Should generals resign if Bush orders an attack on Iran?

Military analysis.
Oct. 17 2007 7:17 PM

Resign, Retire, Renounce

What should generals do if Bush orders a foolish attack on Iran?

From the Joint Chiefs of Staff to U.S. Central Command, most of America's military leaders have expressed wariness about, if not outright opposition to, the idea of bombing Iran.

So, if President George W. Bush starts to prepare—or actually issues the order—for an attack, what should the generals do? Disobey? Rally resistance from within? Resign in protest? Retire quietly? Or salute and execute the mission?

Advertisement

The appropriateness of military dissent is a hot topic among senior officers these days in conferences, internal papers, and backroom discussions, all of which set off emotional arguments and genuine soul-searching.

"What should we have done in the run-up to the war in Iraq?" the generals are asking. "What should I do the next time?" is the tacit question stirring the conscience.

At play here is a tension between two fundamental principles of the military: the duty to provide civilian decision-makers with unvarnished military advice on issues of warfare and the obligation to obey all lawful orders by superiors. Under the Constitution, the president is superior to the highest-ranked general or admiral.

For the past few years, many officers have wrung their hands over the top generals' failure to assert their views as strongly as they should have during the planning stages of the Iraq war. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld insisted on invading with one-third to half as many troops as the generals were recommending. They knew that disaster loomed, yet after the first round of disagreement, they said nothing.

In April 2006, three years after the war began, six retired generals spoke out against the war plans and called for Rumsfeld's resignation. Critics of the war lauded this "generals' revolt," but many active-duty officers—especially the junior and midlevel officers actually doing the fighting—were repelled. They asked: Where were these generals when they were still wearing the uniform, when their dissent might have meant something? How could they have led us into battle while having so little confidence in the battle plan?

Yet some senior officers believe dissent has no place within the military, especially once a decision is made. Others wouldn't go that far, but the guidelines are murky on where to draw the line. The Uniform Code of Military Justice is clear: All military personnel, including officers, are obligated to obey "lawful orders." In fact, it is a crime, punishable by court-martial, not to obey. The qualifier—"lawful order"—is important: It pre-empts the Nazi defense of war crimes ("I was just following orders" is no excuse if the orders were unlawful), and it's a legitimate way out for conscientious soldiers who do not want to take part in atrocities like My Lai or torture sessions like Abu Ghraib.

But it's one thing for a sergeant to disobey a lieutenant in the frenzy of battle. It's quite another for generals to declare a president's order "unlawful." That's not an act of conscience; it's a coup d'état. (There are some circumstances that could confuse the most honorable officer. For instance, in the last weeks of Richard Nixon's presidency, when Nixon was drinking heavily and teetering on the edge of sanity, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger directed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to check with him before executing any military orders from the White House. Even then, it's worth noting, the chain of command was circumvented by the civilian defense secretary, not by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

Outright disobedience of a presidential order, then, is an option that no senior U.S. officer wants even to contemplate—and we should be thankful for that. But in a widely circulated article titled "Knowing When To Salute," published in the July 2007 newsletter of the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, retired Lt. Col. Leonard Wong and retired Col. Douglas Lovelace laid out nine options short of disobedience that a senior officer might take when political leaders resist military advice.

If the situation involves little or no threat to national security, they write, an officer can request reassignment, decline a promotion, or take early retirement.

If it involves a high threat to national security, there are several ascending courses of dissent: "public information" (a euphemism for leaking to the press?), writing a scholarly paper, testifying before Congress, engaging in "joint effort" (plotting?)—and, finally, if all else fails to change things, resigning.

There is a huge distinction between retiring and resigning. When officers retire, they do so with full benefits, health care, and continued membership in the fraternity of military officers. When they resign, they give up all of that.