Obedience and Duty in Choppy Seas: A Reflection for my Military Friends


So a festive week, yes? Aside from my son’s broken toe and the attendant drama, I mean. In the aftermath of the election results, I have had and seen many interesting discussions about the duty to serve, from military personnel alike. Some have expressed the view that nothing has changed; military personnel serve the American people and have served under many POTUS’s – even ones they disagree with.  Others have expressed grave concern about whether they can, in good conscience, serve a POTUS who seems to advocate policies they find at odds with the values of the US military and their own personal values.

Out of these discussions came a request for me, as a civilian military ethicist, to weigh in on questions of obedience and ethics. As a trained philosopher, I will do two things, cite other philosophers and ask a bunch of annoying questions.  There is much to think about and many of these decisions, as all ethical decisions, are a matter for individual reflection and action. What a philosopher can do is frame the debate, question assumptions, guide reflections and occasionally make an argument (subject to rebuttal!)

Let’s start with philosopher and ethicist, Peter Singer, a well-known utilitarian and animal rights activist, who recently argued that there may be an obligation to serve the new administration, if it is possible that such service can influence the direction of policy and/or reduce harm of whatever policies emerge. Singer

Neutrality and Professionalism

How do these considerations apply in the case of the military? The obvious starting point here is Samuel Huntingdon who argues that, except in very extreme circumstances, questions of disobedience to the civilian authorities do not arise.  There is a very strong presumption in favor of obedience, he insists, as a part of military professionalism and that includes the right of the civilians to pursue what the military thinks of as bad policy. (Soldier and State, p. 73) This is the conventional view that the military serves the American people and the POTUS is the representative of their will.  (For a somewhat opposing view on the idea that civilian authorities have a right to be wrong, see James Dubrik’s recent book Just War Theory Reconsidered in which he lays out the ethical responsibilities of War Waging for senior military officials.)

On the conventional view, the change of power (which has begun) is routine, and it is irrelevant whether or not the military agrees with the political views of the POTUS. Some did not agree with those of Bill Clinton on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, nor of George W. Bush on the 2003 Iraq war and served faithfully and well anyway.  On this view, the military (especially the officer corps) is supposed to be politically neutral in the execution of their office (which does not mean one does not have person political views, but those are to be a private matter.)  Advocates of this view (Neutrality, let’s call it) would claim this is why the military is a trusted institution and the politicization of the military (especially the office corps) leads to bad things, like coups.

So no problem, right? You salute and do job which allows and even requires disobedience in the unlikely event of a “manifestly illegal or immoral order.” The military will maintain their values and military professionalism regardless of who the Commander in Chief happens to be.  If your personal conscience does not allow this, then you ought to resign.

Supreme Emergency Conditions?

Others want to claim that the situation is not all the same as the conventional view characterization above.  They claim the POTUS Elect is not a ‘normal’ politician and this situation is extraordinary, using some of these points:

  • Numerous analogies to Hitler or other authoritarian leaders
  • Even if #1 is not true, this POTUS will increase the likelihood of being asked to commit war crimes, enter into an unjust war, reverse gender and sexual orientation integration or generally engage in policies that are not in the national interest (Russia and Syria are of particular concern, but also China)
  • The POTUS does not have respect for the military or its members, as evidenced by comments in the course of the campaign.

Let’s assume for the sake of the argument (because that’s what philosophers do!) that at least one of the above has merit and based upon the evidence of the campaign will pursue policies that are at odds with the values of the US Constitution, International Law and military professionalism. (I would point out as a philosopher we have a classical epistemic problem here: this is all conjecture. We just do not know with any certainty what will happen.) It’s also important to note here that this is not a question of whether the situation can violate one’s personal values, but the values of the profession of which one is a member.

What should one do? Should one stay as Singer suggests or leave? If one leaves, should it be in a public protest way or quietly without giving reasons?  On one hand, we have the model of the protest of Siegfried Sassoon in World War I, who publicly protested the waging of the war and on the other hand, we have the Wehrmacht model where many German soldiers stayed and eventually (one might argue) were co-opted into Hitler’s plans and became complicit, unable to influence his policies to any significant degree.

 The Nature of the Military Profession

To answer this, we need to look at military professionalism in more detail. What exactly does it entail, other than what Huntingdon says?

