Governments fall when their leaders lose control of the armed forces. When the soldiers lay down their swords and shields and take the hands of the people in the streets, their leaders get on planes and look for somewhere else to land. For this reason, resistance in the military is generally the last–and most important–site for organized political action.
In the United States, and in every democracy or Constitutional government, the military is supposed to be responsive to the government. Like any other bureaucracy, its members are supposed to take orders from civilian authority, executing them as if they were their own idea. Soldiers smartly salute the Commander-and-Chief whether they voted for him or not. Respect and obedience carries all the way through the chain of command, regardless of the soldiers’ judgments about the wisdom or ethics of any order.
This ethos informs the way a professional military works at its best, but also explains why soldiers charged fortified encampments at Gallipoli during World War I, marching to their deaths in waves. It also explains why American soldiers followed orders and massacred unarmed civilians at My Lai during the Vietnam war.
Is there a place for individual conscience?
Since World War II, there has been wide acknowledgment that soldiers should not carry out illegal orders. Lieutenant Colonel Terrence Lakin, a physician in the Army, refused to deploy to Afghanistan because he does not believe that President Obama has the legal authority to send him there. It’s not about international law or the War Powers Act, but Obama’s birth. Lakin doesn’t think Obama was born in the United States; in his view, the Commander in Chief serves illegally, and Lakin himself is duty-bound to refuse orders. Lakin explains:
I feel I have no choice but the distasteful one of inviting my own court martial…I disobey my orders to deploy because I, and I believe all services’ men and women and the American people, deserve the truth about President Obama’s constitutional eligibility to the office of the presidency and commander in chief.
Colonel Lakin’s beliefs can fairly be described as unpopular and marginal. A military court found him guilty of refusing to follow a lawful order. He can be sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison and discharged from the service. At his trial, however, he announced that he was sorry, and would keep his politics out of his job, and follow orders. Whoops.
Unsurprisingly, the birthers have championed his case/their cause. Lakin got the attention they seek, and displayed courage in the service of their beliefs.
Such resistance in the American military is relatively rare, but it has run across the political spectrum.
First Lieutenant Ehren K. Watada refused to follow orders to deploy to Iraq in 2006. Watada explained that when he studied his mission, he concluded that the Iraq war violated international law. Citing the Nuremberg precedents, Watada explained that he was duty-bound to refuse to follow such orders. (He offered to go to Afghanistan, but American soldiers don’t get to pick their wars.)
Watada’s court-martial ended in a mistrial, and after several failed efforts to retry him, the Army negotiated his discharge in 2009.
Watada’s case became a celebrated cause for antiwar activists, who applauded both his judgment and his willingness to follow his conscience. Activists have encouraged others to follow his lead. Note the efforts of Courage to Resist, an antiwar group focused on the servicemen and women who refuse to deploy.
Their cases are rarely so simple as Watada’s, who had grievances with the military only on matters of policy. Other resisters have registered their objections on the basis of their own experiences of mistreatment in the military.
The group has recently taken up the case of Private Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of leading all those documents to Wikileaks.
I suspect that many readers would want to applaud one of these Army officers, but would see the necessity for civilian control of the armed forces in the other case. (Even if you agree with Private Manning’s judgments about American foreign policy, do we want to have the judgment of a high school dropout supplanting that of a government that, after all, has to answer to an electorate?)
The American military provides yet another complication: everyone in the service is a volunteer who signed a contract, effectively letting the rest of the country off the hook.