October 21, 2008

Soldier, Hold Your Tongue!

Should a member of the armed forces be permitted to publicly criticise his or her government’s security and defence policy? From the viewpoint of democratic civil-military relations the answer is, simply, no.

Should a member of the armed forces be permitted to publicly criticise his or her government’s security and defence policy? From the viewpoint of democratic civil-military relations the answer is, simply, no.


Anthony Lawrence

Soldier, Hold Your Tongue!

Should a member of the armed forces be permitted to publicly criticise his or her government’s security and defence policy?  From the viewpoint of democratic civil-military relations the answer is, simply, no.  The basic principle that armed forces are an instrument of politics and should operate under political – civilian – control is well established.  From this stems the idea that armed forces should be loyal to their elected governments and that they should refrain from criticising the policies and decisions of their civilian bosses.
But in preventing our armed forces from commenting on public issues, are we perhaps stretching the basic principle a little too far?  There are, after all, no ‘right’ answers to security and defence policy questions, only judgements and opinions that mature and hopefully find consensus through debate.  Surely, the armed forces, whose members are more or less alone in properly understanding one of the key planks of security – the application of armed force – should be allowed to take part in the debate too?  And what about the soldier who feels that his government’s policy is terribly wrong?  Does he not have the right – the duty even – to speak out?
These arguments might have some merit in a system where military advice is not heard, or properly taken into account in forming policy.  But, in democracies at least, this should not be the case; indeed, it rarely is.  A government which failed to consider the advice of its military experts when formulating security and defence policy would be a foolish government indeed.  By the time a policy is formed, the armed forces should already have had their say – not individually, of course, but as institutions.  Sometimes, their views will prevail; at other times considerations of politics, economics, diplomacy, public presentation, etc will be more important.
Provided their views have been given a fair hearing, there is no reason for members of the armed forces to then be anything other than loyal in public to the policy or decision they have helped to make.  It is, in effect, a deal – one that is usually codified, explicitly or implicitly, in military contracts or terms and conditions of service.
So why then do some members of the armed forces still feel the need to speak out against their governments?  One answer is that they are individuals who do not recognise or respect this deal – usually for quite unattractive reasons.  Perhaps they believe, consciously or otherwise, that their opinions are more important than those of others and need to be heard.  Perhaps they think that that their views (naturally the right views) are not being properly promoted by those members of their service who do enjoy influence in the policy making process.  Perhaps they simply resent losing an argument and, rather than gracefully accepting that there might be better alternatives to their own view, prefer to look for ways to undermine properly taken decisions.
The behaviour of these individuals cannot be excused.  They have failed to recognise their constitutional positions, or their positions within their own armed service, and should be disciplined.  There are good reasons for this apparently harsh line.  Firstly, such individuals make policies and decisions difficult to implement – and recall that here we are assuming that those policies and decisions have been properly taken.  Consider the effect on morale of a military unit sent on an operational deployment while their colleagues are questioning the value or sense of the deployment.
Secondly, military personnel invited to comment on policies are often given an unfairly generous public hearing by virtue of the respect they rightly enjoy as soldiers, sailors or airmen, even when they are commenting on matters on which they are not directly expert (and in particular when their opponents are those who tend to be much lower on the scale of public esteem, such as civil servants or politicians).  It is a frequent fallacy to suppose that a holder of authority in one respected area has valid views in others – for example that a doctor is also an expert in health policy, or that a languages teacher should be listened to when she talks about the mathematics curriculum.  Our admiration of the armed forces means that they are especially susceptible to this effect; we tend to assume that their undoubted military authority also makes them authoritative, rather than one of many voices, in wider security and defence policy issues.  But the fallacy is no less wrong and is all too easily exploited, by the individuals themselves or by others pursuing an anti-government agenda.
And thirdly, one of the reasons we admire the military and are willing listen to what they have to say is because we admire the qualities that are unique, or especially important, to the military profession – qualities such as courage, discipline, loyalty, honour, duty and – yes – obedience.  These qualities are vital to military leaders as they can mean the difference between life and death on the battlefield; yet they are the very qualities that military personnel question, indeed undermine, when they attack their own civilian leadership.
And to be clear on one further point, while loyalty may be a highly prized characteristic in members of the armed forces, it is not something that society expects from them alone, but also from other – perhaps less admired – individuals.  Civil servants are equally bound to respect the decisions of their Ministers, as are other executors of government policy such as police officers and social workers.  In the commercial world, disloyal employees who criticise the decisions of their boards can expect to be quickly removed from their positions.
Of course, these arguments assume that the voice of the armed forces – the voice of the institution, not the voices of disgruntled individuals – is being heard in the policy and decision making process.  If this were genuinely not so, if the armed forces were being ignored rather than their case simply being insufficiently persuasive, then their members would have a stronger reason for speaking out.  But in this case, we should expect to hear them commenting on the structural failures in the decision making process, rather than on individual policy decisions; attacking the cause, and not the symptoms.
But these cases are rare and on the whole, soldiers, sailors and airman should resist the temptation to speak out against their government’s policy choices.  For those who really cannot live with these choices – choices in which the opinions of the armed forces have been heard and debated – there is only one course of honour (those qualities again); resignation.

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