Is There Room for Disagreement in the Military?

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Former US Central Command Chief Admiral William Fallon last year in Abu Dhabi.

Former US Central Command Chief Admiral William Fallon last year in Abu Dhabi. Source: AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Source: AFP/Getty Images

Here's a question: Should men and women in uniform criticize the country's policy on war? It's being asked again with the early retirement of Adm. William Fallon this week. He's been in open disagreement with the administration over Iran for months, and his interview in Esquire magazine may have been the last straw... He gave up his post as head of American forces in the Middle East. Obviously, this was a big debate during Vietnam, and more recently a handful of retired generals have spoken out against various aspects of the war in Iraq. But what about those still IN uniform? What are the limits on criticism from below? Is it different if you're a private or a general?



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This seems like the most cut and dry question there could be. Soldiers are Americans and thus should have the right to dissent against their government. In fact, as Americans, they have a duty to do so.

Sent by Allison Myers | 2:12 PM | 3-13-2008

Here's the rub--if the the administration chooses its military commanders based on their own preferences how can we ever expect independent views from the military? For example President Bush in advocating for the "surge" repeatedly cited that this was what General Petraeus's said he needed to succeed. Can't the administration simply replace the commander to match their viewpoint and then continue to tell congress "You aren't doing what our commanders in the field say they need." Isn't there a conflict of interest?

Sent by Sam | 2:18 PM | 3-13-2008

It's not just generals who are speaking out. Hundreds of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be testifying starting tonight and through the weekend, in Washington DC, at the Winter Soldier hearings. This will be the largest gathering of military dissent since the Vietnam era. All the testimony will be webcast on

Sent by Lina | 2:19 PM | 3-13-2008

I think comments that bring the Military morale down, especially in a time of war, should not be made publicly. The public criticism of policy sends the wrong message to the enemy.

Sent by Homayoun Samadi | 2:24 PM | 3-13-2008


Sent by Timothy Brummett | 2:33 PM | 3-13-2008

As an active duty sailor from 1972 until 1975, I was actively engaged in the antiwar movement. As a writer and editor of a GI rights tabloid, I was subjected to harrassment from the brass.

Legally, the command was powerless to suppress my activities because of protections afforded members of the Armed Forces under Department of Defense Directive 1325 and other regulations.

Sevices members today have not been made aware of their rights regarding dissent. If they were, the tone of this would be much different.

While a soldiers right to free speech is curtailed on matters of operational matters, any political speech that does not advocate the violent overthrow of the US government is and has been protected speech.

Sent by Michael | 2:42 PM | 3-13-2008

I think it shows that these generals are loyal to the United States maybe more so than the "President". This administration has lost more of the best and the brighest because of the adminstrations total lack of capability, proper planning,and any good sense. What I think is really awful is people like Colin Powell who kept his mouth shut like a good soldier instead of being a true patriot and speaking up against the ignorance and outright lies of this administration. Who should these people be most loyal to? The people of the United States not an ignorant administration.

Sent by Rod Wright | 2:54 PM | 3-13-2008

though i completely agree that dissent within the military should almost always be kept within "the club", it seems to me that this rule was necessarily broken when the national guardsman directly challenged s.o.d. donald rumsfeld in regards to humvee(sp?) protection. action was resisted initially,but ultimately rumsfeld resinged and better equipment was provided for our troops.

Sent by mike hoilman | 2:55 PM | 3-13-2008

As a vet - I thank God for men with the courage to speak out like Adm. Fallon. The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) dictates that a soldier must follow orders, he also must retain the capacity of choosing whether or not the order is lawful - i.e. If a commander gives you the order to execute unarmed civilians, you lawfully cannot obey.
Adm. Fallon has taken the only honorable course left for a man of conscience - to speak out and forfeit his rank, title and position. It takes a hell of a lot of courage to do that, but he is a man of conviction and principle. Doing the right thing when you know it will cost you dearly is the hallmark of a hero and a patriot.
Which begs the question of those remaining silent... Of what use are conviction and principle if you have not the courage to stand behind them?

Sent by Greg | 3:08 PM | 3-13-2008

The ADM does not have the luxury of expressing dissent with the current adminstration. Either he was very brazen and forgot that his role as a member of the military is to implement foreign policy and not determine foreign policy or he forgot that a reporter having unfettered access to him will write what he sees and will not care if this makes him appear to be a good sailor. The people who are cheering the ADM for "speaking out" should remember that it is not the military's duty to check and oppose the president, it is Congress's duty.

