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Collective Responsibility and the Career Military Officer’s Right to Public Dissent

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Current norms among professional military officers that govern obedience and dissent strongly discourage officers from offering public criticism of policy enacted by civilian authorities, even if that policy is immoral, illegal, or unconstitutional. We identify a set of circumstances that create a moral imperative for an officer to take action and we leverage prevailing ethical guidelines to argue that in certain cases, even individual officers not directly involved in the execution of the policy have moral standing to offer public criticism of it. We consider the consequences of relaxing norms prohibiting public dissent and explore the trade-off between tolerating immoral policy and the likelihood of mistakenly criticizing appropriate policy. Finally, we offer evidence that current military-civilian relations in the United States are such that placing higher value on dissent would benefit professional military officers and may improve policy.

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  1. See Moten (2009) for a thorough discussion of the dispute between General Eric Shinseki, Army Chief of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 over the appropriate number of troops with which to invade Iraq.

  2. See Joint Staff (Joint Staff 2001) for doctrinal definitions of these terms.

  3. For elaboration on this point, see Seagren (2015, pg. 183-185).

  4. A Lieutenant Commander typically has between ten to twenty years of commissioned service, and are effectively mid-level officers. The rank is equivalent to that of of Major in the Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force.

  5. For links to this memorandum and others, see New York Times’ “Guide to the Memos on torture”, found at: Last accessed: 21 April 2018

  6. Army Chief of Staff during WWII, General George Marshall, is credited by many as the paragon of the non-partisan officer of this era and the fact that he did not vote was widely known. See Kohn Kohn (2009) and Corbett and Davidson Corbett and Davidson (2009) for discussions of the norm among officers to abstain from voting in elections.


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The author wishes to thank Stephen Trainor, John Bauer, David Henderson, Matthew Larkin, Melissa Martin, and John Chapman for helpful comments on and discussion of various concepts contained in older drafts on this topic. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. Government.

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Correspondence to Chad W. Seagren.

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Seagren, C.W. Collective Responsibility and the Career Military Officer’s Right to Public Dissent. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 22, 41–59 (2019).

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  • Dissent
  • Military ethics
  • Collective responsibility
  • Civilian-military relations