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.