Sent by Marcus | 3:23 PM | 3-13-2008

Sam should remember that the president cannot just appoint anybody to these positions. ADM Fallon was approved for his job by congress

Sent by Marcus | 3:26 PM | 3-13-2008

Well, I'm one between a rock and a hard place. I am not a conscientious objector, and I support the efforts in Afghanistan and to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. However, our administration lied to tie him to Iraq, which wasn't true, and we've lost more now than we did Sept. 11. Now, it seems more and more like war just is not the answer, especially pre-emptively. I joined the military before the Iraq War because I wanted to bring Al Qaeda to justice. However, my unit went to Iraq instead. Now, we are about to go back, and my personal views just don't line up with the military culture any more. I want out, and I want to continue pursuing my professional career. However, even though I'm contracted to get out in October, I'm going to be a victim of stop-loss because of our unit's 2nd deployment coming up. It's a bad situation, and it makes me feel betrayed because of the whole stop-loss program. Plus, I receive criticism from all the right-wingers in my unit constantly when I express my distaste for the war. There's a lot more involved, but let it suffice to say that, yes, I think more dissent is needed from our troops. There are so many measures in place to punish it, though, that it becomes difficult for our troops to speak out and have their own opinions like other Americans. We should be allowed, even as soldiers, to formally express our dissent. If this were the case, more soldiers would do so, and I think this unjustified war would have been over already. Instead, we receive criticism, punishment (unofficially of course), and other reprimands for having an opinion... plus we still get shipped off to the desert to die for people who really don't even want our help.

Sent by Joshua | 3:32 PM | 3-13-2008

Yes, members of the military should be allowed to express their feelings of disagreement freely. Foreign policy and war affect them more directly than any other person and they should be allowed to speak out against it if they know it is wrong. Each military member swore to support and defend the Constitution of the USA, not to support and defend a flawed foreign policy that is getting thousands of them killed for no reason.

Sent by Megan | 3:49 PM | 3-13-2008

Whether we like it or not, our military soldiers and families are tired. This was can not continue without a draft (which I'm not saying I favor one bit). Is anyone ready to bring that forward to the American people?

Sent by lisa | 3:50 PM | 3-13-2008

I do think there should be more dissent among the ranks, or at least an avenue to express beliefs without reproach. It would be great if service members rights were made readily available because I'm sure more of us would invoke them.

Sent by Sherry | 4:00 PM | 3-13-2008

The two current war fronts are very similar to the past events like the Vietnam Police Action and Korean Conflict with men and women is suits making decision about war that affects troops with boots on the ground over half a world away.

Generals/Admirals should be the ones speaking up and making decisions for the troops; while the fat cat politicians sit back and make the domestic decisions.

King Bush will soon be out of office and the world will be a better place.

Sent by Geoffrey B Miller | 4:01 PM | 3-13-2008


Our job in the military is to complete our mission and ask questions later. Now that its later for some of us, we are asking those questions and the administration has gotten it all wrong. Its not only our duty as military service members to ask questions, but its our obligation as patriotic americans who care deeply about the well-being of our great country. If you don't agree with whats going on, your duty is to speak out..BOTTOM LINE! Adm. Fallon I'm sure will find his voice soon.

Sent by Josh | 4:02 PM | 3-13-2008

I was vocal of my opinion on and off duty. I expect my troops to have opinions and express them as they choose, as long as it doesn't jeopardize the mission.

Sent by Ken | 4:17 PM | 3-13-2008

I am currently in the US Army. I would simply like to say two things.

#1: It is the SWORN DUTY of every soldier, sailor, and airman to protect and uphold the US constitution. If did not voice my disapproval of the disastrous farce that our current administration is I would not be fulfilling my duty to my country. A military without a voice, and the will to use it, will eventually be seen marching innocents into pits to be shot. As a patriot, I MUST say how sad I am to see us where we are now.

#2: THANK GOD I HAVE BEEN DIAGNOSED WITH MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS! I can now retire with a clean conscious. I have never had to feel the bite of a bullet for G.W. Bush; and never would. I can say honestly that if he were to burst into flames in my living room, I would happily walk away with a full bladder.

Sent by Brian | 4:38 PM | 3-13-2008

Member's of the United States Armed Forces, more then any other group, should have the right to speak out freely and express their beliefs as long as they continue to uphold their oath to obey their lawful orders. These men and women did not sign away their Constitutional rights--they signed to support and defend them against all enemies, foreign and domestic--to include, if necessary, the President of the United States. These men and women are still required to pay their taxes and deserve a professional and appropriate avenue to express their concerns.

Sent by Michael | 4:44 PM | 3-13-2008

The war is a fraud and illegal and the 'I was just following orders' excuse doesn't cut it anymore. Its time for the criminals that are running our country to face justice. Everyday that passes, the country is moving into tyranny all because of a lie. Our 'enemies' were created by western intelligence agencies and there are mainstream books written about it but the general public doesn't even know where Iran is on a map so no one knows. Millions of people killed because of a lie. This is information right in the open, If you take the time away from the TellLiesVision and do some research, you will come to the same conclusion. The Pentagon uses hardcore psychological warfare against the American people to manipulate minds. The Constitution is being destroyed right before our eyes and we military members just sit idle. When are we going to start honoring our oath?

Sent by Larry | 6:19 PM | 3-13-2008

well, the thing is that that idiot bush bases his judgments on the opinions of his commanders in the field which is a total lie. anyways, yes, i think their voices should be heard because they are the ones experiencing war not the suits like bush and cheney.

Sent by aj | 6:25 PM | 3-13-2008

The question is not "should" military members speak out in dissent. The question is "how" and "when" should they dissent.

The UCMJ and military regulations are clear that dissent is permitted, within certain parameters; chief among them being that such dissent does not jeopardize military members or the mission. Furthermore, it must be carried out as a civilian, not as a military member, and certainly not in uniform. We are not representing the military in this dissent, but our own personal, civilian, convictions.

For example, a service member can write a letter of redress to their political representative and demanding qw withdraw our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. But, it must be signed "Mr" or "Ms" and no mention of their military status should be found on the letter.

But, the most effective weapon of dissent a military member has is to simply refuse to continue to serve. Not by quiting on the spot. That would be considered desertion. However, if you're enlisted, you can refuse to renew your obligated service. If you're an officer, you can resign your commission.

But, its not as easy as Adm Fallon and other top leaders makes it seem. He and others like him who "take early retirement" will still collect their pensions and recieve all military benefits. In that sense, they can afford to appear "brave" in their dissent.

While I am glad that some of our top leaders are speaking out. They are not the few and the brave. The real heros are those members who refuse to reenlist, or resign their commissions before they've qualified for retirement benefits.

Forfeiting all benefits; turning one's back on 10-15yrs of effort in a career...that requires a fortitude that few generals and admirals have shown as of yet.

Its those brave souls, leaving this illegal war on terror, that are doing more to end this war sooner. Because you can't fight a war if no one wants to put on the uniform any longer.

Sent by A.J. | 6:32 PM | 3-13-2008

It's a shame that Fallon will not be around for the next administration. Hopefully that one will listen to wise advice.

Sent by Carol Shurack | 6:38 PM | 3-13-2008

As a veteran, and supporter of Iraq Veterans against the war, I have to remind everyone that the Adm. IS in fact protected by the UCMJ. He has rights to speak his mind, as long as he is off duty, out of uniform, and is not speaking for the military at the time. If he is in uniform, he has other rules that govern what he can say. Nothing says we can't disagree with orders as long as they are followed.

Sent by Kristina Taylor | 8:56 PM | 3-13-2008

As a member of the Armed Forces, I can attest to the fact that service members receive regular reminders that they do not have the same rights as civilians, particularly with regard to free speech. Yes, much of the censure is informal. For example, last week I received several e-mails warning all service members to avoid a war protest that will be held this weekend in a nearby city. The e-mails cited one main reason as "increasing levels of violence" at similar, recent protests. The implication from what I read is that the protesters would be dangerous to us because they are "anti-military" (yes, that was the wording used). I googled the recent protests they cited and found that the violence actually consisted of police tear gassing protesters. I guess that's informal punishment. But formal punishment for speaking out also occurs. Last summer, I read an article in a military publication about an officer who made some dissenting remarks about our current administration in a book he wrote and actually did get punished for it. I'm talking formal punishment. I was disappointed but not surprised. I am in the process of writing a book, and it has nothing to do with the military. However, I know that if I try to publish it while I am active duty, I will have to have the book reviewed and approved by the military, or I could also face formal punishment. Don't get me wrong--I do speak out against the war behind closed doors, as do many of my colleagues. I just can't do so publicly unless my voice is anonymous.

Sent by LAZ | 9:16 PM | 3-13-2008

As a former member of the military that has served my time in Iraq. I feel that military personnel have a right to voice their opinions. How many past generals have spoken out against our actions there. If we don't question our decision making policy, we are doomed to repeat the past.

Sent by John Sexton | 9:40 PM | 3-13-2008

Last time I checked, a service member's duty was to protect the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic, not some replaceable president. Also, service members still do have First Amendment rights so long as they use them in good conduct.

Sent by Garrett Bates | 9:45 PM | 3-13-2008

When we took the Oath, we promised to defend our country from all enemies, foreign and domestic. We should have a right to speak out when we feel our safety and nation's security is threatened by the actions of our leaders, no matter how high an office they hold. It certainly appears to those of us in the Company grades, that our leadership does not respect or recognize critical-thinking officers, and that disagreements are met with punishment.

Sent by Dave | 10:15 PM | 3-13-2008

At the recommendation of a friend, I recently read McMaster's "Dereliction of Duty", which discusses the machinations of McNamara and the Johnson administration in the runup to Vietnam. As one reads the book, one cannot feel, as no doubt McMaster intended, that the Joint Chiefs utterly failed to uphold their duty to Congress and the American people by allowing themselves to be ignored by the administration, the mollified to ensure their silence.
By virtue of the uniform worn and the position held, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and for that matter, every member) brings a certain credibility and gravitas to any position he espouses. Every administration is aware of this, and it is for this reason that every effort is put forth to keep the Joint Chiefs in line with and in support of administrative policy. Silence on the part of the Joint Chiefs implies acceptance of and support for administration policy - and in cases where that policy is in error, or in conflict with military fact and established doctrine, this silence can only be interpreted as criminal.
The Joint Chiefs unanimously disagreed with McNamara's doctrine of gradual escalation - and then did nothing. How much different might the situation have been had they spoken out as a group to Congress or the press, or perhaps tendered their resignations in unison in response to their marginalization by the administration?
Moving ahead to recent history, how different might Iraq look today if during Rumsfeld's spur-of-the-moment revision to OPLAN 1003-98 (the DoD CentCom contingency plan for war in Iraq), which dropped the number of troops used in the invasion and pacification from 500,000 to 150,000, the Joint Chiefs had done something more than sat quietly by? Only General Shinseki had the courage and sense of duty to speak out against the administration's hubris, but how much more effective would it have been had the other generals had the fortitude to do the same?
The failure of our senior military leadership to bring public attention to bear on erroneous or fallacious administration policies is measured in American blood. If those at the top are unable to do this, whether due to timidity or a suppression of duty in favor of career, it is incumbent upon those below them to do their duty for them, in the same way that a lieutenant will take command for a fallen captain, or a corporal will assume the position for a departed sergeant. The problem today is not that too many members of the military dare to voice their opinions, but far, far too few.

Sent by Bart | 11:02 PM | 3-13-2008

David Halberstam eloquently expressed the wrong done to our nation when our generals and admirals put loyalty to the President ahead of loyalty to the Nation--which resulted in the debacle of the Vietnam War. The same thing is happening again, which is particularly tragic and inexcusable since we are within a generation of Vietnam and this is pathetically stupid and ignorant--all thanks to an incomprehension of even recent history and a President who will hold his place in history as one of the stupidest and most arrogant in the history of our nation. I served in Iraq. I know first hand. The price is seared in the form of permanent psychological scars in my mind and in the deaths and horrible maiming and blinding that I personally tried to fix as a surgeon in Iraq. I am a West Point graduate. My whole life has been dedicated to the military and I will do as ordered. I felt honored and privileged to care for our wounded soldiers in Iraq. But I have a brain. And this is idiocy.

Sent by Mark | 11:37 PM | 3-13-2008


"I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice... (I left out the "So help me God" - as I am an atheist - but that's a separate topic).

UCMJ also requires you to only fulfill "lawful" orders, so there is an "on duty" area to act. Caution is advised; believing the President lied to justify a war doesn't qualify as receiving an "unlawful order".

As a service member, you are not allowed to speak "on behalf" of the President. But you are a citizen, you may protest & dissent as much as you wish, provided you do not represent your views as those of the military and do not wear your uniform.

As many posters have stated, there are certainly repercussions when it is known that you are not, as I like to say, " a Kool-Aid" drinker.

Admiral Fallon is not alone in his opinion about Iran(or Iraq), just more in a position to comment. Unfortunately, his fate is the same as any who suggest that the Administration's "plan" is not feasible or advisable, just ask Eric Shinseki. (4 Star General - 34th Chief of Staff of the United States Army (1999 - 2003).

It will be a good day when this administration leaves office.

Sent by NSW Boat Guy | 1:03 AM | 3-14-2008

It's not only the UCMJ that soldiers have to worry about when speaking out but also the stigma that in most cases would get applied to them as "bad" soldiers. I was medically retired from the military after only 4 years of service. The military today needs to concern itself with the operations overseas and less with what the media or public says.

