Each of the last two posts in this discussion (GEN (ret) Kelly taking over as White House Chief of Staff and an examination of potential ideological co-opting in the West Wing) had a connection to current events, demonstrating that the need for a robust discussion of civil-military relations is as needed now as it was during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. This pattern of connection to current events continues here. This week, Chelsea Handler (formerly of, inter alia, Chelsea Lately and Girls Behaving Badly) tweeted "To all the generals surrounding our idiot-in-chief...the longer U wait to remove him, the longer UR name will appear negatively in history." One of the most interesting aspects of this statement is that is implicitly assumes that the Generals have the agency to act autonomously.
That is, the casual assumption of the military is that its enlisted and officers are "Yes Men" when faced with authority. From the recruit who is just entering the armed services who is given standing orders to obey authority of drill instructors, to the servicemember who is told to execute Commander's intent - what the Commander of a particular unit wants - and to accomplish that intent, to senior leaders depicted with the President in the Situation Room in multiple television shows and movies who loyally call subordinates to execute an order that the President gives, the common understanding is that dissent in the military is almost anathema. And, for the important reasons, there are expectations that orders, once given, are obeyed. The military presumes that orders are lawful (see, for e.g., United States v. Kisala, 64 M.J. 50 (2006) (holding that fundamental to an effective armed force is the obligation of obedience to lawful orders and that because an order is presumed to be lawful, a subordinate disobeys an order at his own peril, though a servicemember may challenge the lawfulness of an order at the time it is given or in later disciplinary proceedings). However, this is not to say that the Generals have no say or pushback to the President.
Returning to Ms. Handler's tweet, we see that there is some level of awareness that the Generals aren't just "Yes Men" who blindly obey the current President's orders. If it is argued that they should revolt, then that means that they could revolt. In last week's post, I briefly discussed that civil-military relations exists on a broad spectrum between complete acquiescence to the Executive and revolt to overthrow the Executive, and there are an infinite number of positions between those two poles. That the military exists somewhere between complete, unflinching loyalty to the President and revolt means that the military has room to maneuver and position itself contrary to a position from the Executive.
The obvious next question is how the Generals - individually or collectively - could protest an order from the Executive. Arguably, such a protest played out in response to the tweet announcing the transgender troop ban. Leaders from the services have publicly come out and announced that no action would be taken until clear policy is created that provides guidance and required actions for leaders. GEN Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that "no modifications to the current policy [would occur] until the President's direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidelines." Steps beyond a "wait for clarifying guidance" approach are public statements aimed at encouragement of alternative policy and of current (and future) servicemembers. Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer (note, not Richard B. Spencer), hours after his Senate confirmation, stated that any order from the President would be obeyed, but that "any patriot" should be allowed to serve. Some days prior to SECNAV Spencer's comments were Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft's. Admiral Zukunft stated that "[he] would not break faith with transgender Coast Guardsmen". Almost certainly on the minds of SECNAV Spencer and Adm. Zukunft were assurance to current transgender servicemembers, as well as recruiting going forward, as uncertainty would likely affect unit and individual morale, as well as the likelihood of attracting new recruits.
To assuage thoughts that dissidence is only a product of the current state of American politics or of the current Commander-in-Chief, a brief trip into history offers insight. The year is 2006. The United States is deeply involved with the planning and execution of combat missions in Iraq. The Secretary of Defense is Donald Rumsfeld, and there is significant discord with how the war is being planned. Normally, such discord may come from the media or American citizens, but in this instance, it came from recently retired Generals (it is important to note that there are legal distinctions between being on active duty and being retired in terms of freedom of speech/expression and requirement to obey superiors). So significant were the protestations of these senior leaders that the situation was termed "The Revolt of the Generals". Publicly and privately, there was dissent of the leadership and policy taken by the Secretary of Defense - a civilian who has oversight and command over the military - by the very individuals who were, until very recently, in charge of planning and executing said policy. It was in this same timeframe that Thomas Ricks envisioned the deliberate evasion of orders by military leaders due, partially, to a perception that many in the military disapproved of the use of military force by then-President Clinton.
With the "Revolt of the Generals", military revolt of the President didn't happen, and it won't happen today. But, the fact that it is discussed, both then and now, suggests that there is a tacit awareness that the military isn't comprised of Generals who are "Yes Men" and that military leaders have the capacity to shape Executive opinions and policy in a number of ways.