Text Browser Navigation Bar: Main Site Navigation and Search | Current Page Navigation | Current Page Content

U.S. Army War College >> Strategic Studies Institute >> Publications >> Dissent and Strategic Leadership of the Military Professions >> Summary

Login to "My SSI" Contact About SSI Cart: 0 items

Dissent and Strategic Leadership of the Military Professions

Authored by Dr. Don M. Snider. | February 2008

Share | |   Print   Email

SUMMARY

Vice Admiral James Stockdale, Vietnam prisoner of war and Medal of Honor recipient, once said, ?Even in the most detached duty, we warriors must keep foremost in our minds that there are boundaries to the prerogatives of leadership, moral boundaries.?

In this monograph, the author delineates a segment of these boundaries as they are understood from the study of military professions and as derived from the roles and responsibilities of those seniors privileged to be the profession?s temporary stewards?the colonels/ captains and Flag Officers who comprise the strategic leadership. Such boundaries mean that the decision to dissent can never be a purely personal matter. Rather it will reverberate outward impinging at a minimum the three critical trust relationships of the military profession?those with the American people, those with civilian and military leaders at the highest levels of decisionmaking, and those with the junior corps of officers and noncommissioned officers of our armed forces.

To analyze the impact of dissent on these three critical trust relationships, the author isolates five different but closely related aspects of public dissent that should be considered by the strategic leader when deciding whether to take such a step?the gravity of the issue; the relevance of the professional?s expert knowledge and expertise to the issue at question; and, the three indicators of the dissenter?s motive?the personal sacrifice to be incurred in dissenting; the timing of the act of dissent; and the congruence of such an act with the previous career of service and leadership within the military profession. None of these five factors by themselves will likely be determinative for the would-be dissenter, but collectively they provide a moral context and framework in which a judgmental decision should be made.

The author concludes that if, as a result of these considerations the military leader decides that dissent is warranted?if the leader believes that an act of dissent best balances the immediate felt obligation to bring his/her professional military expertise to bear in a public forum with the longer-term obligation to lead and represent the profession as a social trustee, as a faithful servant of the American people, and as expressly subordinate to civilian control?then for those rare instances there should be no additional restrictions placed on any act of dissent. On rare occasions, true professionals must retain the moral space to ?profess.?

He also concludes that what remains now is for the strategic leaders of the military profession to strongly promote and follow the existing professional ethic, reinforcing a culture that discourages public dissent because of the risks to the profession?s essential trust relationships. He maintains that this will be no easy task for the current leaders, but it is an urgent one ? reasserting that they alone fulfill the functional roles of representing the profession, rendering advice, and executing legal orders. They must make it abundantly clear that they and they alone, speak for the military profession. All other military voices, including those retired, are heard from nonpracticing professionals and should be considered as such. This will require reestablishing control over their profession?s certification processes to ensure that all parties to civil-military relations understand that retired officers speak for no one other than themselves as citizens; and, most notably, that they do not speak for the current practicing professionals who now lead in America?s conflicts.

INTRODUCTION

The two epigraphs above establish the scope of this monograph. For a number of well-known reasons?all much discussed within the military and in the press, academic conferences, and journals?civil-military relations in America during the Iraq War have been filled with tensions, or ?frayed? in the words of the Iraq Study Group. Often these tensions manifested themselves in notably controversial behavior by either civilian or military leaders, behavior seemingly at odds with patterns we have come to expect from past experiences. Conspicuous among these behaviors is what has become known as ?The Revolt of the Generals,? when several senior flag officers, all retired, spoke out publicly in 2006 against both the military policies pursued in Iraq and the civilian leaders (Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld et al.) who were most responsible for them.3

Now, with the departure of Secretary Rumsfeld and many of the civilian leaders and military flag officers he

put in place, and abetted by a change in strategy that may at long last be advancing the counterinsurgency effort, such tensions and dissenting behaviors have somewhat ebbed. However, as the second epigraph demonstrates, strong feelings and opinions still linger about this period in American civil-military relations, and, more specifically, about the appropriateness of the ?Revolt? and its reverberating influences on America?s military and political cultures. It is not a stretch to note that these reactions are intensifying with time.4 This monograph, then, will focus on the subject of military dissent using the revolt as a stimulus for thinking more clearly about this latest phase in the Republic?s civil-military relations.

