The Scylla and Charybdis of Duty Discharge: Military Dilemma with Undemocratic Leaders

October 11, 2021
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A week after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the joint chiefs of staff issued a memorandum to the joint force condemning the assault on Congress and the constitutional process. They re-affirmed Joe Biden’s electoral victory and re-iterated their commitment to protecting and defending the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. This re-iteration came on the heels of another. In the summer of 2020, senior military leaders in the United States were alarmed at the Trump administration’s use of military force to deter civilian protestors gathering in American cities to voice their discontent about racial discrimination and police brutality towards minority communities. Retired officers and seniors in the Defense Department warned against the politicization of the military and cautioned civilian leaders against using the military to achieve partisan goals. The Concerned Members of the Gray Line — a coalition of over 1,000 West Point alumni from six decades of graduating classes who had collectively served across ten presidential administrations — wrote a letter to West Point’s class of 2020 cautioning the graduates that while “the principle of civilian control is central to the military profession … it does not imply blind obedience.”

These are just two examples of unprecedented steps taken by active and former senior military professionals in the tumultuous civil-military relations that characterized the Trump administration. Another example of an unprecedented action came to light recently in the form of revelations from Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s forthcoming book, Peril, which suggest that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, took “good faith precaution” to secure America’s nuclear weapons from what he believed to be a worryingly likely scenario of the president “going rogue” and initiating a military strike against China. In the weeks leading up to the inauguration, Milley feared that the outgoing president would either try to use the military to “prevent the peaceful transfer of power” or that he would unleash nuclear war to maintain power. To avert nuclear Armageddon, he inserted himself into the nuclear chain of command — an authority that he does not have by law and doctrine — and reaffirmed with other senior military officials the elaborate procedures that need to be followed in the event of an executive order to launch nuclear weapons. In so doing, Milley positioned himself as a bulwark to thwart a potentially calamitous chain of events set in motion by an increasingly erratic and bellicose leader. His actions have invited an array of responses, ranging from those who support him and defend his conduct to those who demand his resignation and implore that he be court-martialled for treason. In his testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Milley defended his loyalty to the nation and asserted that he acted well within his statutory role of being in the “chain of communication” as the president’s primary military adviser.



Milley’s conduct, while deserving of public awareness and scrutiny, needs to be understood in the context of the unprecedented dilemma that he faced. What can military leaders do when the norm of military subordination to civilian control clashes with their adherence to the constitution and the rule of law? Milley was a military professional confronting a civilian executive with a penchant for undermining democracy — obeying this leader would risk jeopardizing his oath to defend the constitution and the rule of law, while disobeying would threaten the norm of civilian supremacy and the military’s democratic accountability.

In recent years, democratic backsliding has affected nascent and mature democracies alike. To preserve and extend their authority, leaders in the United States, Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, Brazil, Nicaragua, Turkey, and India have used and/or threatened to use the military to advance partisan goals like enforcing controversial immigration policies, detaining journalists, repressing protests, arresting civil society activists, overturning election results or preventing elections from being held at all, and detaining opposition leaders. Understanding military behavior in other countries threatened by democratic erosion can help to contextualize the situation that Milley confronted and the actions that he undertook.

Democracy and Civil-Military Relations

The principal dilemma of all civil-military relations, as explained by civil-military relations scholar Peter Feaver, entails the cultivation of a military strong enough to do what civilian leaders ask yet subordinate enough to do so only when asked. Civilian control over a professional subordinate military is a quintessential element of democratic regimes. Non-democracies, on the other hand, are characterized by politically influential militaries that have either overthrown civilian leaders and usurped power through coups or have acted as powerful allies for civilian autocrats like in Syria and North Korea. Comparative politics scholar Dan Slater demonstrates how in many postcolonial regimes, militaries are powerful and effective brokers in ensuring authoritarian durability. As such, curbing the military’s politically aggressive tendencies involves bolstering civilian oversight mechanisms. For example, by punishing disobedient officers, monitoring the appropriate implementation of civilian orders, controlling their purse strings, and ensuring their accountability through public hearings, civilians could keep a check on the military.

