In 2010, Andrew Milburn — then an active-duty Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, now a retired colonel — wrote that a military officer’s oath and code of ethics accord him the “moral autonomy” to disobey an order he believes would harm the United States, its military or the soldiers in his charge “in a manner not clearly outweighed by its benefits.” In his view, “generals like being generals, and thus would select judiciously those causes for which they were prepared to sacrifice their careers.”There will be much written in the coming days and months as protests continue and the country and its leaders ponder the proper use of the armed forces, but this essay is a useful contribution that should be studied by those concerned with military legal and ethical matters.
Mr. Milburn’s argument was controversial then; I voiced deep skepticism about it in a piece in Harper’s. But over the course of nine years — perhaps especially in the last three — it has gained some traction in the military, and U.S. military doctrine has come to recognize greater flexibility in dealing with orders considered improper.
In fact, the general whom Mr. Trump tasked with responding to the protests, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark A. Milley, has advocated such flexibility. In 2017, as Army chief of staff, he gave a speech for the Atlantic Council in which he expressed support for “disciplined disobedience” for the sake of a mission’s “higher purpose.”
We may be close to the moment at which active-duty service members need to consider disciplined disobedience. . . .