The Principles of Resignation: A Primer

By Dubik, Lt Gen James | Army, July 2020 | Go to article overview

The Principles of Resignation: A Primer


Dubik, Lt Gen James, Army


In an April 8 opinion piece published online by The Hill newspaper, the two authors questioned why no senior military leader had resigned in protest over the Navy's cases involving SEAL Edward Gallagher or the captain of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, Brett Crozier. And in a June 3 post, the Lincoln Project called for both Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to resign for "an egregious lapse in judgment."

Anyone who has read my book, Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory, or the essays I've written on the subject of civil-military relations, or who has heard me speak knows I think both senior military and political leaders should have the option to resign as a matter of principle. In fact, I believe in some cases, principled resignation is a moral obligation.

Neither the opinion piece in The Hill nor the statement from the Lincoln Project, a political action committee fighting President Donald Trump's reelection, advances a proper understanding of resignation in the context of U.S. civil-military relations.

First, the essay in The Hill calls for resignation in protest. Senior civil and military leaders have experience in not having their recommendations followed or only partially followed. To resign in protest because one's advice isn't followed would be viewed as professionally immature. The stakes involved in consequential decisions are often significant. Those who participate in helping the final decision authority use that authority responsibly must be mature professionals, and the final decision authority must be able to count on that maturity in the rough-and-tumble dialogue that precedes and follows a major decision.

Second, a call for resignation in a published opinion piece, as in both the essay in The Hill and the Lincoln Project statement, makes public what should be a private matter-private because the candor required in civil-military dialogue needs a protected space, and private because a decision to resign is a matter of individual conscience. Using the media to create a groundswell of support for a particular position is political behavior, not professional civil or military behavior. The Lincoln Project's statement specifically says, "the presence of the Secretary and Chairman at this ignominious event [Trump's June 1 photo opportunity at St. John's Episcopal Church] transformed them into political partisans." So would a public resignation.

Third, calling for resignation by anyone outside the participants makes an assumption that those on the outside understand the facts more than those with access to available information. Of course, that could be the case, but it would be the exception, not the rule.

Finally, and more to the point in Crozier's case, calling for resignation on April 8 was premature since the investigation was ongoing. According to a May 27 post on USNI News, the Crozier investigation had only recently been handed over to the chief of naval operations for review. And in the case of the June 1 photo op, the details of how the chairman and secretary ended up on-site can be termed a "bait and switch" situation.

Guiding Civil-Military Relations

The position I take is different. I advocate principled resignation, not resignation in protest. The latter opens the door to petulance; the former does not. Principled resignation starts with the recognition of three core principles that should guide civil-military relations in the United States:

* The Constitution assigns the right of final decision to the president, or in some cases, the secretary of defense. This principle guarantees civil control of the military, a bedrock of our democracy.

* All rights have corresponding obligations, however, and responsible use is the obligation that accompanies the right of final decision. The obligation of responsible use, in the U.S., is shared in two senses. First, it is shared between the legislative and executive branches through the fundamental concept of checks and balances of coequal branches of government. …

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