Sent by Robert | 9:58 AM | 3-14-2008

As a combat Veteran who served honorably for over 13 years including 3 tours in the middle east I have to ask.....didn't we learn our lesson in Vietnam? It is EVERY soldiers duty to speak out against illegal orders given by superiors. Iraq is an illegal "war" brought on by LIES, we know this to be fact now. EVERY soldier knows this quagmire in Iraq is BULLSHIT, but few speak out because of fear and intimidation. You think politics is bad in the civilian world? In the military, it's a thousand times worse. Commanders in the field in Iraq are forbidding their troops from watching anything other than FAUX NOISE (fox news) for how do you expect the troops to know what's REALLY going on?

When my last 6 year enlistment was up I refused to reenlist because of Iraq. I could see what a mess the neocons were creating and I wanted no part of it and made this clear to my reenlistment NCO who thought I was nuts. Many of my comrades in arms laughed at me and said I was wrong when I told them there were no WMD's in Iraq and that Iraq would turn into a civil insurgency. They're not laughing now that I've buried 3 of them. The last one had a wife and 4 young sons and if you could see the looks in the eyes of his little boys at their father's funeral you would be DAMNED UPSET just like I am over the fact that 4000 American soldiers have died FOR NOTHING. This old soldier believes that Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush, Wolfowitz, Perle, Fieth and the rest of the neocons who dragged us into Iraq should be PROSECUTED for war crimes and for violating our Constitution.

Sent by SSGT Ken Hofgesang | 10:11 AM | 3-14-2008

The administration and congress have violated the constitution with impunity. The generals who try to do their jobs have been squelched or run off. This leaves the soldiers as the last line of defense for our constitution. Absolutely, they should be doing their jobs and speaking against unconstitutional use of military force. Nobody else is, or can.

When politicians blatantly violate the constitution as though it "ain't no thang," we have a massive and widespread corruption problem. The checks and balances have obviously failed, repeatedly. There is no point in having laws if they aren't intended to be followed. Thank God for all the politicians, generals and soldiers who are still willing to do their jobs, despite the pressure to stay quiet and perpetuate the corruption.

Sent by joe | 9:56 PM | 3-15-2008

The President is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. As such he has the right to fire and assign who he wishes in positions within the military. It is unfortunate that this causes many senior officers to forsake their oath of office in blindly following his directives/orders. As an officer in the US Military you swear to support and defend the CONSTITUTION against all enemies, foreign and domestic. There is no oath of allegiance to the president or even more senior officers. ADM Fallon was executing his office in support of the constitution which our president has repeatedly attempted to subvert. I only wish he had forced them to fire him publicly!

Sent by BD Weiss | 11:23 AM | 3-17-2008

We as military members don't have the ability to adjust our contracts to reflect our votes in November so why are we obligated to follow an obvious failed policy from a Commander in Chief, some of us didn't even vote into office. I am appalled at the obvious political double standard in the military today. I have served under Clinton and Bush and I remember how dissent was much more accepted under Clinton. Today you have a conservative talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, who comes out and calls any service member who opposes the war a "phony soldier" yet this guy is the only talk show available at most overseas duty locations. The Department of Defense policy states political bias has no place on duty, well then why is a Republican's mouthpiece show broadcast on the Armed Forces Network? I know of no Liberal radio show available on Armed Forces Network do you? So the brainwashing continues without any call of "foul"! Somehow it's become okay for Republican's to take their views to military duty, but Democrats must keep quiet. Since when did our military become the property of the Republican Party? I don't buy the silly talk that the Republican party is the only party that cares about the military, that is talk bought and paid for by the Republican Party. Wake up military members, the military is the property of every American, we are not bought and paid for Republican War fighters but American fighters!

Sent by Ryan Martens | 9:54 PM | 3-24-2008

I agree completely with the comment above. Sly comments and mockery of the Clinton administration was much more socially accepted. I'm saddened that the armed forces has come to be seen as property of the conservative movement, because there are plenty of progressive, anti-interventionists like myself that are proudly serving in the armed forces. It seems to me that if a Battalion Commander can tell his soldiers that the mission in Iraq is just, that you shouldn't listen to the media's reports of failures, and that we've got to keep the fight to keep America safe, that's basically toting the administration's line on the war. Anyone daring to argue that the war in Iraq is making America less safe is making a political statement.

Sent by Chris Arndt | 12:50 PM | 3-26-2008

Of course there is room for disagreement. It is unrealistic to think that military members agree with every regulation, policy, or order given to them. As long as they carry out those orders, we are free to disagree all we want. In the case of current Middle East operations, it is our obligation to disagree. The fact that it is doing grave damage to our nation's military forces and, therefore, national defense, makes it so. I will continue to deploy to Iraq as long as I am ordered to do so and I will continue to disagree with those orders.

Sent by R. Flack | 6:44 PM | 4-27-2008