  • There is the Oath that service members take to uphold and defend the Constitution, protect the country and to engage in reasonable obedience and loyalty, but that loyalty is not to the POTUS as a person (as an office) and it is to the American people, the institutions, laws and values of the Nation.
  • It includes a commitment to military values like integrity, courage, loyalty, sacrifice and leadership.
  • It also includes a commitment to a system of civilian control over the military as a basic part of the democratic system. This last point, as Dubrik points out, does have some complexities, but the basic principle is important.

At this point, I think it is important to note (as I do to my military ethics students) that moral purity is not included anywhere in this scheme.  These are values, not guarantees, as the military enterprise is fraught with difficult moral decisions.  I recognize that this is a controversial claim to some – as the moral injury debate has highlighted – but I do think the contract with the military involves physical, moral and psychological risk. I think the question becomes how much of those risks is it reasonable to ask of our military?

Here are some ways to think about the choices and I think there are different choices for Enlisted, Senior NCO/Junior Officer, mid-career officers and senior (Flag and General) officers. In general, I think that we can and should ask more moral risk taking from those with more power and responsibility since their actions can and do have more impact.

Enlisted – Do you trust your immediate leaders to uphold the values of military professionalism under pressure?

Senior NCO’s and Junior Officers – What best serves the people that you lead and are responsible for? Will you be able to stay and be effective and protect and serve them?  Will you be able to remain loyal to the values that are part of military professionalism?

Mid-career officers – the same as above with a bit more emphasis on your role in the institution, especially in providing guidance and advice up the chain of command.  Will you be able and willing to give frank, even critical assessments if that serves?

Senior Officers – Can you serve and maintain the values of military professionalism, the institutions and people you are charged to serve without being co-opted into any adverse political processes? Can you be a tough and critical voice if that is necessary? Are you willing to resign, if necessary?

Of course one important issue not yet addressed (except indirectly) is the politicization of the military, especially the officer corps. There is something to the neutrality argument referenced above (under normal conditions), but I agree with Dubrik that senior officers especially have certain moral responsibilities that could cross over into the political or at least be perceived in that way.  If this is not a normal transfer of power, if this is a morally different situation, then critical and principled voices will be more important and not less.

There is a level of vulnerability and moral risk in which I am suggesting here and I do not wish to downplay that, but rather say that some moral risk is part of military professionalism –  noting my caveats about rank and responsibility. But there is also risk to one’s personal beliefs and moral conscience here, as well as to one’s family and friends – to which one also has ethical obligations.  As in the case of Selective Conscientious Objection (like Lt. Watada refusing to go to Iraq), conscience matters especially when expressed in public ways. Senior officers and Senior NCO’s tend to have the most potential impact relative to both their people and outside audiences, but maintaining military professionalism and good leadership within the military also has important impacts.

The Question at Hand

So one must ask: Do you think the new POTUS as Commander in Chief will have adverse impacts on the Profession of Arms and various democratic institutions? How serious is that likely impact to be? If one thinks that it is likely to be very serious or catastrophic, then I think there is an obligation to speak up, possibility resign in a public and clear way.  One must do this, however, in ways that take into account the moral obligations one has to those left behind in the military, possibly taking up other ways to serve: citizen activism, being an advisor or listening ear to those still in the military or trying to be engaged in policy from the civilian side.

If one thinks the damage is likely to be moderate and reversible, then I think there is a strong case for continuing to serve and protect the Nation and the American people. The hope is that in this scenario, one can mitigate some harm and maintain the Profession of Arms without being completely co-opted into immoral and illegal acts.  At the very least, the military can be a model of important values that some see under attack by the new political regime.

Of course this judgement of what is likely to happen is speculative. Once the Secretary of Defense and State are in place, this may be clarified, but I also expect that members of the military will be and are already looking for cues from their senior leadership about what to expect and what stance will be taken.  This is why it is particularly important for senior officers and senior NCO’s, as well as mid-level officers to think through this process, and as they feel it is appropriate and professional convey to their subordinates. I also think that faith that the American people have in the military as an institution in our society is both an asset and obligation. There is power there, but it is power held in a sacred trust and with the assumption that it will be exerted professionally and wisely.

It is clearly a time for reflection, examining assumptions and critical thinking and questioning and above all, honest and civil conversation. As I say to my students, its complicated and that’s good.

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