Best Defense

On principled resignation: A response

By Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, U.S. Army (Ret.) Best Defense guest respondent Justice in the conduct of war sometimes demands principled resignation of senior political and military leaders. In this, Colonel Anderson is right. But while the current situation calls for a straightforward, no-holds-barred discussion between the president and his military advisors, the criteria ...

via Wikimedia
via Wikimedia

By Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, U.S. Army (Ret.)

Best Defense guest respondent

Justice in the conduct of war sometimes demands principled resignation of senior political and military leaders. In this, Colonel Anderson is right. But while the current situation calls for a straightforward, no-holds-barred discussion between the president and his military advisors, the criteria for resignation are not present — at least not yet.

When fighting war, soldiers and their leaders are not mere instruments, automatons, or programmed killing machines. Even in battle, they remain capable of making moral judgments, hence retaining responsibility for their decisions and actions. This is what separates legitimate killing from butchery, murder, and massacre. And this is why Americans expect their soldiers and leaders to protest commands that would require them to violate the rules of war. Senior political and military leaders who wage war also remain moral agents. How well they identify war aims; choose the military and non-military strategies, policies, and campaigns necessary to attain those aims; and use their bureaucracies to take action and adapt as a war unfolds determine the length of a war, the costs of a war, and ultimately the success or failure of a war. To say it plainly, the decisions and actions associated with waging war determine whether the lives used in fighting are used well or in vain.

Principled resignation must meet two important criteria.

One, the matter must be more than just "disagreement with the final decision" or "feeling one’s advice is being ignored" or "not getting one’s way." It must cross the threshold into illegality or immorality. Waging war becomes unjust when the lives of citizens in military service are being wasted. Part of war’s hellishness lies in this: war necessarily uses lives, and sometimes honest mistakes of omission and commission results in live lost in battle. But when lives are wasted in avoidable ways like promulgating manifestly inept policies and strategies, or conducting campaigns that have no reasonable chance of success because they are neither properly resourced nor connected to strategic aims worthy of the name — lives are not used, they are wasted. Senior political and military leaders are co-responsible for the lives of the citizens-now-soldiers they use in waging war. The purpose of the sometimes-heated dialogue among these senior leaders is to increase the probability of wise war-waging decisions and actions.

Central to this first criteria is Colonel Anderson’s claim that "without American combat troops…to physically clear the cities and towns that [ISIS has] occupied, we are in for a long and frustrating open-ended conflict that the American people will quickly tire of." At the very least, this claim is debatable. This much is clear: without adequate numbers of combat advisors that enhance the capacity of Kurds and Sunni tribes, link Iraqi troops to well-targeted air strikes, help the Iraqis reconstitute their units, and help them coordinate and sustain a nation-wide air/ground counteroffensive, such a counteroffensive is unlikely to succeed. Also clear is the requirement for U.S. quick-reaction forces, medical-evacuation elements, and search and rescue forces to support the advisors who will be on the ground. But whether American ground combat troops are necessary to do the fighting is not clear at all. Also unclear is whether Americans will tire more of U.S. troops clearing cities and towns or of Americans helping Iraqis to do that. Regardless of who does the fighting, the counteroffensive will take long and frustrating years, U.S. assistance and commitment will be needed throughout, and some of that assistance will take the form of uniformed American troops.

The second necessary criterion is that principled resignation cannot threaten civil control of the military — one of the bedrocks of a democracy. Resignation must be a private affair over principle, not a public affair over primacy. "Going public" changes the character of the resignation from a matter of principle to a political matter. Private resignation, like voiced objection, provides a legitimate way to help our government know when what it is doing isn’t working or is wrong. Both objection and resignation help ensure our democracy is not robbed of the ability to recognize and restore deteriorating quality in its decisions and actions. Both contribute to better governmental performance.

Meeting both criteria is difficult. It should be. Principled resignation should be a morally anguishing matter. Perhaps it is time for the closed-door meeting Colonel Anderson describes, but the situation is not yet ripe for resignation by a senior military leader over a matter of principle.

General Dubik is a retired infantryman, paratrooper, and ranger. He held positions of command in Haiti, Bosnia, and Iraq. His last job on active duty was to accelerate the growth and capacity of the Iraqi military and police during the surge of 2007-8. He recently was awarded a Ph.D. in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University and is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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