How to Dissent Without Losing Your Career, or Your Republic
Dissent in the armed forces grabs headlines. From an active duty Marine Corps major arrested following his participation in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol to an Army lieutenant colonel using his resignation letter to condemn his commander in chief, unacceptable dissent is thriving. But the military’s public repudiation of such dissent belies the truth that actively serving military professionals can and do regularly voice criticism in an acceptable, allowable manner. How dissent is manifested is key to understanding what separates the healthy and allowable dissent required for a dynamic armed services from corrosive and unacceptable dissent.
The actions of two lieutenant colonels, over 14 years apart, provide an instructive case study on what separates allowable and unacceptable dissent. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller posted a video, while in uniform, on Facebook and LinkedIn in August 2021 criticizing his superiors as the United States was withdrawing the last of its forces from Afghanistan. He stated that he was willing to “throw [his career] away” to publicly “demand accountability” for the attack in Kabul that killed 13 servicemembers. His subsequent posts, including those issued following a legal gag order initiated by the Marine Corps, include language encouraging his followers to “burn the f—— system down.” Such exhortations by a military officer are far outside the bounds of allowable dissent, so this analysis will focus on the original, less inflammatory post. Scheller was immediately relieved of command after his initial post and subsequently convicted of several violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice — including contempt, disrespect, willfully disobeying a superior officer, dereliction of duty, failure to obey an order, and conduct unbecoming an officer — for his unacceptable dissent.
In contrast, Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling censured the entirety of the general officer corps in 2007 yet was promoted following his allowable dissent. Yingling argued that “America’s generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq” and called “the intellectual and moral failures common to America’s general officer corps” a “crisis.” His article was not universally lauded within the military community, but he was not reprimanded, nor did he face any charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In April 2008, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke at West Point about the need for military professionals to engage in healthy dialogue critiquing the services and senior leadership. He evoked Yingling’s article when he stated: “I encourage you to take on the mantle of fearless, thoughtful, but loyal dissent when the situation calls for it.” (In 2020, Yingling coauthored an article advocating military intervention to ensure the transfer of presidential power, if required. Such an inflammatory article clearly would have been unacceptable if he was still actively serving, but retired military members have significantly more legal leeway.)
Dissent within the military is nothing new. At America’s founding, the leader of the Continental Army understood the necessity of engaging in allowable dissent and quelling unacceptable dissent. In March 1783, soldiers of the Continental Army planned military action against the Congress of the Confederation to compel the fledgling government to fund promised military pay and pensions. An impassioned plea by Gen. George Washington halted the potential evolution of divisive rhetoric into a coup. The Newburgh Conspiracy was resolved without violence, and the soldiers were paid. Gen. Washington argued that while the soldiers’ complaints were valid, there were means to achieve their goals that were honorable and in keeping with the noble intentions of the independence movement.
This established a tradition in the U.S. military that allowable dissent has defined parameters for military professionals, regardless of how legitimate their criticism may be. In the contemporary armed services, military professionals are encouraged to follow Gates’ advice and provide constructive critiques and recommendations to improve the U.S military. A perusal of military-focused online and print publications provides countless examples of military professionals offering thoughtful analysis of current operating concepts, equipment, service priorities, and initiatives, and arguing why change is necessary. But for such criticism to remain within the bounds of allowable dissent and not enter the realm of disobedience, dissenters must choose the proper medium and message.
The underlying messages of Yingling and Scheller were similar — both called for greater accountability for failures by military leaders at the highest level — although where they diverged is critical to understanding the distinction between forms of dissent. Indeed, Yingling’s claim that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war” is similar to Scheller’s argument that battalion commanders are relieved for far less serious offenses than the defeat of the U.S.-supported Afghan National Army by the Taliban. The military establishment may not like hearing that it is not holding its general officer ranks accountable, but its treatment of Yingling shows that an assertion’s unpopularity alone does not make the dissent unacceptable. Instead, the two cases demonstrate some of the criteria that can be applied to the message to ensure dissent remains allowable: avoiding giving support to a partisan narrative, adhering to military professionalism, avoiding personal attacks, and exhibiting a clear understanding of civilian control of the military.
