WASHINGTON — As the partisan divide in this city and throughout the country widens, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen on Monday urged defense leaders to keep the military above the fray, professional and apolitical in all facets.

The comments come just days after the removal of a Navy captain for inappropriate videos and an announcement of far-reaching Pentagon spending cuts, both events which drew politicking from inside and outside the military. Mullen himself has also been a key figure in the contentious “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal debate, signed into law last month.

But on Monday, at a military professionalism conference at the National Defense University, the chairman reflected on the negative national perception of the military following the Vietnam War, when Pentagon leadership was perceived to be a driving political force behind the unpopular war.

“Today, we’re trusted. We’re seen by the American people as an institution that they care about and have a great deal of confidence in,” he told the crowd. “That’s what we have to sustain. And that wasn’t always the case.”

Mullen said part of that effort requires the military to better understand what’s expected of the institution ethically and morally, as the representative of America.

He noted that troops have “done things in these wars outside who we are as a country” — a reference to scandals such as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse — and said that leaders are responsible for making sure “we have to have a true compass morally.”

The nonpartisan nature of the military doesn’t mean troops must ignore their own opinions, Mullen said, but rather that they better understand the proper place and time to voice them. When asked about the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, he said that strong leadership will be needed to implement the change, both in setting a strong example and listening to troops’ concerns.

“Each service has their own ethos and culture, and each service has been through difficult times,” he said. “But if we keep the right young captains in the Army, no matter what programs we keep or don’t keep, the U.S. Army is going to be just fine. I would argue that’s the case for every service.”

Panels at the daylong conference focused on issues such as professional advice to young servicemembers, political activity among retired military officers, and the relationship between the warfighters and their civilian leaders.

Mullen noted that despite the positive public view of the military, most civilians have little or no knowledge of troops’ life and culture. That’s a failing of both the public and the military, and a source of concern for the chairman.

“The American people are extraordinarily supportive of our men and women,” he said. “There’s a sea of goodwill, and they want to connect with us. But who we are is not often understood by them. And too often we’re just talking to ourselves.

“Our audience, our underpinning, our authorities, everything we do comes from the American people. We cannot afford to be out of touch with them. And to the degree we are out of touch, it’s a very dangerous course. We cannot survive without their support.”

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