Why Can't the Next Secretary of the Army be a Veteran?

Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning and Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Lofgren, 2013 / USAF, Lawrence Crespo
September 23, 2015

If it weren't for the large sample size, you would think that the results of the Military Times survey of troop morale couldn't possibly have been accurate. Released last December, the numbers were brutal. In response to the statement, "The senior military leadership has my best interests at heart," only 27% agreed, down from 53% in a previous survey conducted in 2009. As for, "Overall officers in the military are good or excellent," only 49% agreed, down from 78% in the 2009 survey. Agreement with, "Overall my quality of life is good or excellent," dropped from 91% agreement in 2009 to 56% in 2014, and President Obama's personal approval rating was an eye-catching 15%.

By anyone's standard, these numbers should have constituted an alarm for senior defense policymakers, suggesting that whatever they were doing, they should probably try the opposite. So it is disheartening, and even a little stunning, to see the news confirmed in recent days that the president is nominating Eric Fanning, a Washington insider and defense bureaucrat who has never spent a single day in uniform, to be the next secretary of the Army.

The military is of course led by civilians, and there is no statutory requirement that the service secretaries or other senior officials be veterans—and that's fine. Indeed, Fanning replaces John McHugh in the office, another non-veteran and a career politician among whose signature accomplishments as a congressman was being named one of Capitol Hill's "50 Most Beautiful People" in 2006. The survey provided some indication of the troops' opinions of his work. Indeed, since Ash Carter's appointment as secretary of Defense in February, members of the United States Army have had a civilian chain of command, from McHugh through the president, composed entirely of men who have never put on a uniform for their country. Hagel, Panetta, and Gates had all served.

Ask McHugh or Fanning or any of these men about the value that veterans bring to American society, and you are sure to get an earful about the need for American industry to recognize the unique talents of those who have served, to hire and promote them for the greater good. But at the Pentagon in 2015, bizarrely, this does not appear to extend anymore to those positions with overall responsibility for the state of the services. (Though, in fairness, the one exception among the current service secretaries is Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy, who served briefly in the Navy as a young man and has not exactly covered himself in glory as a result.)

Filling these positions with veterans is not a cure-all, and certainly should not be a requirement—but it should be a preferred course of action. Does it not reflect poorly on our nation's political elites that they are apparently having trouble producing enough veterans to be considered for these jobs? The change has been particularly dramatic for the office that Fanning is about to fill. Until George W. Bush appointed Francis Harvey as secretary of the Army in 2004, the job had predominantly been filled with men for whom time in uniform was the norm. By my count, and not including men who served only brief periods in an acting capacity, between the creation of the office after World War II and Harvey's appointment, only two of a total of 19 appointees hadn't served at some point. The two exceptions—Robert T. Stevens (1953-1955) and Stephen Ailes (1964-1965)—were a successful businessman and a prominent lawyer, respectively, and Ailes had been prevented from serving during the war due to color blindness.

Among those secretaries who did serve, their records are often impressive: there are recipients of Silver Stars and Purple Hearts, graduates of West Point and Rhodes Scholars. (Ash Carter is a Rhodes Scholar, as it happens--it seems that in this administration, we have to choose.) It was a remarkable bunch, and all the more impressive because getting shot at once or twice, or having once been at the, well, crappy end of the stick as a junior officer or enlisted soldier can give you insights that may be useful later on—not to mention credibility.

And Fanning? He has had a very successful DC career, starting after his graduation from Dartmouth as a Capitol Hill staffer, and from there bouncing back and forth between defense appointments and jobs with think tanks and communications firms, before being named the acting secretary of the Air Force, then the full time undersecretary, and finally Ash Carter's chief of staff.

Carter is no doubt happy about the appointment because Fanning is, as the Washington Post puts it, a "Carter ally." The White House is pleased because the appointment of a gay man represents an important advance in the progress of social justice. And the troops?

Well, really, who cares what they think?