First, for dissent to be allowable the author must actively avoid even the perception of partisanship. A professional military in a democratic republic such as the United States is nonpartisan. It exercises loyalty to the Constitution, not to any one political party. Yingling argued that America’s generals had failed to effectively train for and fight the insurgency in Iraq, but he was careful in his analysis of fault to avoid partisan attribution. He wrote: “[No] one leader, civilian or military, caused failure in Vietnam or Iraq. Different military and civilian leaders in the two conflicts produced similar results.” This is particularly noteworthy considering the timing of his dissent. In 2007, the war in Iraq had been prosecuted by one administration exclusively, and under the purview of one secretary of defense until only a few months before Yingling published. Additionally, his dissent came a year after the “revolt of the generals,” when newly retired generals publicly excoriated Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for his handling of the war. By focusing his criticism on the general officer corps and not the Bush administration, Yingling’s dissent avoided contributing to a partisan narrative.
In comparison to Yingling, Scheller’s dissent appears partisan, as he seems to attribute the collapse of the Afghan National Army to the actions of decision-makers involved solely in the withdrawal. He fed a partisan narrative that the events unfolding in Afghanistan were the responsibility of the current administration alone by focusing his rebuke exclusively on decisions immediately preceding his dissent, such as the July 2021 closure of Bagram air base. Speaking of servicemembers killed in action in Afghanistan, he said that “potentially all those did die in vain” if leaders would not admit “we did not do this well in the end” (emphasis added). At best, Scheller failed to recognize how his words appeared partisan — coming as they did when many other commentators were criticizing the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal — and at worst, he actively sought to leverage the public’s reverence for the military professional to provide credence to his own partisan political views. This apparent partisanship was highlighted when character witnesses at his court martial included three Republican lawmakers who used the occasion to critique the Biden administration’s handling of Afghanistan. If even the perception of military nonpartisanship erodes, the military risks being just another special interest group rather than a trusted institution for elected representatives on both sides of the aisle.
Criticism, Not Contempt
A second criterion for allowable dissent in the U.S. military is that the author must remain professional. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey argued that serving in the military is “a noble calling that requires us to subordinate our personal interests and desires to the greater principles of our profession.” Military professionals are expected to behave according to these principles, even as they call for change. To ensure dissent remains professional, dissenters should avoid disrespectful language, focus on the institution or policy being criticized, and use objective analyses to bolster their argument. Yingling’s article, while highly critical, was written with respect and humility. He intentionally and objectively laid out his case that U.S. military leadership had failed while avoiding emotional language that would detract from his message. He never used the words “I” or “me” in his article, focusing his analysis exclusively on the institution he sought to improve. In contrast, Scheller focused on himself, concentrating much of his message on how the attack at the Kabul airport impacted him personally and what his dissent might mean for his career. His argument used emotional and unprofessional language such as in his assertion that he had a “growing discontent and contempt for … ineptitude at the foreign policy level.” These words are in stark contrast to Yingling’s dispassionate analysis when he argued:
America’s general officer corps underestimated the strength of the enemy, overestimated the capabilities of Iraq’s government and security forces and failed to provide Congress with an accurate assessment of security conditions in Iraq.
Messaging using emotional and personal language can be effective in certain instances but should not be used by military professionals in a public forum seeking to effect change or improve their organization.
A third guideline for allowable dissent within the U.S. military is that the author must avoid personal attacks. An interesting distinction between Scheller and Yingling involves the specificity of attribution in their dissent. Yingling wrote that “these debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps.” He did not criticize any specific general officer, and instead focused on the institution in its entirety for improvement. Scheller named Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, and Central Command’s Gen. Kenneth McKenzie in his dissent, directing his contempt at them specifically. Two of the charges that Scheller pled guilty to were directly connected to that specificity: contempt relating to Austin, and disrespect toward a superior commissioned officer for his subsequent posts directed at a number of senior officers. Had Scheller not focused on personal attacks, he may have avoided those charges. The “fearless, thoughtful, but loyal dissent” advocated by Gates involves constructive criticism and should not be used as an excuse for personal and public vilification.
