Civil-Military Relations and Military Disobedience
David W. Lutz
General Wesley K. Clark, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, should have refused to obey NATO Secretary-General Javier
Solana’s order to bomb Yugoslavia in March 1999. The United States Joint Chiefs of Staff should have informed President William Clinton that they would not participate in the war.
Although they should have done so because the war was both illegal and immoral, I will discuss only its immorality.
The dominant theory of military ethics in the history of Western civilization is the theory of just war. Although it has
historical roots in Ancient Greece and Rome, this theory has been developed primarily within the Roman Catholic moral tradition. According to just war theory, a war is just if and
only if it meets all of the following criteria:
- Just Cause: the protection of innocent life
- Legitimate Authority: declared by those with responsibility for public order, not private groups or individuals.
- Right Intention: the pursuit of peace and reconciliation
- Last Resort: only after the exhaustion of all peaceful alternatives
- Probability of Success: no futile resistance
- Proportionality: costs and damage of the war proportionate to the good to be achieved
- Discrimination: no directly intended attacks on non-combatants or non-military targets
According to this ethical theory, war is fought in order to restore and preserve the peace. Aristotle said that we fight
wars so that we can be at peace. St. Augustine wrote that war is waged in order to attain peace. And Elihu Root, who both served as the U.S. Secretary of War and won the Nobel
Peace Prize, said that the goal of the military is “not to promote war, but to preserve peace through intelligent and adequate preparation.” When peace does not exist, it is
sometimes necessary to fight in order to restore it. This truth is relevant to United Nations peacekeeping missions. Blue-helmeted soldiers have been sent to some countries,
Somalia and Sierra Leone, for example, to keep a peace that did not exist. Consequently, they have had to fight in order to defend themselves. A position of absolute pacifism,
according to which it is unethical to fight for any reason, is incompatible even with United Nations peacekeeping missions, as currently conceived.
In order to understand why American military officers obeyed the order to bomb Yugoslavia, it is necessary to have some
understanding of the American experiences in Korea and Vietnam. At the end of the Second World War, a pair of American officers drew a line through the middle of a map of
the Korean peninsula and decided that Japanese soldiers south of the 38th parallel would surrender to the U.S. Army and Japanese soldiers north of that arbitrary line would
surrender to the Soviet Army. They did not intend to create two separate countries, but assumed instead that Korea would become a single, democratic nation. The Soviets,
however, treated the 38th parallel as an international border and forbade Americans to cross it. Consequently, just as in Germany, the result was two separate countries. Soon after
the end of the war, the United States withdrew all but a few hundred of its soldiers from South Korea.
In January 1949 Secretary of State Dean Acheson addressed the National Press Club in Washington and drew a line on a
map of the Pacific to show that Formosa (Taiwan) was outside the U.S. “defense perimeter.” According to this line, South Korea was also beyond American defense outposts.
The United States had no plan to defend South Korea.
On 25 June 1950 the North Korean Army crossed the 38th parallel without warning and attacked South Korea. Because
the North Koreans had the latest Soviet weapons, including tanks, they quickly overwhelmed the South Korean Army, which was lightly armed. John Foster Dulles, then a
representative of the Secretary of State and himself a future Secretary of State, had just returned to Japan from a visit to Korea. He wired Acheson in Washington: “Believe that if it
appears the South Koreans cannot themselves contain or repulse the attack, United States forces should be used even though this risks Russian counter moves. To sit by while
Korea is overrun by unprovoked armed attack would start a world war.”
On 27 June the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution which said that “urgent military measures are
required to restore international peace and security” and recommended “that the members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be
necessary to repel the armed attack.” General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, who had fought against the Japanese in the Second World War and was then in Tokyo overseeing the
American military occupation of Japan, was assigned the mission of defending South Korea. He later wrote:
Thus...the United States went to war against Communism in Asia. I could not help being amazed at the manner in which
this great decision was being made. With no submission to Congress, whose duty it is to declare war, and without even consulting the field commander involved, the members of
the executive branch of the government agreed to enter the Korean War. All the risks inherent in this decision – including the possibility of Chinese and Russian involvement – applied
then just as much as they applied later (p. 331).
