The military officer corps is rumbling with dissatisfaction and dissent, and there are suggestions from some that if officers disagree with policy decisions by Congress and the White House, they should vigorously resist.
Officers have a moral responsibility, some argue, to sway a policy debate by going public with their objections or leaking information to the media, and even to sabotage policy decisions by deliberate foot-dragging.
This could spell trouble ahead as Washington grapples with at least two highly contentious issues: changing the policy on gays and lesbians in the military, and extricating U.S. forces from Afghanistan. In both cases, senior officers already have disagreed sharply and publicly with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Barack Obama, and in some cases officers have leaked documents to bolster their case.
As these issues become more heated – if the military is required to accept openly gay service members, for instance, or to execute what it believes is a premature draw-down of troops from Afghanistan – open military dissent could force a corrosive military-civilian showdown damaging to both sides.
Obama has already fired one general
, Stanley McChrystal, for tolerating his staff's contempt for the White House. That came months after someone in the chain of command leaked McChrystal's demand for more troops in Afghanistan – and after the general made that pitch publicly
, before a decision had been made. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, has publicly dressed down an Army three-star
general for urging his troops to speak out against changing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell '' law – after the president, Gates and Mullen had agreed it should be changed.
By law and tradition
, military officers are encouraged to debate ideas and offer their opinions before a decision is made, either by a more senior officer or by civilian authorities. But once a decision is taken, everyone in uniform, but especially officers, is bound to "salute and execute,'' even if they have argued against it.
But that notion is under direct challenge.
"The military officer belongs to a profession upon whose members are conferred great responsibility, a code of ethics, and an oath of office. These grant him moral autonomy and obligate him to disobey an order he deems immoral,'' writes Marine Lt. Col. Andrew R. Milburn in Joint Forces Quarterly
, an official journal published by the National Defense University under the aegis of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
That is especially true if his civilian leaders are incompetent, writes Milburn, who currently is assigned to the U.S. Special Operations Command in Stuttgart, Germany.
"The military professional plays a valuable and constitutionally defendable role as a check on the potentially disastrous decisions of men less capable than Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill,'' he writes.
When U.S. envoy L. Paul Bremer issued an order in 2003 to disband the Iraqi army, American officers would have been justified in refusing to carry it out, Milburn says, because of the disastrous and bloody consequences for U.S. troops and Iraqis alike.
"When the results of bad decision-making are wasted lives and damage to the Nation; when the customary checks laid down in the Constitution -- the electoral voice of the people, Congress, or the Supreme Court -- are powerless to act in time; and when the military professional alone is in a position to prevent calamity, it makes little sense to argue that he should not exercise his discretion,'' Milburn writes.
He cites a survey of 20 midcareer officers from all services at the Marine Corps War College last January, in which he said all agreed that lawful orders could be disobeyed. But what form should that dissent take?
Argue your case to higher authorities, these officers said, according to Milburn. Leak your story to trusted journalists, or drag your feet in carrying out the order – "slow rolling,'' in military jargon. "The most (commonly) used form of disobeying an order I've seen is slow-rolling,'' an Army colonel wrote in response to the survey. Another officer, he said, wrote that his only option, if given an order he thought was ill-conceived, would be "to conduct covert actions to reduce the risks of misfortune and of American casualties."
In a stinging rebuke to these ideas, Richard H. Kohn, a military and constitutional scholar at the University of North Carolina, declares that "the Constitution, law, military professionalism, and tradition all make the military accountable to the civilian leadership, not the other way around ... the military possesses no autonomy of any kind not derived from civilian political institutions, and certainly no moral autonomy.''
Writing on Tom Ricks' blog, The Best Defense
, Kohn suggests readers consider George C. Marshall,
who in 1942 was chief of the general staff (the forerunner to today's Joint Chiefs of Staff). Marshall opposed the strategy of invading North Africa, but was overridden. Should he have refused to invade on the grounds that the president's orders were immoral because he believed they would unnecessarily jeopardize American soldiers' lives?
And don't even bring up Gen. MacArthur, Kohn advises, as do some who assert that military officers owe allegiance to the Constitution rather than the president. That's what MacArthur tried to argue when President Truman fired him
for insubordination. "Every school child in the country knows that the people properly elected or appointed to office embody
the Constitution, even if they sometimes (according to their critics or opponents or the Supreme Court) occasionally violate it,'' Kohn writes.
Military resistance to civilian authority has been rare until recently, when bungling by the Bush administration in Iraq drew the ire of active-duty and retired generals. Gregory Newbold, a Marine lieutenant general, fought Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over inept planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom – and then resigned
in quiet protest. Four years later he went public, explaining that "we must never again stand by quietly while those ignorant of and casual about war lead us into another one and then mismanage the conduct of it.''
But the current unrest among midcareer officers is new. One reason may be that today's majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels grew up in counterinsurgency warfare, leading men into combat as young platoon leaders and having to create new ways of operating in dangerously complex political and social environments never imagined by their elders.
"We've been telling our officers for almost 10 years to become comfortable with strategic communications, key leader engagements, political nuance, etc.,'' Lt. Col. Paul Yingling told me in an e-mail. "Many have taken the message to heart." An Army officer who served three combat tours in Iraq, Yingling has been highly critical of the old generation of military brass, whom he accused of failure of command in Iraq. No wonder, he wrote, young officers are "chafing at traditional restrictions on engaging in policy debates.''
But rather than chafing, some officers are simply throwing over the old restrictions and ethics of military decorum. In his new book, "Obama's Wars,'' Bob Woodward writes of Col. John Tien, an Iraq war veteran on the White House's National Security Council staff, instructing the president that he must override his own misgivings and give in to the military's demands for more troops in Afghanistan. Tien's "advice'' to the president comes across as a threat, highly unusual – to say the least – coming from a relatively junior staff officer.
"Mr. President,'' Tien said in Woodward's retelling of the scene,"I don't see how you can defy your military chain here. ... You just can't tell him [McChrystal], just do it my way, thanks for your hard work, do it my way. And then where does that stop?''
In a post on Small Wars Journal, Yingling writes: "There is no constitutional principle more important to a democracy than civilian control of the military. Unless the armed guardians of the state remain strictly subordinate to civil authority, no other liberty can long remain safe.''
An anonymous post on small Wars Journal puts it this way: "The Constitution does, in fact, delineate who gives the orders, who follows them, and most importantly who interprets the first two. Here's a hint: it ain't Lance Cpl. Coolie, Lt. Smartypants, Col. Imincharge, or even Gen. Iwanttomakepolicy.''
Still, there is no question that many in the officer corps are smoldering. "Reading letters to the editor confirms that Colonel Milburn's essay resonates with more than a few military professionals,'' writes David H. Gurney, the former editor of Joint Forces Quarterly, who selected Milburn's essay for publication last month. "His candid essay,'' says Gurney, is "too important to ignore.''
In fact, Yingling writes, Milburn should be thanked for making his "regrettable'' views public. "Many others who apparently share his views lack his candor,'' Yingling writes. After all, they are "made of the same genetic material as the centurions who followed Caesar across the Rubicon'' to wage war against Rome's civil authorities. "Anonymous military officers' bitter condemnations of civil authorities are now far too common features of public discourse,'' Yingling continues. "These are the officers we should truly fear -- those who skulk sullenly in corners with like-minded victims of alleged civilian malfeasance, drawing their wages while condemning the society that pays them.''
After reading Milburn's essay, he writes, "I fear the Rubicon may be closer than we think.''