Do Officers Resign over Policy Disputes?

In Reviving the Generals Revolt, Jed Babbin dismisses the criticism of several retired general officers because they did not resign. That’s not Mr. Babbin’s only argument, but it’s the only one that I want to discuss. Mr. Babbin says:

There was a time not long ago when a general would resign rather than follow an order he could not, in good conscience, obey. …. How many of the generals now [criticizing aspects of the war] resigned rather than obey orders that conflicted with their conscience? None. That is the best measure of the credibility of these men and the writers who rely on them.

I have no comment about the generals’ criticisms or the administration’s prosecution of the war. I do object, however, to this particular line of argument in Mr. Babbin’s essay.

The article mentions that Mr. Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in a previous administration. It does not say whether he ever wore the uniform himself. It’s hard for me to believe that a former military officer believes that it was his duty to resign his commission over disagreements with the boss.

Mr. Babbin has – in fact – confused policy disputes with illegal orders. From the time an officer enters the Army, he (or she) is taught this: make your opinions known during the decision making process and then execute the commander’s decision to the best of your ability. For example, the current Army leadership manual (FM 22-100, used in every NCO and basic officer training course) says this:

1-65. [If] the team chief disagrees with the boss’s order and it affects both the team’s mission and the welfare of its members, the team chief must tell the boss; he must have the moral courage to make his opinions known. Of course, the team chief must also have the right attitude; disagreement doesn’t mean it’s okay to be disrespectful. He must choose the time and place – usually in private – to explain his concerns to the boss fully and clearly. In addition, the team chief must go into the meeting knowing that, at some point, the discussion will be over and he must execute the boss’s decision, whatever it is.

1-67 … The good leader executes the boss’s decision with energy and enthusiasm … The only exception to this involves your duty to disobey obviously illegal orders.

2-16. In extremely rare cases, you may receive an illegal order. Duty requires that you refuse to obey it. You have no choice but to do what’’s ethically and legally correct. Paragraphs 2-97 through 2-99 discuss illegal orders.

This deference to the decision of higher authority – except in the case of illegal orders – is just as important at higher echelons of command as it is at the junior level. Civilian control of the military is at the heart of our political system. Also from FM 22-100:

2-8. Since before the founding of the republic, the Army has respected its subordination to its civilian political leaders. This subordination is fundamental to preserving the liberty of all Americans.

The Army’s capstone manual – FM 1 – puts it this way:

The Army’s fundamental purpose is to serve the Nation and its people, defending their security and interests and securing their rights and liberties. This service ethic is central to our profession. Congress, representing the people, has the constitutional responsibility and power “to raise and support armies.” The Constitution designates the President, also elected by the people, as commander in chief of the armed forces. … Soldiers subordinate their full freedom of expression to the needs of security and disciplined organizations. Soldiers accept these responsibilities as part of our nonnegotiable contract with the American people.

This is what Army leaders learn from the beginning of their careers. You owe it to your country, your subordinates and your boss to speak your mind as courses of action are considered and decisions are being made. It is your duty to be forthright. Once a decision has been made, you owe it to your country, your subordinates and your boss to execute that decision with all the skill, energy and enthusiasm that you can muster. Your duty is to obey all lawful orders.

It takes decades to grow a senior tactical or operational level leader. Good leaders don’t abandon their troops in the middle of a mission just because they disagree with the commander’s decision.