Just Say No? Military Dissent From Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to the Trump Era

May 3, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Book Review Roundtable: Is the Pentagon at War Against America’s Presidents?” from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

Mark Perry, The Pentagon’s Wars: The Military’s Undeclared War Against America’s Presidents (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2017).

The title of Mark Perry’s new book, The Pentagon’s Wars: The Military’s Undeclared War Against America’s Presidents, suggests the tale of something rather dramatic. If not a coup, then, at the very least, a systematic military effort to undermine America’s civilian commanders in chief. In fact, Perry’s book offers less of a bang than a whimper. It’s a detailed account of the behind-the-scenes griping and sulking that results when civilian policy makers give military leaders what the latter view as foolish directives. But if there’s truly a “war” against U.S. presidents, declared or undeclared, it’s not evident from the examples cited in The Pentagon’s Wars.

Gays in the military? Perry reminds us that as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell did his darnedest to broadcast his disapproval of Bill Clinton’s efforts to end the military ban on homosexuality. U.S. involvement in Bosnia, and, later, Kosovo? Perry tells the story of the many senior military leaders who viewed these interventions as doomed nation-building efforts, which distracted the military from its core tasks. The Iraq War? Perry notes that senior military officials made no secret of their dismay at being ordered into Iraq based on flimsy intelligence and with a war plan that failed to look beyond toppling Saddam Hussein.

But muttering, sulking, and occasional bureaucratic slow-rolling don’t amount to a war – at least not in the traditional sense. Of course, if the United States can call fifteen years of fitful, geographically diffuse and generally inconclusive strikes against “terrorism” a war, perhaps there’s no reason not to call intermittent military discontent with presidential orders a war as well. It’s certainly true that U.S. wars have lately been no more successful than the episodic military grumbling Perry painstakingly describes

To Perry, both these failures are cause for concern. Why, he asks, can’t America win its wars? And why haven’t military leaders more consistently spoken out against foolhardy presidential commands? To Perry, these two questions are interconnected: America no longer wins wars, he argues, in part because America’s military commanders have been unwilling to stand up and tell American presidents “‘No’— or even ‘Yes, sir, but.’”

In this book review roundtable, three experts on civil-military relations evaluate and respond to Perry’s book. Alice Hunt Friend takes Perry to task for his military-centric view of decision-making processes. While his account offers granular detail about military discontent with presidential decisions, Perry makes little effort to understand or explain the process or the reasons that led to decisions disliked by military brass, much less describe the complex interplay between military officers and civilians, including within the Pentagon itself. The result, argues Friend, is “an oddly incomplete history and a poor civil-military analysis.” Perry takes it for granted that sometimes a resounding military “No!” is the appropriate response to a presidential directive, but gives no thought to the dangers of encouraging un-elected military leaders to second-guess the decisions of elected officials.

Granted, Friend acknowledges, “in the Huntingtonian tradition of civil military-relations, there is a perennial search for the line between politics, from which the military is ideally excluded, and military operations, where it is unclear whether and in what way civilians belong.” She also acknowledges that “civilian and military leaders constantly redefine the boundaries between political and military decisions,” and the resulting ambiguity about military and civilian “lanes” creates genuine uncertainty and confusion about “where senior military authority begins and ends.” But Perry never directly engages with this dilemma. Instead, he starts from the presumption, as Friend puts it, that “military leadership shouldsometimes supersede presidential judgment in wartime….”

Jason Dempsey echoes Friend’s critique, arguing that “Perry offers no theory of how defense policymaking should work, and his book is the weaker for it.” Dempsey does, however, find a different value in Perry’s account of military wrangling with civilian policymakers: His narrative sheds light on “two key dynamics that help explain why success has been so elusive for the American military: the chasm between the military and civilian policymakers, and the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986.” In part, argues Dempsey, the examples provided by Perry illustrate the degree to which military naïveté about “how Washington works” contributes to frequent military misunderstandings of civilian motivations and incentive structures (and thus contributes to military failures to understand how and why civilians come up with the policies they ask the military to execute). At the same time, military naïveté about the Washington sausage-making machine routinely allows politically savvy civilians to out-maneuver dissenting military commanders, making military efforts to voice disagreement less effective. The military’s reputation for being “apolitical” is important to its credibility, argues Dempsey, “but, paradoxically,” only those military leaders who “understand and are capable of maneuvering in Washington’s inherently political environment” will be canny enough to find ways to express divergent views without sacrificing their credibility.

