Rules for dissent in the military

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2008

W hen is it legitimate for a general, whether retired or on active duty, to criticize a war?

Almost two years ago, six Army generals denounced the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq conflict. Their protest, known in military circles as the "revolt of the generals," raised eyebrows at the time but may have started the process that led to the more effective strategy pursued by Gen. David H. Petraeus over the past year.

More recently, retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, who led U.S. forces in Iraq for a year after the 2003 invasion, accused the Bush administration of going to war with a "catastrophically flawed" plan and warned that the United States is "living a nightmare with no end in sight." He also denounced the troop "surge," which was then just beginning, as "a desperate attempt by the administration that has not accepted the political and economic realities of this war."

Here, in an essay released recently by the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, retired Army Col. Don M. Snider tries to formulate some rules of the road for such dissents - an especially interesting effort because it has now become routine for presidential candidates to compete for the endorsements of retired generals.

(a) Gravity of the issue: ... Logically, the higher the stakes, the greater the temptation and justification will be for dissenters to speak out.

(b) Relevance of professional knowledge and expertise to the issue in question. ... In other words, why should the dissenter be listened to?

(c) Sacrifice incurred by the individual for taking the action. ... For a true professional, a right understanding of one's loyalties always places loyalty to self dead last. Thus, absent personal sacrifice, such dissent quickly leads to suspicion and the search for ulterior motives.

(d) Timing of the act of dissent. ... If something is worthy of an act of dissent, then it is worthy. Thus, as soon as that is discerned and decided by the strategic leader, the act should follow immediately.

(e) Authenticity as a leader. ... Disillusionment occurs in junior officers and noncommissioned officers when they discover that strategic leaders who have exhorted them on in combat turn out to have been opposed to the war for some time, or when they learn that they have risked their lives and those of their subordinates for a cause in which their leaders did not believe, even as they led. ... Thus, the possibility of fomenting cynicism and the consequent exodus of younger professionals should always figure quite prominently in the calculation of those contemplating dissent.

I was especially struck by Snider's items (c) and (d), which hadn't occurred to me before. But I disagree with (e), because I've found that a greater cause of cynicism among younger soldiers is generals who don't tell the truth as they see it.

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