A final criterion for allowable dissent is that the author must understand and adhere to the principles of civilian control of the military. Yingling spent a good deal of his essay laying out the role of general officers in the execution of foreign policy, arguing that “war is ultimately an instrument of policy and its conduct is the responsibility of policymakers.” Yet, while he also argued that “the general who speaks too softly places at risk the security of his country,” his recommendations were in keeping with accepted civil–military norms. Importantly, Yingling did not recommend “principled resignation” if civilian policymakers disregard military advice. In contrast, Scheller rhetorically asked, “Did any of you throw your rank on the table?” by threatening to resign in protest during discussions with policymakers. While resignation as a means of dissent is advocated by some, the traditional view of civil–military experts is that such an act by top military leaders would undermine civilian control of the military. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley was asked about principled resignation during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September, his response was in keeping with the long-held notions of civilian control and nonpartisanship in the military. He argued:
It would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken. … This country doesn’t want generals figuring out what orders we’re going to accept and do or not. That’s not our job.
Dissent must be made with a clear understanding of the role of the military within the U.S. government or it risks undermining the principle of civilian control embedded within the Constitution.
The substance and tone of the message separates allowable from unacceptable dissent, but the medium is also important. Yingling published his article in the Armed Forces Journal, a traditional venue for professional military debate. While his paper included the requisite disclaimer that “the views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or the Defense Department,” he was clearly identified in the article as an actively serving Army officer. Scheller, in contrast, delivered his dissent via social media while wearing his uniform. The use of social media, while not a conventional medium for professional military dissent, does not by itself render such dissent unacceptable. Had Scheller’s message conformed to the criteria of allowable dissent discussed previously, and had he not worn his uniform to deliver it, the choice of social media would likely not have been problematic.
Social media, however, does present some challenges to allowable dissent. While the medium is appealing in its power to quickly disseminate an idea to a broad audience, the ability for a dissenter to post on impulse could more easily result in an unacceptable message. The Armed Forces Journal has a rigorous editing and peer-review process, which ensured that Yingling formed a cogent argument that was well reasoned and articulated, and that it conformed to allowable dissent. In the social-media age, professional journals may be viewed as having an overly burdensome and lengthy process, but there are numerous other online venues where military professionals can be published quickly while ensuring a rigorous proofreading, peer-review, and editing process. Social media, in contrast, allows anyone with an account to post and rewards posts that generate an emotional response by elevating them instead of those that are reasoned and coherent. Such a system, where dissent becomes public without an editing process, makes it harder for a dissenter to ensure their message remains within the bounds of allowable dissent.
Additionally, social media has a much wider reach than professional publications or managed websites designed for members within an organization. Yingling’s article was directed at the very body he sought to improve in a medium he knew general officers read and in which they engaged. The medium was effective. As he was preparing to retire, Yingling argued that his critique “caused the Army to rethink the way it educates its generals.” In contrast, Scheller’s use of social media and his tone demonstrate an intent to appeal not to the military but to a broader and more partisan public. Allowable dissent that avoids the perception of partisanship should be focused internally and not be designed to provoke a public response.
Finally, military publications and websites enable a healthy yet managed debate, allowing opposing yet informed opinions to be discussed openly and professionally. In contrast, the use of social media risks providing the dissenter an echo chamber that denies them an appreciation of the larger professional debate surrounding their message. Comments responding to Scheller’s posts were overwhelmingly from nonmilitary members encouraging him to continue posting, while military professionals opposed to his methods tended not to engage in condemnation within the social media sphere. This likely denied Scheller the benefit of engaging with opposing views well versed in professional military norms who may have counseled him to avoid further legal jeopardy. Allowable dissent, designed to address institutional change, should be channeled through mediums where military professionals can engage in a healthy debate free from the distraction of uninformed voices.
Serving in the era of social media compels military professionals to consider the way they communicate in a way not required by their predecessors. But the medium and its potential for a global reach does not change longstanding traditions and expectations of servicemembers. Thoughtful and bold critiques are encouraged, but such dissent must be made in a manner that is in keeping with the principles of professionalism, civilian control, and nonpartisanship. While unacceptable dissent may grab headlines in the short term, its proliferation has the potential to corrode the principles that have underpinned the U.S. military since the days of the Continental Army. Gen. Washington advised his officers during the Newburgh Conspiracy against taking “advantage of the passions, while they were warmed by the recollection of past distresses, without giving time for cool, deliberative thinking, and that composure of Mind which is so necessary to give dignity and stability to measures.” Or, put more simply by Gen. Dempsey: “Now more than ever, we have to be exceptionally thoughtful about what we say and how we say it.” Military professionals should understand this reality and avoid engaging in unacceptable dissent to ensure the military profession remains a trusted institution.
Michelle Macander is an active-duty Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, currently assigned as a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Image courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol