McChrystal and Obama: When is it Right to Speak Out Against a Superior?

Posted on June 23, 2010

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General McChrystal has done it again. The American military leader in Afghanistan has once more spoken out about his superiors in the media, adding to a chain of escapades in the public arena. He has offered his sincere advice on military policy in Afghanistan to anybody who will listen. This conjures up an age-old conundrum over relations between authorities and subjects in a chain of command, especially within the armed forces.

Any relationship between employer and employee must contain an understanding – both tacit and explicit – about loyalty. The employer will not cheat his employees by not writing their pay cheques, etc., and employees, in turn, will carry out their jobs responsibly and diligently. The understanding, of course, applies not only in such straightforward matters, but also to more complex ones: confidential corporate information; plans, strategies, etc. In extreme cases, where this relationship breaks down anarchy and chaos result. Most of us wish to avoid anarchy (even when clear personal gains might accrue from it) because we look not only to short-term needs and benefits, but also to other purposes, such as professional perfection as an end in itself and as a service to our societies or mankind at large.

Nonetheless, there are clearly limits to how far this loyalty can be stretched, even in an ideal scenario. Every individual must have an explicit right to lie up to his or her conscience in every sphere of life – public and private alike. Consequently, there are instances when one’s conscience must trump any supposed call for loyalty to an employer or a superior. This does not undermine our striving for the good but actually furthers it – acting ethically according to conscience, indeed, is a prerequisite for establishing the common good of society.

Given the very special role of the military – which can be seen as an arm of the government for protection the territory of the State and for exercising the State’s monopoly on coercive power – the dilemma is often particularly acute. Can the armed forces ever break ranks or must their loyalty be somehow stronger and more unquestioning than that of anyone else?

It seems to this writer that General McChrystal was, on the one hand, wrong to offer publicly, in the manner he has, his critical opinions as these might undermine the policies of his Commander-in-Chief and government, jeopardising confidence in the chain of command. On the other hand, if the hardship undergone by his troops, the sufferings of the Afghan people, or what he perceives to be generally inept policies have forced him in conscience to speak out – other resorts of communication with his superiors having been exhausted – , perhaps public denunciation is all that is left. The question must be whether a soldier can continue conscientiously to exercise subordinate command in the latter case. Honourable resignation for conscience’s sake – making a major sacrifice – rather beefs up the point of outspoken conscientious criticism.

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