Thus the United States accepted Communism’s challenge to combat in Korea. The risk that the Soviet or the Chinese
Communists might enter the war was clearly understood and defiantly accepted. The American tradition had always been that once our troops are committed to battle, the full power
and means of the nation would be mobilized and dedicated to fight for victory – not for stalemate or compromise. And I set out to chart the strategic course which would make that victory possible (pp. 334-35).
The goal of war, to achieve victory in order to restore and preserve the peace, does not belong only to the American
tradition. Aristotle said in the first chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics that the end of generalship is victory. MacArthur emphasized that the risk of war against the
Chinese Communists or the Soviet Union was present at the beginning, because that risk was later cited as the reason not to attempt to attain victory.
General MacArthur moved soldiers from Japan to Korea as quickly as possible to slow the North Korean advance. Then,
on 15 September, he counterattacked at Inchon, in one of the most successful military operations in modern history. He liberated South Korea and drove what remained of the North
Korean Army back across the 38th parallel. The question was then whether the fighting would stop, giving the North Koreans an opportunity to prepare for another attack
sometime in the future, or whether the North Korean Army would be destroyed. Late in September MacArthur received the following instructions from Washington:
Your military objective is the destruction of the North Korean armed forces. In attaining this objective, you are authorized
to conduct military operations north of the 38th parallel in Korea. Under no circumstances, however, will your forces, ground, air or sea, cross the Manchurian or USSR borders of Korea (MacArthur, p. 358).
As the United Nations army under General MacArthur’s command approached the Manchurian border, the Chinese
Communists moved several hundred thousand soldiers into positions just beyond the Yalu River. MacArthur requested, but was denied, permission to bomb the bridges across the
river to make it more difficult for the Chinese to attack his army. He protested and considered requesting to be relieved from his command at that time. In his memoirs he wrote: “It
is interesting to know that several years later General Eisenhower was reported in the press to have said that had he been in my place and received such an order, he would
have ignored it. That would have at least assured his immediate relief from command” (p. 370).
The Chinese commander began crossing the Yalu River in late October and attacked the United Nations forces in late
November. This assault was extremely successful initially. As the Chinese pushed the United Nations further south, however, they began to outrun their supplies and had to slow
down. During this period President Harry Truman in Washington was concerned about preventing a third world war and placed a number of restrictions upon General
MacArthur. MacArthur protested that he was already fighting the Chinese and that he could win if he were not so severely restricted. Truman decided that it would be better to reach a
stalemate than risk a larger war with either China or the Soviet Union.
Although I believe that MacArthur was right and Truman was wrong, settling this question would require a long argument
and is not necessary for present purposes. It is important, however, to understand that it is not only a question of politics and military strategy, but also an ethical question. A
decision to go to war cannot be ethical if the objective of the war is so vague that it is impossible to determine whether the criteria of just war have been satisfied. If the cause is not
clear, it cannot be just. It is impossible to consider the probability of success, if success is undefined. When the objective is not determined, there can be no assessment of
the proportionality of the damage and costs of the war to the good expected to be achieved.
On 11 April 1951 President Truman relieved General MacArthur of his command and ended his military career. At
the time, this was an extremely unpopular decision. It effectively ended Truman’s political career and prepared the way for the election of General Dwight Eisenhower as
president in 1952. Today, however, MacArthur is commonly regarded as an arrogant and insubordinate soldier who was justifiably put in his place by his commander in chief, and
Truman is considered to have been a great president who upheld the principle of “civilian control of the military.” The following passage from Truman’s memoirs expresses his
interpretation of the significance of his confrontation with MacArthur:
If there is one basic element in our Constitution, it is civilian control of the military. Policies are to be made by the
elected political officials, not by generals or admirals. Yet time and again General MacArthur had shown that he was unwilling to accept the policies of the administration. By his
repeated public statements he was not only confusing our allies as to the true course of our policies but, in fact, was also setting his policy against the President’s....