First, it is necessary to describe the revolt. I speak of the behavior of six retired general officers who, in various manners and public forums and for somewhat similar reasons, broke their services? traditions in early 2006 to speak out during war against their civilian leaders and the war policies they represented. These were, incidentally, policies which earlier the general officers themselves had each helped to formulate or execute. Of interest to this monograph are not the differences among the rationales they each offered for their public dissent, rather we are interested in the common theme, one most clearly expressed by Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold, U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), whose April 2006 article in Time magazine was hyped as ?a full-throated? critique. Here are the key excerpts:

After 9/11 [September 11, 2001], I was a witness and therefore party to the actions that led us to the invasion of Iraq?an unnecessary war. Inside the military family, I made no secret of my view that the zealots? rationale for war made no sense. And I think I was outspoken enough to make those senior to me uncomfortable. But I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat?al Qaeda. I retired from the military 4 months before the invasion, in part because of my opposition to those who had used 9/11?s tragedy to hijack our security policy. Until now, I have resisted speaking out in public. I?ve been silent long enough.

I am driven to action now by the mistakes and misjudgments of the White House and the Pentagon, and by my many painful visits to our military hospitals. . . . With the encouragement of some still in positions of military leadership, I offer a challenge to those still in uniform: a leader?s responsibility is to give voice to those who can?t?or don?t?have the opportunity to speak. . . .

What we are now living with is the consequence of successive policy failures. . . . Flaws in our civilians is one thing: the failure of the Pentagon?s military leaders is quite another. Those are the men who know the hard consequences of war but, with few exceptions, acted timidly when their voices urgently needed to be heard. When they knew the plan was flawed, saw intelligence distorted to justify a rationale for war, or witnessed arrogant micromanagement that at times crippled the military?s effectiveness; many leaders who wore the uniform chose inaction. A few of the most senior officers actually supported the logic for war. Others were simply intimidated, while still others must have believed that the principle of obedience does not allow for respectful dissent...5

The revolt occurred for what each officer felt were principled reasons flowing, essentially, from policy differences?wrong war; wrong place; not well-planned, resourced, or executed; and culpable civilian leaders not replaced. True, several did mention other concerns such as the management style of civilian leaders, Secretary Rumsfeld in particular. But I be- lieve all of the dissenters to be forthright men without ulterior motives, and that their main issue was substantive with respect to war policy.6

Granting that military professions, and their ethics in particular, do evolve slowly over time and that this revolt was an aberration when viewed against the historical pattern of military ethics in the U.S. military, the broad question for this monograph becomes whether the professions? ethics should evolve to accommodate in the future the forms of military dissent expressed in this instance? Or should they evolve in ways that continue, as they have in the past, to strongly discourage such public dissent by uniformed leaders, active and retired, during wartime?

Further, since the slow evolution of military ethics is most influenced by the stewards entrusted with its maintenance?the strategic leaders of the military professions?we are also interested in the role of military dissenters as strategic leaders. Stated another way, since the ethic of the military profession is at any point in time the result of the leadership (decisions and actions) of previous strategic leaders, how are we to think about the influences of dissenting behavior on the evolution of the profession, its professionals, and their ethic? I will approach these contentious questions in three steps:

  • First, I shall present from the literature the various forms of military dissent being discussed so that all readers can understand the full range of actions available to those who chose to dissent. I will do this primarily by reference to recent work by colleagues that uses a two-factor analysis to focus on a policy-content rationale for analyzing and explaining the range of potential acts of military dissent.
  • Second, I will look at an alternative approach, one that draws on the nature of military professions and their ethics of trust to analyze the various influences dissent can have on those trust-based relationships. This approach goes beyond the narrow issue of whether the war policies of civilian leaders are sound, dealing instead with the broader issue of whether such public dissent?irrespective of the substantive correctness of the dissent?is ultimately healthy for the profession, its professionals, and its ethic.
  • Last, I will offer some concluding observations on events now lying over the horizon.

Before we proceed, however, I must note a fundamental consensus on at least one point that over-watches our inquiry. That is the concept of civilian control or, perhaps more precisely, democratic political control of the military in America. The U.S. military is subordinate to the President and to certain designated officials in the Executive branch as well as to elected political leaders in Congress. According to the U.S. Constitution, these two branches of the federal government share primary authority and responsibility for military affairs. The military is, therefore, the servant of its Constitutionally-mandated masters and through them, the citizens of the Republic. A desirable pattern of U.S. civil-military relations?including legitimate military dissent?would therefore enhance democratic political control while also facilitating sound strategic decisionmaking and the creation of effective military institutions.7

Despite a broad consensus on this fundamental point, there is nevertheless plenty of room for disagreement on many subordinate issues, including, as we shall see, military dissent.

Conclusions

Vice Admiral James Stockdale, Vietnam prisoner of war and Medal of Honor recipient, once said, ?even in the most detached duty, we warriors must keep foremost in our minds that there are boundaries to the prerogatives of leadership, moral boundaries.?53

I have tried in this monograph to delineate a segment of these boundaries as they are understood from the study of military professions and as derived from the roles and responsibilities of those seniors privileged to be the profession?s temporary stewards?the colonels/ captains and Flag Officers who comprise the strategic leadership. Such boundaries mean that the decision to dissent can never be a purely personal matter. Rather it will reverberate outward impinging at a minimum the three critical trust relationships of the military profession?those with the American people, those with civilian and military leaders at the highest levels of decisionmaking, and those with the junior corps of officers and noncommissioned officers of our armed forces.

