When generals show courage

“As a soldier, he owes obedience; as a man, he owes disobedience. For the officer, this comes down to a choice between his own conscience on the one hand, and the good of the state, plus the professional virtue of obedience, upon the other.”

– Samuel Huntington, The Soldier and the State

Taking command of a military unit is considered the apogee of a career in service. But to be asked, at this moment, “Under what circumstances would you resign?” would certainly be unexpected. Yet there is an apocryphal story from the 1980s of a senior Admiral asking one of his newly appointed commanding officers to consider this question.

It is worth pointing out that this is not usual: the normal ponderings of a newly appointed commanding officer of a naval vessel are “Under what circumstances – outside of normal the normal business of command – do I want my team to disturb and/or wake me?” To be asked when you would want to resign establishes a very different dynamic. It is a very different question. It is also one that officers should address as a matter of course in any appointment.

Taking command, at any level, only comes after a rigorous selection process (admittedly often on the basis of nepotism and sponsorship in naval circles), and is also a moment in a career that – no matter the level of command – is both flattering, humbling, awe-inspiring, and frightening. In retrospect, most who have done it rate the command experience as one of the most rewarding and defining moments of a lifetime. As an aside, there are others, of course, who use command as a necessary moment in their progress up the greasy pole – one to be used warily and carefully for self-promotion alone (these rare beasts have been known to make it right to the very top of the tree).

But that question (“What would make me resign?”), is complex. Some legal, financial or behavioural circumstances might be the starting point for determining specific reasons. However, that is weighed against the indoctrination across a military career of obedience and subservience to a greater cause than one’s own; the realisation that an institution is bigger and more important that one’s own career, reputation, or idea of self-worth. From the moment of joining a military organisation, the concepts of sacrifice, comradeship, loyalty, and trust are given greater prominence and value than anything around self, family, safety, reward, or incentive.

Thus, the reasons why someone would resign become necessarily more than one’s own performance: they are tied more onto an inward debate over the propriety of dissent, disobedience and resignation. For a senior military officer, one might only truly experience such a reason at the moment when one is confronted by a lawful but immoral order from a civilian authority or military superior. Following through on that takes considerable courage.

Physical courage itself is something the current generation of generals have in abundance. Most have faced the wrath of an adversary in Iraq or Afghanistan; the weight of soldiers under their command dying or being injured; have experienced the chaos of battle themselves, and the momentary decision paralysis when experiencing battle for the first time. These moments change a person.

The courage to resign over a matter of considerable import is not unusual in military circles: it might well be rarer than one imagines, but it remains a core facet of great leaders – those with the competency, institutional loyalty, integrity, self-control, confidence, humility, connection to the force, and sense of duty that tends to make them stand out. These people are often recognisable for their lack of political drive and alignment, their unwavering determination to debate important issues, and with a humility, wit and humour to listen to challenge (something many have made time for throughout their careers).

This issue was much discussed in the USA during the Trump administration, for a variety of reasons. In former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s autobiography (“Sacred Trust”), Esper wrote that he had not resigned over various issues during his appointment – from removing troops from Germany, or attacks on drug cartels in Mexico, to deploying active-duty troops on US soil following the death of George Floyd – because he feared that a ‘yes man’ would take his place.

Esper’s predecessor, former Secretary of Defense and USMC General Jim Mattis eventually resigned for a myriad of reasons but certainly the removal of US troops from Syria without being consulted was a final moment. In each of these cases, personnel swear an allegiance to the US constitution not to the president. In the UK, soldiers swear an allegiance to the crown and not the government.

Yet perhaps this is simply an excuse to ‘do-nothing’ (always a more attractive than to ‘do something’: after all, the desire for the status quo approach is built into Western societies). Neither the crown nor the US constitution is likely to force circumstances onto senior officers and civil servants that are illegal, unethical or immoral. The real issue is between the differing human values and relationships that leaders hold dear, and the political decisions that are made.

It often comes down to how one feels they should enact Clausewitz’s trinity between the government, the military and society. What responsibilities, beyond the legal ones, do servants of the state owe to their political masters of the day? Or are there moments at which values and beliefs require a decision for the benefit of the society they serve? In time, humans live with their consciences, and their own self-assessments of the decisions they made. Some at the highest levels will be found sorely wanting, to toss and turn sleeplessly unto death on poor decisions, hubristic attitudes, and self-promotion for no reason. Others will regret some things but be able to hold their heads high in the knowledge that they stood while others cowered.

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