Loyalty and Dissent: Getting Flag Officers to Hear the Truth
Newly selected one-star generals and admirals in the U.S. military are often jokingly warned that pinning on their new rank means “you will never again have a bad meal, and you will never again hear the truth.” It’s not surprising that many of the unvarnished truths well-known to privates, lance corporals, lieutenants, and captains rarely make it to the ears of generals and admirals. But it is more surprising — and can be even more damaging — when generals at the most senior ranks fail to share hard truths with each other.
The U.S. military is an intensely hierarchical organization. The chain of command is designed to execute orders quickly and efficiently, especially under the fierce stress of combat. In principle, information should flow freely through the chain in both directions, providing directives down and feedback up. Yet in practice, the chain focuses primarily on the downward transmission of orders and policies. The deference and can-do spirit inherent in the military culture often make effective communications upward in the chain of command difficult, especially for unpopular or dissenting views. This friction exists at all levels but becomes even greater when it involves communicating discordant views to generals and admirals at the very top of the hierarchy.
The forces of deference to senior leaders are strong in any large organization. As former Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner has noted, “Most people in positions in government or the military exist in very hierarchical institutions. You need to do a huge amount to lean against the forces of excessive deference.” Too much deference and not enough candor can cause senior leaders to make bad decisions, because they become bureaucratically insulated from valuable criticism and objective feedback. This problem affects the military even more than other types of organizations because the chain of command instills even greater deference toward the most senior military officers, even when honesty and frankness are appropriate. Bad decisions at their level can have immediate, life-and-death consequences for the men and women serving in uniform — and may even result in existential consequences for the nation.
This problem can be clearly seen in the two deadly collisions of U.S. Navy ships in the Pacific in 2017, in which 17 sailors were killed. Though the sailors serving on these ships made numerous errors that caused the collisions, the systematic problems that led the crews to be overworked and undertrained were well known throughout the chain of command. The three-star fleet commander and numerous subordinates were ultimately fired, but one- and two-star admirals across the Navy’s surface forces were well aware of these shortfalls. Some complained, but despite many years of mounting problems, none of the admirals commanding these desperately strained forces apparently ever felt strongly enough to threaten resignation. Despite the clearly growing risks, complaints from the Navy’s fleet leaders repeatedly fell on deaf ears among the senior-most admirals in Washington. That all but assured that deadly accidents would happen.
Another damning example can be found in the long, painful history of the Army’s intelligence system, the Distributed Common Ground System–Army. As we document extensively in our forthcoming book on military adaptation, Army generals in the Pentagon, led by the service’s chief of intelligence, repeatedly rebuffed requests from field commanders for commercially available intelligence mapping software to predict patterns of enemy activity in Afghanistan and reduce casualties from roadside bombs. Reports that criticized the Army’s program of record were destroyed, and a deluge of negative feedback on the system’s field performance was ignored in order to protect a key long-term Army acquisition effort — even though it did not work effectively in the deadly war that the Army was actually fighting. Even as generals in the field sought other solutions, most of them remained quiet on the repeated failures of the “official” intelligence system in order to protect its funding. Soldiers died unnecessarily as a result.
Why is it so hard for dissenting views to travel up the chain of command to the military’s most senior leaders? And when those views do manage to break through, why is it so hard for those leaders to absorb and act on them? Some elements of the military’s flag officer culture often exacerbate the more general problem of excessive deference to senior leaders. These include:
- “Be a team player.” This message is often conveyed to generals and admirals, both explicitly and implicitly, when they pin on their first star. Teamwork is a critical military principle, but encouraging rising flag officers to be team players can readily be interpreted as “don’t rock the boat,” or “go along to get along.” Whether intentionally or not, these messages discourage useful and creative feedback from junior flag officers. They are often acutely conscious of their new status and somewhat probationary position among the services’ most senior leaders, and may be reluctant to share candid critiques unless they are actively encouraged to do so.
- “Stay in your lane.” This was the single most common piece of advice one of us heard during his first several years as a general officer. The message was clear: If a particular topic is not related to your specific job, stay out of it. Beyond the irony of insisting that “general” officers should stay unerringly narrow, this prevents some of the most talented leaders in the military from providing valuable feedback on a wide range of critical issues. The military’s hundreds of one- and two-star admirals and generals collectively possess an astonishing amount of knowledge, experience, and current perspective from the field and fleet. Senior leaders often waste the knowledge and insight of this immensely talented group by encouraging their silence on anything not related to their specific assignment. This squanders the opportunity for the top ranks to hear alternative viewpoints and consider respectful but candid disagreements while important decisions are being made.
