Professional Disagreement and Policy

By Eaton, Paul D. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Professional Disagreement and Policy


Eaton, Paul D., Joint Force Quarterly


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This article attempts to answer some important questions regarding the expression of disagreement by Active or retired military officers with policy or strategy. Specific questions include under what circumstances disagreement should be expressed, what principles should govern such expression, whether we should differentiate between Active and retired officers, and what parameters should govern such expression. From my perspective, the real question is whether officers should render influence and what type of influence is appropriate.

While on Active duty, officers are to respond to testimony--as did Chief of Staff of the Army General Eric Shinseki to questions posed by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) on force structure to prosecute the 2003 invasion of Iraq--truthfully and with no effort to evade. At times, such rendering of straightforward testimony carries a penalty if it is in disagreement with policy established by the Secretary of Defense. In other words, General Shinseki disagreed publicly with the policy of minimal footprint to invade Iraq. He was under oath and performing his duty before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).

Another great example is the drama around "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT). When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen took a principled and elaborated stand before the SASC on his recommendation to repeal the so-called DADT law, he drew fire from conservatives. But he was technically in line with the administration--thus, no disagreement, so no harm, no foul. But when Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos expressed reservations about repeal, in fact disagreeing with the administration intent, a number of those on the left considered him eligible for dismissal. General Amos, like General Shinseki, gave his answer in testimony as we should all expect. As they say, disagreement is not disrespect (or necessarily grounds for attack).

When the same officer is answering questions posed by the press, it is a different matter. The officer has every right to avoid response in order to avoid challenge to policy established by the chain of command. Should he choose to answer a controversial question and therefore possibly get out in front of the administration, as did General Stanley McChrystal at a news conference in Great Britain on force structure for Afghanistan, the officer puts himself into the controversy at his personal risk. Outcomes can obviously vary.

Indeed, Active-duty officers owe the best possible advice to their chain of command, to their superior, his superior, his peer group, and to subordinates.

The role of the community of retired officers--generals and admirals in particular--is far more complex. Retired officers can render influence in academia, defense industry, and media, among possible venues.

The academic venue might seem benign. Some retired officers find themselves analyzing public policy outcomes and explaining paths to results. Some take more of a policy assessment approach to the matter. Retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich of Boston University takes a fundamental position on the use of military force in his recent Washington Rules. The book is largely acclaimed and clearly a challenge to this and previous administrations on the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, the overuse of military force in the prosecution of the Nation's vital national interests, and the failure to balance other forms of national power.

With respect to influence and the defense commercial sector, things get ethically murkier, although technically within the law.

While I was Chief of Infantry, for instance, I had no end of retired generals come by my office to inform me on acquisition opportunities. These men were friends, former bosses, and had the perception of access to the man responsible for Infantry programs. In fact, fully 80 percent of retired three- and four-star generals and admirals migrate to defense-related industries upon retirement. …

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