As we have seen, at least five different but closely related aspects of public dissent should be considered by the strategic leader when deciding whether to take such a step?the gravity of the issue; the relevance of the professional?s expert knowledge and expertise to the issue at question; and, the three indicators of the dissenter?s motive?the personal sacrifice to be incurred in dissenting; the timing of the act of dissent; and the congruence of such an act with the previous career of service and leadership within the military profession.

None of these five factors by themselves will likely be determinative for the would-be dissenter, but collectively they do provide a moral context and framework in which a judgmental decision should be made. If, as a result of these considerations, the military leader concludes that dissent is warranted?if the leader believes that an act of dissent best balances the immediate felt obligation to bring his/her professional military expertise to bear in a public forum with the longer-term obligation to lead and represent the profession as a social trustee, as a faithful servant of the American people, and as expressly subordinate to civilian control?then, in my judgment for those rare instances, there should be no additional restrictions placed on any act of dissent. On rare occasions, true professionals must retain the moral space to ?profess.?

Since the revolt just some 18 months ago, it is remarkable in retrospect how little it actually influenced events in the short term and how unremarkable it now appears from the vantage point of the mid term. The Republic, the war in Iraq, and the military profession proceed apace. And, as Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling?s critique of the current state of ?generalship? indicates,54the revolt may have contributed to an internal professional environment more open to honest dialogue and critique. If so, that is a positive development, indeed.

What remains now is for the strategic leaders of the military profession to strongly promote and follow the existing professional ethic, reinforcing a culture that discourages public dissent because of, as we have seen, the risks to the profession?s essential trust relationships. One tentative attempt in this direction is a formal letter of guidance issued this fall by the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen:

To the degree we allow ourselves to disconnect from the American People, we allow the very foundation upon which our success rests to crumble. . . . Every action we take, every day, must be executed in a way that strengthens and sustains the public?s trust and confidence in our ability and our integrity.55

This will be no easy task for the current leaders, but it is an urgent one?reasserting that they alone fulfill the functional roles of representing the profession, rendering advice, and executing legal orders. They must make it abundantly clear that they and they alone speak for the military profession. All other military voices, including those retired, are heard from nonpracticing professionals and should be considered as such. This will require reestablishing control over their profession?s certification processes to ensure that all parties to civil-military relations understand that retired officers speak for no one other than themselves as citizens; and, most notably, that they do not speak for the current practicing professionals who now lead in America?s conflicts.

As Admiral Stockdale noted, there are moral limits, but it is not clear to me that they have been ruptured by recent acts of dissent. However, they might be in the future, and at terrible cost to trust relationships, unless the profession?s ethic on the rarity of public dissent is refurbished and fully implemented.

ENDNOTES

1. James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, co-chairs, The Iraq Study Group Report, December 2006, p. 52, available at bakerinstitute.org/Pubs/i

2. Richard H. Kohn, ?Huntington?s Challenge: Maximizing Military Security and Civilian Control of the Military,? chapter manuscript delivered at Senior Conference 07, United States Military Academy, West Point, NY, June 2007. Papers from the conference will be published in an edited volume in 2008.

3. Within the Army Profession, at least this moniker has become standard largely due to an article by former Chief of Military History Brigadier General John S. Brown, ?The Revolt of the Generals,? Army 56, September 2006, pp. 110-112.

4. As an example of the growing sharpness of this debate as it progresses, see the recent journal exchange by a number of respected academics, subsequently joined by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Richard B. Myers in Michael C. Desch,?Bush and the Generals,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 86, No. 3, May-June 2007, p. 97; and Richard B. Myers, Richard H. Kohn, Mackubin Thomas Owens, Lawrence J. Korb, and Michael C. Desch, ?Salute and Disobey?? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 86, No. 5, September/October 2007, pp. 147-156.

5. Gregory Newbold, ?Why Iraq was a Mistake,? Time, Vol. 167, April 17, 2006, pp. 42-43.

6. The views of the six general officers can be found in many places in the journalistic literature. One good source is David Margolick, ?The Night of the Generals,? Vanity Fair, April 2007.

7. These concerns are central to Samuel Huntington?s classic text, The Soldier and the State. See Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and The State, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1957, pp. 2-3.

53. Quoted by General Peter Pace, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the Introduction to the Armed Forces Officer, p. ix.

54. See Paul Yingling, ?Failure in Generalship,? Armed Forces Journal International, May 2007.

55. Michael G. Mullen, ?CJCS Guidance for 2007-2008,? letter dated October 1, 2007, available at www.jcs.mil/CJCS_GUIDANCE.pdf