Attending cadets salute from the upper deck of Michie Stadium during graduation ceremonies at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, May 25, 2013.
Mike Segar / Reuters

When news reports suggested that if the Obama administration did not follow General Stanley McChrystal's recommendations for the war in Afghanistan, the general might quit, McChrystal immediately slapped them down. But soon after, others appeared to be urging him to do just that. The respected former vice chief of the U.S. Army, retired General Jack Keane, stated on a Sunday talk show that were he in McChrystal's shoes, he would probably resign. And in an op-ed, John S.D. Eisenhower, the son of President Dwight Eisenhower and a professional soldier and military historian, went so far as to claim that officers "have an obligation to resign if they are unable to carry out the commander in chief's policies."

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, resigning (asking for retirement or reassignment) over advice not taken, policy disagreements, or moral or ethical qualms undermines the relationship between military officials and their civilian superiors and destroys the professionalism of the U.S. armed forces.

As General Richard Myers and I argued two years ago in Foreign Affairs ("Salute and Disobey?" September/October 2007), an officer who threatens to -- or does -- resign over a policy decision commits a political act. He or she is publicly disputing the judgment of civilian leaders and violating the principle of civilian control over the military, a fundamental tenet of American government and a basic precept of military professionalism. Because of the military's prestige and reputation for disinterested patriotism, such public dissent weakens civilian leadership in the public eye. Those opposing the decision could become emboldened, and the policy decision likely submerged, in partisan bickering. Indeed, that is why administrations have frequently negotiated with military leaders to gain their support prior to announcing important defense decisions, and why recent administrations have sometimes asked potential appointees about their political party or the circumstances under which they might resign.

Furthermore, military leaders who claim that they are resigning for moral or professional reasons are imposing their own conceptions of morality and professional behavior on the country. While there may be general group norms, these kinds of judgments always vary by individual. Even supposed norms provoke considerable disagreement within the military. Resigning because of moral doubts also violates the military's subordination to civilian authority and contravenes an officer's oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.

Likewise, it is not the role or function of the military to make policy. That job is properly the responsibility of elected officials and those they appoint for that purpose. The role of senior military officers is to advise and then execute civilian leaders' orders, even when they seem to infringe on professional military matters. Officers cannot possibly know all of the larger national and international considerations that go into a policy or decision, in peace or in war. "There are too many influences involved," George C. Marshall, former chief of staff of the U.S. Army, secretary of state, and secretary of defense, once put it, "and it is quite a question of how much of this would be familiar to military participants."

There is no tradition of resignation at the most senior level of the U.S. armed forces. Just one instance, such as McChrystal resigning, could set a very dangerous precedent. Presidents, senior defense officials, and senators would inevitably begin to vet military nominations more routinely on the basis of whether the officer might quit. Candidates for the Joint Chiefs and for the most significant command positions would find themselves subjected to all sorts of litmus tests (regarding their politics, their ethical and moral views, and other personal matters) that are likely to be irrelevant to their suitability for the role. In effect, senior military posts and wartime command positions -- perhaps especially wartime command positions -- would become political appointments. One can imagine a president or secretary of defense wondering even then whether it is safe to be honest with a military leader who might spill all once safely in retirement. In fact, the last 60 years is riddled with examples of just such distrust and poor communication between the military and civilian superiors that produced bad policy. The Vietnam War stands out as the chief example, but strategic disagreements in the 1950s, arguments over budgets in the 1970s, and interventions in the 1990s -- such as that in Somalia -- were typical.

Beyond undermining civil-military relations, resignations can also compromise the military internally. Any officer who chooses to quit abandons his or her troops and the country, giving heart to enemies and shaking the morale of the armed forces. If a senior officer -- one of the Joint Chiefs or a theater commander -- quits, it could, depending on the circumstances, produce a political storm, however short-lived. If several did, it would amount to a military revolt. In the wake of such an event, it could be extremely difficult for successors to gain the confidence of their troops, especially if the move had struck a chord with the soldiers.

These considerations apply mainly to the Joint Chiefs and most senior commanders. Officers who have fulfilled their service commitment at lower levels have the right to retire when they wish, for any reason. But if servicemen and servicewomen at any level of the military begin to condition their continued service on personal moral standards or whether they agree with their civilian superiors, the U.S. military would become thoroughly politicized from the inside, and might come apart in wartime.

One can imagine an extraordinarily rare instance in which an officer, genuinely believing that he or she has become ineffective, is no longer the best person to serve in a particular role. While the final judgment belongs to the civilians, the officer might request retirement or reassignment and leave quietly -- as did Ronald Fogleman, former U.S. Air Force chief of staff, in 1997 and Admiral William Fallon, former head of Central Command, in 2008 -- so as not to disrupt civil-military relations, intrude into policymaking, politicize the issue, or set a precedent that would weaken military professionalism. However, an officer's duty to "salute and obey," and the privilege that comes with his or her rank to "the special trust and confidence" of the nation's civilian leaders, must not, even in rare and unusual circumstances, be rendered meaningless by resignation. That would eventually destroy the U.S. military, both from within and without, and undermine the national security of the United States. 

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  • RICHARD H. KOHN is Professor of History and Adjunct Professor of Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been Chief of Air Force History for the U.S. Air Force and Omar N. Bradley Professor of Strategic Leadership at Dickinson College and the Army War College.
  • More By Richard H. Kohn