Cray’s opinion is that the only way to “support” the Air Guard is to support the F-35 basing plan. That is his opinion and many share it. But it is only an opinion, not a fact. And General Cray’s is not the only opinion as to what constitutes “support.” That is an open question to be decided by civilian authorities. When General Cray says that the ballot item “misleads the voter into thinking they are supporting the Air Guard,” he is not telling the truth. He cannot know what any voter thinks. He is implicitly claiming that his opinion is the truth. He is flatly misrepresenting the ballot item. There is a competing opinion as to what constitutes supporting the Air Guard. That different opinion is exactly what the ballot item expresses. That different opinion is that the Air Guard and Vermont are better served by a lower impact, less aggressively military mission than training pilots to fly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Those two different opinions are based on different values. The choice between them should be a civilian decision. Generals will almost always lean toward the more military choice, that’s their job. Civilians are militaristic all too often, but it is their government and their choice (at least in theory).
The F-35 is a $400-plus billion boondoggle with a projected lifetime cost of more than $1 trillion. Development began in 1992, and it is more than a decade behind schedule. The F-35 has been plagued by problems: catching fire on the ground, catching fire in mid-air, and cutting off oxygen to pilots, among the most striking. The F-35 is a war plane, a first strike weapon that can deliver nuclear weapons much larger than those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. General Cray would mislead people into believing that training F-35 pilots is the only mission available to VTANG, even though the Air Force said in court filings that another mission could and would be provided if necessary. General Cray is dishonest when he says, “There is no alternative mission being planned for the Vermont Air National Guard,” when he knows full well a new mission could be planned at a moment’s notice. He is stonewalling with a negotiating position he must know to be false.
General Cray’s approach to the F-35 is misleading, corrupt, and dishonest as well as in clear violation of U.S. Army Regulations (Chapter 5, section 3b):
“5-3b. Participation in local nonpartisan political activities. This regulation does not preclude participation in local nonpartisan political campaigns, initiatives, or referendums. A Soldier taking part in local nonpartisan political activity, however, will not:
- 1) “Wear a uniform or use any Government property or facilities while participating.”
- 2) “Allow such participation to interfere with, or prejudice, the performance of the Soldier’s military duties.”
- 3)“ Engage in conduct that in any way may imply that the Army has taken an official position on, or is otherwise involved in, the local political campaign or issue.”
General Gray violated these rules when he called a press conference on a military base. General Cray wore his uniform while opposing the F-35 ballot item at a press conference at a military base. General Cray violated these rules by implying that the Army has taken an official position on the F-35 ballot item.
All that is shameful enough, but General Cray offers no honest rebuttal to those with a different opinion: that VTANG would be better supported by a mission other than learning to fly weapons of mass destruction designed to commit war crimes.
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theater, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.