Dempsey also notes that “by divorcing the service chiefs from the warfighting chain of command,” Goldwater-Nichols separated “those fighting the war and the country’s political leadership.” Service chiefs consequently prioritize the overall health of the force over the nation’s ability to achieve its strategic goals through the use of the military, while combatant commanders are pulled, like it or not, into the political world. Ultimately, the interplay between these different forces within the military produces “least common denominator options that are designed to avoid outright failure, but repeatedly fall short of achieving our national security objectives.”

Like Friend and Dempsey, Matthew Moten takes Perry to task for failing to deliver on his central promises: “[W]hile he has produced a ripping good narrative, his book fails to answer” the fundamental questions he poses, or even examine them rigorously. In Moten’s view, Perry is too quick to attribute America’s recent military failure to excessive “nation-building,” a task Perry regards as doomed. But, as Moten notes, Perry makes no effort to square his argument with the impressive American successes in post-World War II Germany and Japan.

Like Friend, Moten also worries about Perry’s “blinkered view” of civil-military relations. While Perry chastises senior military officials who failed to “stand up” to civilians, he doesn’t take the time to ask whether our world would truly be better if military leaders said “no” more often. To Moten, civilian elected officials have, as Peter Feaver once put it, “the right to be wrong.” This is how our democracy works. As Moten notes, this doesn’t mean military leaders shouldn’t express their views candidly and firmly, for “vigorous debate about policy and strategy, while sometimes tense or even unpleasant, is a sign of a healthy civil-military relationship.” But if civilian leaders — even misguided civilian leaders — usually “win,” this is as it should be. Ultimately, “if the president says ‘go,’ it is a close cousin to a coup d’état for his generals to say ‘no.’”

Inevitably, readers of Perry’s book may find it hard to divorce his normative claims from their own views. Those who favored ending the military ban on homosexuality will find themselves rooting for Bill Clinton in the face of Gen. Colin Powell’s intransigence. Those who opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq will find themselves wishing that military dissenters had been more effective in halting the march to war. In different ways, Friend, Dempsey, and Moten all offer an implied warning: Those who find themselves sympathetic to military dissenters based on their views on a particular issue should be careful what they wish for, as empowering military dissent may be a genie that can’t be returned to the bottle.

But just as inevitably, readers may find it hard not to read Perry’s book in light of the Trump presidency. Numerous military and national security experts from both political parties have expressed concern over the president’s departures from decades of bipartisan foreign policy consensus and his often erratic and bellicose pronouncements. In that context, there has been a renewed debate about whether military leaders have the right — or even the duty — to say “no” to what they regard as dangerous and reckless orders.

As Friend, Dempsey, and Moten all remind us, the lines between “political” and “military” matters are rarely as clear as the Huntingtonian model presumes. Unlike enlisted personnel, military officers only undertake to “support and defend the Constitution,” not to “obey the orders of the president” — and both U.S. and international law make it clear that military personnel have no obligation to obey unlawful orders. Unfortunately, the demands of the Constitution are not always crystal clear, and the line between “unlawful” and merely “catastrophically unwise” can also be murky. “Target those civilians because I said so,” would be an unlawful order. “Target those civilians because I believe they are participating actively in hostilities and have thus waived their protected status” is not unlawful on its face, but might be unlawful if the facts indicate otherwise.

Oddly, Perry’s book ignores one example of military dissent that touches directly on issues of legality. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when the Bush Administration adopted the view that waterboarding and other “enhanced” interrogation methods were lawful, there was immediate and sustained military dissent, particularly (though not exclusively) from within the service judge advocate generals’ corps. In some ways this too was a story of “failed” military dissent: The Bush administration simply relied on the CIA rather than the military to carry out interrogations that military lawyers denounced as torture. But the military dissenters ultimately carried the day: Within a few years, the Bush administration’s Justice Department had repudiated its earlier approval of waterboarding, and intense media and congressional pressure, inspired in part by military dissenters, forced the Bush administration to abandon the practice.

This example helps illustrate, perhaps, the complexity of the civil-military terrain.  Perry’s book — incomplete and flawed as it is — won’t resolve any of these debates. But despite its shortcomings, The Pentagon’s Wars offers valuable historical context for those on both sides of the issue, and is an important volume for all students of civil-military relations.


Rosa Brooks is the Associate Dean for Graduate Programs and Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. She also serves as an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point and as a Senior Fellow in the New America/ASU Future of War Program. From 2009-2011, Brooks served as Counselor to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy. Her most recent book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, was published in August 2016 by Simon and Schuster.

Image: U.S. Army