I had hoped, and I had tried to convince him, that the policy he was asked to follow was right. He had disagreed. He had
been openly critical.... If I allowed him to defy the civil authorities in this manner, I myself would be violating my oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.
I have always believed that civilian control of the military is one of the strongest foundations of our system of free
government. Many of our people are descended from men and women who fled their native countries to escape the oppression of militarism. We in America have sometimes
failed to give the soldier and the sailor their due, and it has hurt us. But we have always jealously guarded the constitutional provision that prevents the military from
taking over the government from the authorities, elected by the people, in whom the power resides (pp. 503-4).
One of MacArthur’s acts of “insubordination,” which is widely cited as justifying Truman’s decision to dismiss him, was a
letter written to Representative Joseph Martin, the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives. (Martin belonged to the Republican Party, Truman to the Democratic Party.) On 8
March 1951 Martin wrote a letter to MacArthur which began: “In the current discussions on foreign policy and overall strategy many of us have been distressed that although the
European aspects have been heavily emphasized we have been without the views of yourself as Commander-in-Chief of the Far Eastern Command.” In other words, Martin asked
MacArthur for his opinion. On 20 March MacArthur replied to Martin. His letter concluded: “As you point out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory” (MacArthur, p. 386).
Although MacArthur assumed that this correspondence would be private, Martin decided to read it to the House of Representatives. Truman commented: “MacArthur’s letter to
Congressman Martin showed that the general was not only in disagreement with the policy of the government but was challenging this policy in open insubordination to his
Commander in Chief” (Truman, p. 506). It is noteworthy, however, that MacArthur expressed his disagreement in response to a request for his views from a leader of the Congress.
Truman interpreted civilian control of the military solely as the subordination of military officers to himself. But while the
U.S. Constitution does indeed say that the President is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, it also says that the Congress has the power to declare war. The Korean War was
never declared and Truman preferred to call it a “police action.” But it was in fact a war, one resulting in several million deaths. And civilian supremacy over the military,
properly understood, involves not only the executive branch of the government, but also the legislative branch.
Truman replaced MacArthur with Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgway and the Korean War continued until an
armistice was signed in July 1953. Today, fifty-five years after the end of the Second World War, the 38th parallel is still the boundary between North and South Korea. And
General MacArthur’s disagreement with President Truman about how the Korean War should have be fought is frequently cited as a violation of the principle of civilian control of the military.
In 1961 General MacArthur advised President John Kennedy against committing American soldiers to the Asian mainland
(Manchester, p. 696). In 1964, after Kennedy was assassinated and as MacArthur was dying in an army hospital in Washington, he gave the same advice to President Lyndon
Johnson: “On his deathbed in Walter Reed Hospital the General begged Lyndon Johnson to stay out of Vietnam” (Manchester, p. 10).
Anyone interested in understanding how the United States’ disastrous war in Vietnam came about should read a book
written by an American army officer in 1997: H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam.
McMaster criticizes President Johnson for letting his domestic policies determine his foreign policy with regard to Vietnam, for relying on civilian advisers to the exclusion of military
officers, and for repeatedly lying to the American people (and the rest of the world). And he criticizes Secretary of Defense McNamara and his circle of civilian systems analysts
and lawyers for believing that they knew better than experienced military officers how to fight the war:
Profoundly insecure and distrustful of anyone but his closest civilian advisers, the president viewed the JCS with suspicion.
When the situation in Vietnam seemed to demand military action, Johnson did not turn to this military advisers to determine how to solve the problem. He turned instead to
his civilian advisers to determine how to postpone a decision. The relationship between the president, the secretary of defense, and the Joint Chiefs led to the curious situation in
which the nation went to war without the benefit of effective military advice from the organization having the statutory responsibility to be the nation’s “principal military advisers” (pp. 325-26).
Because his priorities were domestic, Johnson had little use for military advice that recommended actions inconsistent
with those priorities. McNamara and his assistants in the Department of Defense, on the other hand, were arrogant. They disparaged military advice because they thought that
their intelligence and analytical methods could compensate for their lack of military experience and education. Indeed military experience seemed to them a liability because
military officers took too narrow a view and based their advice on antiquated notions of war. Geopolitical and technological changes of the last fifteen years, they
believed, had rendered advice based on military experience irrelevant and, in fact, dangerous. McNamara’s disregard for military experience and for history left him to draw
principally on his staff in the Department of Defense and led him to conclude that his only real experience with the planning and direction of military force, the Cuban missile
crisis, was the most relevant analogy to Vietnam (p. 328).
When the Second World War began, McNamara was teaching the application of statistical analysis to management
problems at Harvard Business School. He served during the war as a military statistical control officer. After it ended, he joined the Ford Motor Company and eventually became its
president. In 1961 he became President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense. He then applied statistical control to the Pentagon. The result was statistical civilian control of the
military, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by a man who had spent most of his career teaching or practicing business management. He “exerted civilian control over what had
before been almost exclusively military prerogatives” (McMaster, p. 18).
McNamara also attempted to control the Vietnam War statistically. He thought he could track success by comparing
the number of American soldiers killed each week to the number of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese killed. This led to military missions that made no sense militarily and were
profoundly unethical. American soldiers were assigned “search and destroy” missions, requiring them to patrol an assigned route, kill any enemy they encountered along the way, and
then return to their starting point and report the number of deaths on both sides. The situation at the end of the day was not different from the situation at the beginning, except
that people who had been alive were now dead. Since American commanders were evaluated on the basis of relative body counts, reports of enemy deaths were routinely inflated.
But even if they had been accurate, such statistics would have had little relevance to the question of who was winning the war.
In addition to justifiably criticizing President Johnson and his civilian controllers of the military, McMaster also justifiably
criticizes the Joint Chiefs of Staff for going along with what they knew to be bad decisions and for remaining silent while Johnson and McNamara told lies:
The Joint Chiefs of Staff became accomplices in the president’s deception and focused on a tactical task, killing
the enemy. General Westmoreland’s “strategy” of attrition in South Vietnam was, in essence, the absence of a strategy. The result was military activity (bombing North Vietnam and
killing the enemy in South Vietnam) that did not aim to achieve a clearly defined objective. It was unclear how quantitative measures by which McNamara interpreted the
success and failure of the use of military force were contributing to an end of the war. As American casualties mounted and the futility of the strategy became apparent,
the American public lost faith in the effort. The Chiefs did not request the number of troops they believed necessary to impose a military solution in South Vietnam until after the
Tet offensive in 1968. By that time, however, the president was besieged by opposition to the war and was unable even to consider the request (p. 333).
But while the Joint Chiefs of Staff were guilty, their reticence must be understood against the background of the
disagreement between President Truman and General MacArthur:
Several factors kept the Chiefs from challenging the president’s subterfuges. The professional code of the military
officer prohibits him or her from engaging in political activity. Actions that could have undermined the administration’s credibility and derailed its Vietnam policy could not have
been undertaken lightly. The Chiefs felt loyalty to their commander in chief. The Truman-MacArthur controversy during the Korean war had warned the Chiefs about the
dangers of overstepping the bounds of civilian control” (McMaster, p. 330).
The Vietnam War was a military and moral catastrophe. Furthermore, it was foreseeable from the start, to anyone
with a rudimentary knowledge of military history and the principles of just war – as well as knowledge of the situation in Vietnam and the plans for the war, which were concealed
from everyone except the inner circle of civilian planners – that it could be nothing other than a military and moral catastrophe. But among the reasons that the generals and
admirals went along with an unsound policy was that they had been taught that “civilian control of the military,” understood in terms of President Truman’s relief of General
MacArthur in 1951, was essential to the survival of American democracy.
I will skip over the 1991 Persian Gulf War, except to cite one author who discusses the difference of opinion between
General Norman Schwarzkopf, who wanted to pursue the defeated Iraqi army into Baghdad, and President George Bush, who decided to end the war without doing so. In a military
ethics textbook Paul Christopher of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point writes:
This example is startlingly similar in principle to General Douglas MacArthur’s public insistence that U.S. forces expand
their military operations into Manchuria in pursuit of the North Korean army, thereby exceeding the stated political objective of the Korean War – a decision for which General
MacArthur was relieved of his command by President Truman (p. 90).
Christopher makes an historical mistake concerning the Korean War: General MacArthur was not interested in
pursuing the defeated North Korean army into Manchuria, but in defeating the Chinese army that was coming from Manchuria into North Korea. But the point is that the
Truman-MacArthur incident is repeatedly cited as the prime example of the violation of civilian control of the military. And there is almost universal agreement, just as much within as
outside the American military, that MacArthur acted improperly and that Truman was justified in dismissing him.
The 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was another unjust war, because it does not satisfy the seven criteria cited above.
On 24 March, when the war began, President Clinton said:
Our strikes have three objectives. First, to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO’s opposition to aggression and its
support for peace. Second, to deter President Milosevic from continuing and escalating his attacks on helpless civilians by imposing a price for those attacks. And third, if necessary,
to damage Serbia’s capacity to wage war against Kosovo in the future by seriously diminishing its military capabilities.
On 11 June, when the war ended, he said:
When I ordered our armed forces into combat, we had three clear goals: to enable the Kosovar people, the victims of
some of the most vicious atrocities in Europe since the Second World War, to return to their homes with safety and selfgovernment; to require Serbian forces responsible for
those atrocities to leave Kosovo; and to deploy an international security force, with NATO at its core, to protect all the people of that troubled land, Serbs and Albanians alike.
As the shift in objectives suggests, none of the initial objectives was achieved. The aggression was committed by
NATO, not by Yugoslavia. Any claim that the cause was just must interpret it as a humanitarian intervention, not a response to aggression, since the persecution of the
Kosovars took place entirely with the borders of Yugoslavia. But instead of deterring Milosevic, the launch of an air campaign accompanied by an announcement that ground
troops would not be used provided him an opportunity to escalate his persecution of civilians. And the air campaign did not significantly reduce his capacity to wage war against
Kosovo in the future; only the long-term presence of NATO soldiers of Kosovo has accomplished that.
As far as the United States is concerned, the Congress, not the President, has the power to declare war. But following
the examples Presidents Truman in the Korean War and Johnson in the Vietnam War, Clinton decided to go to war without declaring war. NATO is not a legitimate authority to
declare an offensive war, because it was founded as a defensive alliance. But rather than seeking a United Nations resolution, NATO simply went to war.
In the absence of a just cause, there can be no right intention. In the case of Kosovo, there were in fact many
intentions. Albright’s was to make amends for appeasing Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938. Although it is impossible to know precisely what Clinton’s intentions were, they probably
included distracting attention from the negative publicity of the Monica Lewinsky affair and adding a foreign policy triumph to the cherished Clinton Legacy.
Bombing Yugoslavia was far from a last resort. In fact, the alternatives offered to Milosevic at Rambouillet, including the
occupation of his entire country (not just Kosovo) by NATO soldiers, seem designed to ensure that he would find them unacceptable.
It is possible to assess the probability of success only in the presence of a statement of what would count as success. If
success is understood in terms of Clinton’s three stated objectives of 24 March, then the probability of success was close to zero.
It is difficult to judge the proportionality of the damage inflicted by the bombing to the good expected to result from
it. Clinton initially believed that a few days of bombing, not eleven weeks, would be sufficient to attain his objectives. Furthermore, the good expected was never clearly
articulated. But the damage inflicted was enormous and we now know that the persecution of the Kosovars was greatly exaggerated.
Many of the buildings, bridges, factories, etc. destroyed by the bombing campaign were not true military targets.
Furthermore, though there was no intention to kill non-combatants, the decision to bomb from high altitude, in order to reduce the risk to NATO pilots, ensured that there would be more civilian deaths.
Therefore, it appears that this war met none of the just war
criteria. But even if that is false and it met one or several of them, it certainly did not meet all of them. It was, therefore, an unjust war.
