War Stories

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?

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.

This is why no U.S. general has resigned in more than 40 years—and the last one to do so later asked, without success, for reinstatement.

Yet Wong and Lovelace argued that mere retirement “should not be an option when the threat to national security is high. … It may be personally satisfying to leave the distasteful aspects of a policy battle, but it ignores a responsibility to the nation and the [military] profession to do what is right.”

In other words, if generals want to protest an impending decision, and if that decision affects (in the generals’ view, if it gravely harms) national security, they should fall on their swords, and falling on swords unavoidably hurts. If it doesn’t hurt, it’s not really falling on a sword. Wong likens it to civil disobedience: Those who engage in that act do so knowing they face jail. Similarly, if an officer decides that he cannot in good conscience carry out the obligations of his commission, he should give up the commission and the benefits that go with it. Ducking out quietly—giving up the responsibilities but not the rewards—is a cop-out.

Generals who stop short of considering resignation are not necessarily selfish. For there is another distinction to draw between the generals’ revolt over Iraq and a hypothetical revolt over, say, a decision to attack Iran.

The retired generals who spoke out in 2006 criticized not so much the decision to invade Iraq but rather the way that the invasion was planned and carried out—specifically, Rumsfeld’s refusal to send what they considered enough troops.

To many officers, these generals—and many other officers who said nothing—had the right, even the obligation, to speak their minds on troop levels, tactics, and strategy. However, in disputes that involve policy, many of those same officers believe they have no business speaking out in public or even speaking out at all.

Retired Col. Don Snider, a professor at the Army War College who has written extensively on civil-military relations, says officers can engage in dissent only on very narrow grounds. “Officers are the servants, not the masters,” he said in a phone interview. “If they can’t accept that, they should get out.” However, he emphasized, they should get out quietly—that is, they should retire (and maybe explain their actions a few years down the road, after the crisis has blown over). To resign in protest would mean injecting themselves into issues—of policy, politics, and foreign policy—that go beyond a military officer’s professional expertise and ethos.

One officer who often thinks about these issues, but who asked not to be identified, agrees with Snider to a point—officers, he says, shouldn’t go “outside the lane” in their dissent—but adds that there’s a “fine line” between political policy and military judgment. For instance, if a president goes to war on the basis of faulty or jiggered intelligence findings, the decision isn’t strictly “policy,” since intelligence analysis is also among an officer’s professional tasks.

These are the sorts of fine lines that senior officers are mulling and skirmishing over with great intensity right now. If the run-up to Iraq were somehow replayed, it’s a fair bet that one or two generals would resign—or retire, then speak out more promptly than they did. (Gen. Greg Newbold, who was the Joint Staff’s director of operations at the start of the Bush administration, retired shortly before the invasion but didn’t speak out for three years—a lapse that, he later wrote, he regretted.)

If there is a run-up to an Iranian war, what would the generals do? This is not an easy question. But here is my proposal (an easy proposal, some would charge, correctly, since I’m not in the military): If the top officers up and down the chain of command all agreed that an attack on Iran would be a disaster, on whatever grounds, they should do all they can to sway the president—and anyone who has influence over the president—against it. They should arrange to be called before congressional committees and to be asked awkward questions, which would elicit their critical replies. At the final hour, they should threaten to retire or resign en masse and, if that didn’t work, they should follow through. (Even if they quietly retired, the fact that three or four or six or eight generals did so at once would have some impact.)

This is a dangerous business. It shouldn’t be undertaken often (and even on this outing, it should be done only in coordination with, perhaps at the behest of, civilian officials who agree with their positions—say, the secretaries of defense and state). But if the bombing led to disaster, as many of these officers now believe it would, they must realize—and, given the experience in Iraq, they probably do realize—that they would share the responsibility. The question is: Will anticipation of this responsibility lead them to do something beforehand, if only as recompense for having done too little before the disaster of Iraq?