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Dissent and Strategic Leadership of the Military Professions

Dissent and Strategic Leadership of the Military Professions - Cover

Authored by Dr. Don M. Snider.

February 2008

45 Pages

Brief Synopsis

One of the central difficulties to a right understanding of American civil-military relations is the nature of the U.S. military. Are our armed forces just obedient bureaucracies like most of the Executive branch, or are they vocational professions granted significant autonomy and a unique role in these relationships because of their expert knowledge and their expertise to apply it in the defense of America? To large measure, the answer to this question should determine the behavior of the strategic leaders of these professions, including the uncommon behavior of public dissent. Using the “Revolt of the Generals” in 2006 as stimulus, the author develops from the study of military professions the critical trust relationships that should have informed their individual decisions to dissent. After doing so, he makes recommendations for the restoration of the professions’ ethic in this critical area of behavior by the senior officers who are the professions’ strategic leaders.


Vice Admiral James Stockdale, Vietnam prisoner of war and Medal of Honor recipient, once said, “Even in the most detached duty, we warriors must keep foremost in our minds that there are boundaries to the prerogatives of leadership, moral boundaries.”

In this monograph, the author delineates a segment of these boundaries as they are understood from the study of military professions and as derived from the roles and responsibilities of those seniors privileged to be the profession’s temporary stewards—the colonels/ captains and Flag Officers who comprise the strategic leadership. Such boundaries mean that the decision to dissent can never be a purely personal matter. Rather it will reverberate outward impinging at a minimum the three critical trust relationships of the military profession—those with the American people, those with civilian and military leaders at the highest levels of decisionmaking, and those with the junior corps of officers and noncommissioned officers of our armed forces.

To analyze the impact of dissent on these three critical trust relationships, the author isolates five different but closely related aspects of public dissent that should be considered by the strategic leader when deciding whether to take such a step—the gravity of the issue; the relevance of the professional’s expert knowledge and expertise to the issue at question; and, the three indicators of the dissenter’s motive—the personal sacrifice to be incurred in dissenting; the timing of the act of dissent; and the congruence of such an act with the previous career of service and leadership within the military profession. None of these five factors by themselves will likely be determinative for the would-be dissenter, but collectively they provide a moral context and framework in which a judgmental decision should be made.

The author concludes that if, as a result of these considerations the military leader decides that dissent is warranted—if the leader believes that an act of dissent best balances the immediate felt obligation to bring his/her professional military expertise to bear in a public forum with the longer-term obligation to lead and represent the profession as a social trustee, as a faithful servant of the American people, and as expressly subordinate to civilian control—then for those rare instances there should be no additional restrictions placed on any act of dissent. On rare occasions, true professionals must retain the moral space to “profess.”

He also concludes that what remains now is for the strategic leaders of the military profession to strongly promote and follow the existing professional ethic, reinforcing a culture that discourages public dissent because of the risks to the profession’s essential trust relationships. He maintains that this will be no easy task for the current leaders, but it is an urgent one— reasserting that they alone fulfill the functional roles of representing the profession, rendering advice, and executing legal orders. They must make it abundantly clear that they and they alone, speak for the military profession. All other military voices, including those retired, are heard from nonpracticing professionals and should be considered as such. This will require reestablishing control over their profession’s certification processes to ensure that all parties to civil-military relations understand that retired officers speak for no one other than themselves as citizens; and, most notably, that they do not speak for the current practicing professionals who now lead in America’s conflicts.

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