Discussions of military ethics usually say much about the ethics of killing and little about the ethics of dying. But in an
address at West Point in 1962, two years before his death, General MacArthur told the cadets: “The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of
religious training – sacrifice.... However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of
mankind.” Throughout his long career General MacArthur was concerned to accomplish military objectives with the minimum loss of life of the soldiers under his command. But President
Clinton carried this concern to a vicious extreme in the bombing of Kosovo. By attempting to fight a war with minimal risk of sacrifice, he increased the risk of “collateral damage” and non-combatant fatalities.
The common perception that American military officers are eager to fight wars around the world is simply false. As
General MacArthur said in the same speech to the West Point cadets, “The soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of
war.” But though many American military officers do indeed pray for peace, most of them also obey orders to go to war, without attempting to assess the ethical status of the orders.
The decision to bomb Yugoslavia was made by civilians, primarily Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and President
Clinton, not by generals and admirals. And it is significant that none of the civilians most responsible for the decision to go to war – Clinton, Albright, Samuel Berger, Richard
Holbrooke, Strobe Talbott, William Cohen – have experienced military service. There is no evidence that they understand the difference between a just war and an unjust war. On 23
May 1999 Clinton published an attempt to justify the war in The New York Times. Although it was entitled “A Just and Necessary War,” the text itself contains no reference to the
just war theory or criteria. American generals and admirals should have told their commander in chief that this war would be unethical. But part of the explanation of their failure to do
so is that “civilian control of the military” is interpreted to mean that military officers obey all orders of their civilian superiors, whether the agree with them or not.
Albright once asked General Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about
if we can’t use it?” She got her chance to use it in Yugoslavia, after Powell retired as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is civilians who are making decisions to
employ the U.S. military around the world – and military officers who are obeying their orders.
There is no question that civil supremacy over the military is and should be part of the American tradition. Furthermore,
civilian control is a prerequisite for joining NATO. But that does not mean that the obligation of military officers to obey the orders of their civilian superiors is absolute. It is unethical
to act unethically, even if someone else tells you to do so. The “Nuremberg Defense,” that “I was following orders,” cannot release anyone from the responsibility to refrain from
unethical actions. In the case of My Lai, a Vietnamese village in which American soldiers murdered several hundred civilians in March 1968, this is clear. Even though Lieutenant William
Calley ordered the soldiers of his platoon to kill all of the villagers, they were obligated not to do so and, therefore, to disobey him. This is a simple case, because the order was so
obviously unethical. When the President of the United States gives an order to a senior general or admiral, determining whether to obey or disobey it may be far more difficult. But
the responsibility is the same. This means that senior military officers have a responsibility to develop the capacity to distinguish between ethical and unethical orders.
The issue of civilian control of the military in NATO countries involves conflict between two incompatible philosophical
traditions: the tradition of natural law and moral virtues and the tradition of liberal democracy. The fact that a decision to go to war is made by democratically-elected leaders, or that
it is supported by a majority of a nation’s citizens, is not sufficient to guarantee that the war is just. Determining whether a war is just or unjust requires the moral judgment
by persons capable of assessing whether the war, in all of its complexity, satisfies the criteria of just war.
Christopher, Paul, The Ethics of War and Peace: An
Introduction to Legal and Moral Issues, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1994.
MacArthur, Douglas, Reminiscences, New York: McGraw-Hill; London: Heinemann, 1964.
Manchester, William, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1978.
McMaster, H. R., Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson,
Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Truman, Harry S., Memoirs, Vol. 2, New York: New American Library, 1965.
(*) About the author:
1955: born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA
1978: received degree of B.S. (Bachelor of Science) from the
U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, USA, and commissioned a second lieutenant, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
1978-83: served as a platoon leader (second lieutenant),
battalion adjutant (first lieutenant), and company commander (captain) in the 79th Engineer Battalion, U. S. Army, in the BRD
1994: received the degrees of M.B.A. (Master of Business
Administration) and Ph.D. in moral philosophy from the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, USA
Present position: Lecturer in philosophy, Strathmore University, Nairobi, Kenya