Whereas politically aggressive militaries used to be the dominant cause of democratic decline in the Cold War period, the decades after the Cold War became characterized by executive aggrandizement. This involves a gradual rollback by elected leaders of citizens’ power and rights. Societies with high levels of inequality, when saddled with political institutions that are unable to deliver opportunities for economic advancement, are particularly prone to being captured by demagogues. These “assassins of democracy” like Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orban, Daniel Ortega, and Rodrigo Duterte, among others, use the very institutions of democracy to kill it.

In this context, the military’s actions are critical to further enhancing or eroding democracy. In dealing with undemocratic leaders, democratic militaries face an unenviable dilemma brought on by their tradition of subordination to civilian control. If they follow orders from an undemocratic leader, they become complicit in democratic erosion. If they disobey, they risk disrupting military cohesion. Populist leaders who are prone to using the military to further their partisan agendas end up affecting the military’s internal cohesion by creating supporters and detractors of their actions within the military. These fissures between supporters and opponents will inevitably paralyze decision-making, threaten the military’s operational effectiveness, and ultimately jeopardize national security.

This was the dilemma confronted by the Indian military in the 1970s. Like the American military, the Indian armed forces are a professional subordinate institution, beholden to the precept of civilian control and obedience to the constitution and rule of law. And like their American counterparts, the Indian military have played a critical role in protecting India’s fragile postcolonial democracy through the vicissitudes of India’s chaotic politics.

“India is Indira. Indira is India” 

On June 25, 1975, the Indian president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, declared a state of internal emergency upon the advice of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, citing a right-wing conspiracy that aimed at preventing the democratically elected government from functioning. Prior to the announcement of the emergency, India was in the throes of nationwide protests, with agitators clamoring for Gandhi’s resignation after her conviction for electoral malpractice by the Allahabad High Court, which unseated her and nullified her candidature and 1972 electoral victory. The emergency declaration had an immediate effect — 900 arrests were made within 24 hours, 300 of whom were political prisoners including Gandhi’s leading opponent, J. P. Narayan. During the 18-month emergency, Gandhi disempowered state governments, censored the press, banned public meetings, and postponed the national election, tarnishing India’s democratic credentials.

The opposition implored the Indian army to dethrone Gandhi. Gandhi asked the army to support the implementation of the emergency. They did neither. In a massive rally organized on June 25 in the nation’s capital — New Delhi — Narayan appealed to “the police and armed forces not to obey the illegal and immoral orders of her [Gandhi’s] government” [emphasis added]. This was Gandhi’s last straw, leading to her swift and stealthy imposition of an emergency, as she acutely feared military intransigence and being overthrown in a coup. In a telling incident from 1969, Gandhi candidly asked former field marshal Sam Manekshaw if he planned to oust her. The military, however, refused to heed Narayan’s appeals and did not overthrow her. As explained by Aqil Shah, “the Indian military’s actions were shaped by institutional standards of appropriate behavior which made the notion of a constitutionally prescribed civilian supremacy inviolable and legitimate.” Not only did the military’s organizational beliefs and culture reinforce the norm of civilian supremacy, they also imbibed a learned behavior from their neighbor about the futility of political meddling. In Shah’s interviews with Indian Army officers: “many were typically surprised, and in some cases offended, by any comparison with other ‘political’ armies, including Pakistan. They found it profoundly difficult to countenance actions that constituted subversion of civil supremacy.”

The army also remained uninvolved in the emergency’s implementation. Gandhi asked the then Indian army chief, Gen. T. N. Raina, for troops to aid civilian authorities in the implementation of her directives. According to retired Maj. Gen. Afsir Karim, who was serving in the army headquarters at the time and was involved in daily official dealings with the army chief’s office, Raina resisted Gandhi’s request and communicated to the military rank and file that “[they] are not a part of the emergency and [should] keep away from politics.” This refusal, however, contravenes their constitutionally prescribed function of obeying civilian authority. How did the army not become complicit in Gandhi’s authoritarian takeover when refusal to obey her meant the subversion of civilian control?

