The Ethics of Military Dissent

By an odd coincidence, yesterday when I was clearing out some bookmarks, I ran across this Army War College monograph on the ethics of military dissent that caught my eye back in February. The author, Don Snider, was writing in response to the Revolt of the Generals in 2006, when six retired generals publicly voiced their criticisms of the conduct of the Iraq War. But his argument seems applicable to Admiral William Fallon’s resignation as well (on which Thomas Barnett, the author of the Esquire profile, offers some final thoughts).

Snider argues that the military’s strategic leaders must balance their executive function, which demands obedience to civilian control, with their advisory function, which demands freedom of expression. At stake are the three primary trust relationships upon which their moral authority depend: “. . .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.”

Snider argues for erring on the side of self-restraint, but 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. . . On rare occasions, true professionals must retain the moral space to “profess.” (pp. 30-31)

Fallon’s case seem to hang on Barnett’s heroic portrayal of a Wyatt Earp-type hero taking on the bad guys in the Bush administration single-handedly. I admit to having fallen for it to a certain extent, but there’s a wrinkle that doesn’t quite fit the narrative. Namely that he’s distanced himself from the aspects of the portrayal that would qualify him as a noble dissenter. There’s also the question of timing, which Snider addresses:

Here common sense must also apply. 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. Any separation of months or years between the cause and the act is grounds, again, for suspicion of lack of moral agency and for a search for ulterior motives. (pp. 27-28)

Fallon seems to have waged a bureaucratic war of attrition against policies concerning both Iraq and Iran, accompanied by periodic remarks that bordered on insubordination. And when he stepped over the line and got called on it, he fell on his sword and retracted his dissent. Not exactly what I’d call staking a principled position and holding it.

It’s not realistic, perhaps, to expect him to have publicly aired his grievances once he was asked to resign. But if he were really the one man standing between an ill-advised war with Iran, as the article made him out to be, silence would have been a more effective dissent than retraction.