Sie sind auf Seite 1von 3

Always Salute, Never Resign http://www.foreignaffairs.


Published on Foreign Affairs (

Home >

Always Salute, Never Resign

How Resignation Threatens Military Professionalism and National Security

Richard H. Kohn
RICHARD H. KOHN is Professor of History and Adjunct Professor of Peace, War, and
Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been Chief of Air
Force History for the U.S. Air Force and Omar N. Bradley Professor of Strategic
Leadership at Dickinson College and the Army War College.

When news reports suggested that if the Obama administration did not follow General
Stanley McChrystal's recommendations for the war in Afghanistan, the general might
quit, McChrystal immediately slapped them down. But soon after, others appeared to be
urging him to do just that. The respected former vice chief of the U.S. Army, retired
General Jack Keane, stated on a Sunday talk show that were he in McChrystal's shoes,
he would probably resign. And in an op-ed, John S.D. Eisenhower, the son of President
Dwight Eisenhower and a professional soldier and military historian, went so far as to
claim that officers "have an obligation to resign if they are unable to carry out the
commander in chief's policies."

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, resigning (asking for retirement or
reassignment) over advice not taken, policy disagreements, or moral or ethical qualms
undermines the relationship between military officials and their civilian superiors and
destroys the professionalism of the U.S. armed forces.

As General Richard Myers and I argued two years ago in Foreign Affairs ("Salute and
Disobey?" September/October 2007), an officer who threatens to -- or does -- resign
over a policy decision commits a political act. He or she is publicly disputing the
judgment of civilian leaders and violating the principle of civilian control over the
military, a fundamental tenet of American government and a basic precept of military
professionalism. Because of the military's prestige and reputation for disinterested
patriotism, such public dissent weakens civilian leadership in the public eye. Those
opposing the decision could become emboldened, and the policy decision likely
submerged, in partisan bickering. Indeed, that is why administrations have frequently
negotiated with military leaders to gain their support prior to announcing important
defense decisions, and why recent administrations have sometimes asked potential
appointees about their political party or the circumstances under which they might

1 de 3 17/12/2009 06:17 p.m.

Always Salute, Never Resign

Furthermore, military leaders who claim that they are resigning for moral or professional
reasons are imposing their own conceptions of morality and professional behavior on
the country. While there may be general group norms, these kinds of judgments always
vary by individual. Even supposed norms provoke considerable disagreement within the
military. Resigning because of moral doubts also violates the military's subordination to
civilian authority and contravenes an officer's oath to support and defend the U.S.

Likewise, it is not the role or function of the military to make policy. That job is properly
the responsibility of elected officials and those they appoint for that purpose. The role of
senior military officers is to advise and then execute civilian leaders' orders, even when
they seem to infringe on professional military matters. Officers cannot possibly know all
of the larger national and international considerations that go into a policy or decision,
in peace or in war. "There are too many influences involved," George C. Marshall,
former chief of staff of the U.S. Army, secretary of state, and secretary of defense, once
put it, "and it is quite a question of how much of this would be familiar to military

There is no tradition of resignation at the most senior level of the U.S. armed forces.
Just one instance, such as McChrystal resigning, could set a very dangerous precedent.
Presidents, senior defense officials, and senators would inevitably begin to vet military
nominations more routinely on the basis of whether the officer might quit. Candidates
for the Joint Chiefs and for the most significant command positions would find
themselves subjected to all sorts of litmus tests (regarding their politics, their ethical
and moral views, and other personal matters) that are likely to be irrelevant to their
suitability for the role. In effect, senior military posts and wartime command positions --
perhaps especially wartime command positions -- would become political appointments.
One can imagine a president or secretary of defense wondering even then whether it is
safe to be honest with a military leader who might spill all once safely in retirement. In
fact, the last 60 years is riddled with examples of just such distrust and poor
communication between the military and civilian superiors that produced bad policy.
The Vietnam War stands out as the chief example, but strategic disagreements in the
1950s, arguments over budgets in the 1970s, and interventions in the 1990s -- such as
that in Somalia -- were typical.

Beyond undermining civil-military relations, resignations can also compromise the

military internally. Any officer who chooses to quit abandons his or her troops and the
country, giving heart to enemies and shaking the morale of the armed forces. If a senior
officer -- one of the Joint Chiefs or a theater commander -- quits, it could, depending on
the circumstances, produce a political storm, however short-lived. If several did, it
would amount to a military revolt. In the wake of such an event, it could be extremely
difficult for successors to gain the confidence of their troops, especially if the move had
struck a chord with the soldiers.

These considerations apply mainly to the Joint Chiefs and most senior commanders.
Officers who have fulfilled their service commitment at lower levels have the right to
retire when they wish, for any reason. But if servicemen and servicewomen at any level
of the military begin to condition their continued service on personal moral standards or
whether they agree with their civilian superiors, the U.S. military would become
thoroughly politicized from the inside, and might come apart in wartime.

2 de 3 17/12/2009 06:17 p.m.

Always Salute, Never Resign

One can imagine an extraordinarily rare instance in which an officer, genuinely believing
that he or she has become ineffective, is no longer the best person to serve in a
particular role. While the final judgment belongs to the civilians, the officer might
request retirement or reassignment and leave quietly -- as did Ronald Fogleman, former
U.S. Air Force chief of staff, in 1997 and Admiral William Fallon, former head of Central
Command, in 2008 -- so as not to disrupt civil-military relations, intrude into
policymaking, politicize the issue, or set a precedent that would weaken military
professionalism. However, an officer's duty to "salute and obey," and the privilege that
comes with his or her rank to "the special trust and confidence" of the nation's civilian
leaders, must not, even in rare and unusual circumstances, be rendered meaningless by
resignation. That would eventually destroy the U.S. military, both from within and
without, and undermine the national security of the United States.

Copyright © 2002-2009 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.

All rights reserved.

Source URL:


3 de 3 17/12/2009 06:17 p.m.