Editorial: Choose SC military leader based on merit, not politics

03/17/2013 12:00 AM

03/15/2013 3:53 PM

MEMBERS of the U.S. military are strictly prohibited from engaging in politics beyond casting their ballots. Even the top commanders, who work closely with the president, are prohibited from expressing their opinions about the current president, much less those who would be president.

Across our nation, officials abandoned the idea of electing military leaders around the time of the Civil War, and the rest of the world has likewise come around to our nation’s way of thinking: that merit, not politics, should determine military leaders, and that those leaders should be directly and immediately accountable to civilian leaders.

Yet in South Carolina, we require our military commander to be a politician. And in so doing, we implicitly require all the members of the National Guard to disregard fundamental military values, by picking sides in this contest for their leaders.

Of all the crazy things that we do that nobody else in the country does, this is probably the craziest. Maybe not the most significant, but certainly the craziest. And since there is no requirement for serving as adjutant general other than getting more votes than anyone else — no need to be promotable to general officer, or even have any military experience — the potential is there, every four years, that it could suddenly become the most significant crazy thing we do. The sort of thing that gets our troops killed.

Besides ending up with an adjutant general with no military experience, there are two dangers with our system: It encourages stagnation, and it promotes political corruption, by encouraging members of the Guard to support and even give money to the person who ultimately controls their assignments and rank, and by enabling that person to stay on the job far longer than the professionals in the U.S. military consider wise.

Adjutant General Bob Livingston avoided the first problem — and in so doing became the only adjutant general in the modern era to do so — by refusing to accept campaign donations from active members of the Guard when he ran in 2010. Of course, he was unopposed after Adjutant General Stan Spears decided to retire, which also made him unique in the modern era. As he acknowledges, the situation is unlikely to be repeated.

That is one of several reasons he is lobbying the Legislature to become our nation’s last elected adjutant general. Gen. Livingston’s proposal, which could come up for a vote in the House as early as Tuesday, would ask voters to amend the state constitution to allow the governor to appoint the adjutant general. Only colonels or generals with 10 years’ experience in the Guard could be considered.

There never has been a legitimate reason to maintain our banana republic system of choosing our adjutant general, but active and retired members of the Guard fought it nonetheless, in no small part because they take their lead from their commander — as good troops are supposed to — and their commander always fought it. Now that Gen. Livingston has decided he’d like to drag our selection system into the modern era, his troops are falling into line. Our legislators should do the same.

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