- Perceptions of disloyalty. Disagreement and dissent by flag officers — even when shared privately — can quickly become perceived by superiors (and sometimes peers) as disloyalty or even subversion. Moreover, the exclusive ranks of flag officers in each service are dominated by a relative handful of three- and four-star leaders, with tremendous power centralized at the very top. This fosters a powerful “rally around the chief” effect among the generals and admirals serving in the Pentagon’s E-Ring that all too easily can shut down alternate viewpoints — especially those that challenge the real or imagined views of the service chief.
- The officers who become generals and admirals have been immensely successful in navigating a highly competitive and exacting leadership winnowing process that has finally positioned them at the apex of their profession. Few have experienced substantial setbacks or heartbreaking failures, and virtually all aspire to higher rank and more opportunities to serve in the future (even if they rarely admit it). Yet that very natural ambition to continue to achieve new successes can make them behave quite conservatively, since their future opportunities are largely determined by the small fraternity of men and women serving above them. This is especially true for officers competing to serve at the three- or four-star levels since appointments to those ranks are not determined by statutory boards. Instead, they are largely determined by the service chiefs with the advice of their fellow service four-stars — which means the opinions of the most senior officers suddenly count more than ever before.
As the challenges of 21st century warfare grow even more complex, the U.S. military’s senior leaders need access to accurate information, inconvenient facts, and challenging viewpoints that might otherwise become distorted or sidelined before reaching their ears. Finding ways to improve respectful and productive disagreements among generals and admirals will help them make the best possible decisions in an environment characterized by tremendous uncertainty and rapid change. Changing culture is always difficult, but there are at least three concrete ways in which the military services can encourage their generals and admirals to share more candor and hard truths amongst themselves.
- Set up structured debates. As under secretary of the Army in 2014, Brad Carson hosted a series of internal debates on contentious issues that were attended by senior members of the Army Staff as well as experts from outside the Army. These debates provided not only alternative viewpoints but also a model of how to disagree respectfully and productively. One of us participated in this series, sparring with then-Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster about the question “Is Land Warfare Dead?” The Army’s senior leaders got to hear two dramatically different views on an issue critical to the service, ensuring all present could get outside the cocoons of their current job and service perspectives. (It also ended up being the subject of our very first Strategic Outpost column.)
- Create a protected dissent channel. Unlike the State Department, the U.S. military does not have any sort of dissent channel that enables its personnel to share valuable but contrarian viewpoints on serious issues with its most senior leaders. The services and combatant commands should establish confidential dissent channels that are available to all of their members to promote the upward flow of critical information. But to particularly encourage flag officers to share their views, there should also be a special dissent channel that is available only to generals and admirals. Even when done respectfully, criticizing a three- or four-star officer is a risky career move. Senior flag officers should take extraordinary care not to shoot the messengers of bad news and alternative views, and find ways to actively welcome and reward the input. They will likely uncover some important truths that they would never otherwise discover.
- Red-team major decisions using flag officers. Assigning an adversarial role to a team of flag officers to argue against major new programs and initiatives would validate the necessity of the program and make sure all of the downside risks and potential shortcomings are considered in advance. The service staffs in the Pentagon are institutionally incapable of doing this because they are designed to produce consensus long before difficult decisions reach the desks of the service chiefs. Combatant commands also face the problem of groupthink, so they would also immensely benefit from more extensive flag-level red-teaming of operational courses of action. Institutionalizing flag officer red teams would provide better balance to the current system and ensure that the voices of both advocates and critics are heard before any decision is reached. Making such red-teaming a norm at the senior-most levels also sets a powerful example of the value of criticism and respectful dissent to all echelons of the force.
The problem of generals not hearing hard truths from other generals is not new and has contributed to plenty of bad decisions in the past. But if the United States is to prevail in the wars of the 21st century, its military cannot preserve a culture in which its most senior leaders do not hear uncomfortable criticism from their subordinates, especially those in their first years as flag officers. Senior leaders must find ways to hear objective and even damning critical feedback so they can make the best decisions possible in a complicated, unpredictable, and rapidly changing strategic environment.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are Visiting Professors of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Senior Fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also Contributing Editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.