In this dilemma, the Indian army feared a disruption to their organizational integrity and internal cohesion. Gen. G.G. Bewoor, another former chief of army staff, opined that the army “must protect itself against political influences that could shatter its professional cohesion and erode its capacity to defend the state against external aggression or internal conflict.” [emphasis added] To maintain cohesion and ensure that his troops remained unsullied by politicization, Raina circumvented the issue of obedience versus disobedience by relying on his operational training and professional experience as a trained soldier. When approached by the civilian Ministry of Defence, he instructed the army headquarters to follow the Union War Book, a voluminous classified document that contains detailed instructions for every government department on how to function in the event of war. Invoking the Union War Book implied a deployment for war. This was along the lines of the military’s well-established repertoire of action — the large-scale use of force as dictated by the army’s conventional offensive doctrine that has shaped their crisis behavior and strategy in all security crises since India’s independence. A mobilization on this scale meant the relocation of troops away from India’s restive western and eastern border regions to the national capital and other parts of the country as desired by civilian policymakers. However, the Defence Ministry rejected the army’s proposal, viewing it as “unnecessary for the purposes of an internal Emergency.”

Raina confronted an elected leader who centralized authority, suspended judicial hearings on constitutional provisions, and undermined democracy. This example is illustrative of how democratic militaries can navigate the dilemma posed by subordination in the context of democratic erosion. The Indian army rejected the opposition’s attempts to co-opt them by reinforcing the norm of civilian supremacy. Simultaneously, they circumvented being used as a pawn in Gandhi’s authoritarian machinations by re-affirming their cardinal function — maintaining national security.

On Jan. 7, 2021, Milley faced a similarly exceptional conundrum. In his attempt to not let the military be used in a partisan manner by the president and to avert a potential military confrontation with China, he exercised his professional judgment in a manner similar to Raina. Like its Indian counterpart, the U.S. military is organizationally and normatively well-versed in maintaining civilian supremacy, ensuring that coups are never countenanced as a way of expressing disapproval with civilian leaders.

However, fearing further instability and threats to national security, Milley’s outreach to his Chinese counterpart and his insertion into the nuclear chain of command both leveraged his traditional training and professional experience in averting conventional wars. As argued by Tom Nichols, “Milley, invoking his personal relationship with his Chinese counterpart, told Li that he would hear about any military action from Milley himself. This is what reassurance and transparency looks like in a crisis.” Milley’s knowledge of and personal relationship with Gen. Li Zuocheng can be thought of as a critical wartime resource — both would also have come in handy in the event of an actual military operation. His backchannel reassurances to his Chinese counterpart helped to thwart a nuclear confrontation. In so doing, he stayed true to his higher calling of defending the nation, even when that seemed to undermine civilian supremacy.

Exceptional circumstances beget exceptional responses. While military officers have a general duty to obey civilian control, they also take an oath to protect the constitution. When compared to other states that have experienced violent civil-military interactions, the United States has benefitted from a relatively stable relationship between its civilian leaders and its military. Obedience to civilian control implies obedience to constitutional and lawful orders. However, the former president delighted in upending norms in politics and civil-military relations, creating situations where obedience to civilian control clashed with protecting the rule of law. In this unprecedented situation, Milley relied on his best understanding of protecting the state — one that was honed through decades of professional experience and service. Shortly before his inauguration, Biden told the general, “we know what you went through. We know what you did.” The president’s confidence in his chief military adviser is a testament to Milley’s professional conduct in upholding American democracy.



Manaswini Ramkumar is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service, American University. Her research is focused on civil-military relations in the context of democratic erosion and is supported by the American Political Science Association’s Centennial Center for Political Science and Public Affairs and The Association for Documentary Editing. Prior to her Ph.D., she worked as an associate research fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore and was a lecturer in professional military education to the Singapore Armed Forces.

Image: Defense Department (Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)