Over the Horizon: Warning Signs in U.S. Civil-Military Relations

Over the Horizon: Warning Signs in U.S. Civil-Military Relations

In June, Rolling Stone helped bring down Gen. Stanley McChrystal by publishing "The Runaway General," a Michael Hastings article depicting McChrystal's staff as contemptuous of civilian authority. Last month, Bob Woodward's "Obama's Wars" suggested that the uniformed military had boxed President Barack Obama into an escalation of the Afghanistan War. In tandem, the publications re-awakened concerns about the health of civil-military relations in the United States. Although the military has not directly challenged civilian authority, some observers worried that contempt in the ranks and the effort to control policy in Afghanistan could spell trouble for civilian supremacy.

The Winter 2010 issue of Joint Force Quarterly did nothing to reassure them. An organ of the National Defense University Press, JFQ typically publishes short articles on joint or integrated military operations. But the Winter 2010 issue offered one titled, "Breaking Ranks," by Marine Corps Lt. Col. Andrew R. Milburn, who argued that military officers have a moral duty to the Constitution, rather than to the civilian leadership of the United States. Accordingly, officers have a responsibility to openly disobey "immoral" orders, regardless of their legality. Milburn characterized this responsibility as a check on foolish or impractical civilian authority, and as part of a remedy for congressional abdication of foreign policy responsibility.

Milburn's article met harsh criticism from both civilian and military sources. Lt. Col. Paul Yingling referred (.pdf) to Milburn's essay as "chilling" and "regrettable." Dr. Richard Kohn of the University of North Carolina called it "an attack on military professionalism that would unhinge the armed forces of the United States."

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