Noted military correspondent Thomas E. Ricks asserts that while the US military officer class has always been "conservative," it has not always been politically active. He cites sources that estimate fewer than one in 500 officer who served in the Civil War ever cast a ballot. For many decades, in fact, it was considered unprofessional for a military officer to take a serious interest in politics at all.
When did the officer class begin leaning toward active support of the Republican Party? My Vietnam vet friend thinks the phenomenon started during the Johnson administration, when officers began to resent the micromanagement of the war by LBJ and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. This makes a certain amount of sense, and coincides with another major shift in the American political scene. Many blame LBJ and his aggressive civil rights policies for losing the south to the GOP; and, not so coincidentally, the southern "red states" are and have traditionally been the primary source of military officer recruitment.
I joined the Navy and reported to Aviation Officer Candidate School in late 1980, two months before Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the presidential election. The military had been under funded during the Carter years. Junior enlisted personnel were so poorly paid that Carter told them to go ahead and apply for food stamps, something officers and troops alike thought was a shameful state of affairs. (As an aside, naval aviators disliked that Carter had ended the practice of issuing traditional Navy leather flight jackets to them, which gives you an idea of where naval aviators' priorities lie.)
Carter's failed Iran hostage rescue attempt was also felt as an extreme embarrassment. In all, throughout the services, morale was horrible.
Reagan was hailed as a virtual messiah, and his increase of military funding seemed to cement the GOP as the "G.I. friendly" party in the military conscience. The overwhelming victory in Desert Storm under Bush Senior reinforced the notion, even though the post-Cold War downsizing took place on the elder Bush's watch.
And then came Clinton. His administration's apparent disdain for the military became a "perceived reality," and Clinton himself was never popular as a commander in chief. The Balkans and Kosovo conflicts did little to improve Clinton's image with the rank and file. Many believed that the Kosovo commitment was a "Wag the Dog" attempt at taking the public's mind off of the president's Oral Office Escapades.
I also sensed during that time resentment among the officer corps toward the four-star officers who served under Clinton, as if they were somehow betraying the uniform by taking high-level positions under an other-than-honorable administration.
Ironically, we're seeing something of a reversal of the trend in our present situation, largely due to a) the Iraq situation and b) Donald Rumsfeld.
Senior Army officers, both on active duty and retired, bristled at Rumsfeld's "my way or the highway" insistence on remaking the senior service into a lighter, faster force. These objecting voices became louder as the invasion of Iraq loomed. Such an excursion was unnecessary, these officers argued, and would constitute a diversion from the real goals of the War on Terror.
When the decision to invade had become seemingly irreversible, many of these officers--including then Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki--warned that Rumsfeld was planning to do so with too small a force. These active and retires officers were brushed out of office or worse.
My purely subjective observation is that the political view of the retired officer community is evenly split. One group believes (as I do) that the administration took the country into an ill-advised war, and is resentful that civilian leadership ignored the sound advice of senior military professionals who turned out to be right. This group also tends to consider that the generals who have remained on active duty are only there because they rolled over for Rummy.
The other camp, regardless of how it perceives the march to war and the way it was conducted, is of the opinion that what's past is past. We're at war now, and by golly we need to rally around the president and his advisers and see this thing through.
In this latter group is a core cell that "knew" Bush and his team went into Iraq with the intention of establishing bases to control the entire Middle East region and its oil. While they'll sometimes attempt to "defend" charges of the administration's cooking of WMD intelligence, they really don't care if it was cooked or not, nor does it particularly bother them that the administration misled the American pubic into a war it otherwise would not have bought off on.
One retired officer I know continues, even to this day, to deny that the insurgency is anything we need to take seriously. "It's no different than being in downtown Chicago," he once told me.
I asked him how many rocket attacks had been made on the Sears Tower in the past two years, or if over a thousand Chicago Policemen had been killed in the line of duty during that period.
He shrugged and ordered another beer.
My friend is typical of what I call Pavlov's Dogs of War. Once we're engaged in armed conflict (under a Republican administration), all other considerations go out window, and the only acceptable course of action is to "fight till we win," although, like Mister Bush, few of them can define what conditions might constitute "winning."
Unless you want to bring up that business about establishing permanent bases in Iraq and controlling the Middle East oil supply.