Ever since Donald Trump took office and named a number of retired and active duty generals to key positions in his administration, a widespread sentiment has emerged looking toward those generals to “save us” from the forty-fifth president’s incompetence and authoritarianism. Similarly, some have hoped that the generals will ride to the rescue as talk of a preventive military strike on North Korea has ramped up over the past year. Some, for example, believe that American military commanders should simply ignore an order from the president for a strike on North Korea. However, even when based high-minded philosophical concerns regarding the morality—or lack thereof—of state actions, calling for military officers to disobey orders is a dangerous proposition.
In a vacuum, calling for generals to disobey legal orders might be appealing if it meant avoiding a war that would undoubtedly be horrific and a moral abomination. There are questions about the legality of a presidential order for a preventive military strike, especially one involving the use of nuclear weapons, but legal scholars are of mixed opinion on the question and a Supreme Court decision settling the matter is unlikely in the near future. There are legislative efforts ongoing to limit the president’s power to order a nuclear first strike, but as of this writing they have not yet met with success (and are they unlikely to, as they would require the president to sign a law restricting his authority as commander-in-chief or a sufficient number of Republicans to agree to override his veto). As of now, the president’s legal authority in ordering a strike on North Korea seems pretty clear cut. So if we assume that an order to strike North Korea is legal, then the refusal of those officers to follow it would upend the principle of civilian control that governs American civil-military relations.
Civilian control of the military is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and is central to the professional ethos of the U.S. military’s officer corps. Once military leaders are allowed to pick and choose the orders they will follow, the fundamental bargain of American civil-military relations will have been irreparably altered in ways detrimental to a free and open society.
Richard Kohn, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina who has written extensively on civil-military relations, nicely sums up why civilian control is important in a liberal democracy:
The military is, by necessity, among the least democratic institutions in human experience; martial customs and procedures clash by nature with individual freedom and civil liberty, the highest values in democratic societies.
Because their basic purpose is to wage armed conflict, military institutions are designed for violence and coercion, and over the centuries have developed the organizational structure, operating procedures, and individual values needed to succeed in war. Authority in the military emphasizes hierarchy so that individuals and units act according to the intentions of commanders, and can succeed under the very worst of physical circumstances and mental stresses.
While many of the military’s professional values — courage, honesty, sacrifice, integrity, loyalty, service — are among the most respected in human experience, the norms and processes intrinsic to military institutions diverge so far from the premises of democratic society that the relationship is inherently adversarial and sometimes unstable. Military behaviors are functional imperatives. If society were to be governed by the personal ideals or institutional perspectives of the military, developed over centuries to support service to the state and sacrifice in war, then each individual citizen (and the national purpose) would become subservient to national security—to the exclusion, or at least the devaluation, of other needs and concerns.
It is, of course, reasonable to hope that a general given an order to attack North Korea may resign rather than implement a disastrous policy. If the administration is determined to strike, though, that general will likely just be replaced with one who will follow the order.
But if we assume that the United States will maintain armed forces, then it is important that those forces remain under civilian control. That means that professional norms about following legal orders are of the utmost importance. The last thing anyone who cares about a free and open society should want is those whose profession is the “management of violence” independently making policy.
That being the case, the solution to the moral and strategic disaster that a preventive strike on North Korea would produce lies in more prosaic political processes. It means working to ensure the election of presidents who are not reckless enough to take such actions or ignorant enough to be consistently manipulated by their advisers. Seeing as such a president currently occupies the Oval Office, it means pushing legislators to act as a check against him. It means creating incentives for more members of Congress to assert their institutional prerogatives regarding the use of military force, rather than further eviscerating the norms of civil-military relations.
Photo Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from Washington D.C, United States (170206-D-VO565-025) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons