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Revolt in the Ranks

Dissent in the armed forces is a patriotic tradition
Illustration by Miguel Davilla

On a September afternoon in the peacetime year of 1821, a regiment of Rhode Island militia completed its annual review and prepared to go home. Suddenly the regiment’s parade field in Providence became the scene of a spontaneous military riot.

In a confrontation that exploded over the space of a few minutes, the regimental commander was arrested and men in the ranks shouted for fellow militiamen to “fix bayonets” and resist orders by force. Ordered to take command in place of his arrested colonel, the senior battalion commander instead marched his men off the field, breaking the regiment apart to prevent the possibility of its obedience. Finally, as men in the ranks lashed out to strike a brigadier general’s horse with the butts of their weapons, a staff officer grabbed the general and dragged him away to safety.

A single disputed order had set off this conflagration: Brig. Gen. Joseph Hawes had ordered Col. Leonard Blodget to dismiss his men from their place on the field, an order that Blodget refused to pass down. Blodget and his subordinates didn’t believe a brigadier had power over a regiment unless it was assembled as part of a complete brigade, a view of authority that made Hawes a usurper at a regimental function.

But there was another problem: by long-established custom, the regiment had always been dismissed from its annual review at a bridge linking the communities that formed the force. Blodget could not give an order that violated regimental custom, he told Hawes on the field, because his men would not agree to obey.

He was right. Blodget’s subordinates defended the social practice they had established in the community of their regiment. Militiamen declined to subordinate their permanent identity as citizens to their momentary identity as soldiers. Joining together to defend their communities as the free citizens of a republic, they would shape the terms of their service. They would make and enforce a set of local rules that originated from their consent and their shared purpose.

The court martial that followed became a forum for competing arguments about the nature of authority in the young republic. In Blodget’s view, which was shared throughout his regiment, officers were bound by their social covenant with the free men they led. Military institutions were rooted in civil society, even as they were instruments of the state.

Responding to this view, a flabbergasted Hawes pointed to the statutory language that created military ranks. Colonels, he told the court, are supposed to obey brigadier generals. Legislated structure made command, unconstrained by social agreement.

Blodget was convicted of disobedience, sentenced to the loss of his rank and command, and forgiven. The major general who commanded the state’s militia reversed the sentence of Blodget’s court martial, restoring the colonel to his place at the head of a regiment he intended to command by its consent.

“The Age of Treason”

In our time, expressions of military dissent and politically inspired disobedience are seen as something shocking and new. Suddenly, dangerously, military personnel have politics. They speak critically of government institutions and leaders even as they provide the armed power of the state. Perhaps most controversially, an activist organization called Oath Keepers brings together military personnel who agree to resist unlawful orders.

News media have reacted with urgent hostility. In 2010 a typical story in Mother Jones blasted the group under a headline about an emerging “Age of Treason,” warning darkly that soldiers were openly pledging to defend the fundamental law: “At regular ceremonies in every state, members reaffirm their official oaths of service, pledging to protect the Constitution—but then they go a step further, vowing to disobey ‘unconstitutional’ orders from what they view as an increasingly tyrannical government.”

The liberal Mother Jones warned that the Oath Keepers were a right-wing group girding themselves to resist the authority of President Barack Obama, but similar warnings have appeared in different political contexts. In a essay published in The Atlantic during the late years of the Bush administration, Boston University professor and retired army officer Andrew Bacevich warned against a soldiers’ movement, the Appeal for Redress, that petitioned Congress to end the war in Iraq. The movement, Bacevich wrote, “heralds the appearance of something new to the American political landscape: a soldiers’ lobby.”

It didn’t herald anything of the sort. None of these events are unprecedented. Politically oriented military disobedience and dissent are as old as the nation—in fact, older—and an important piece of our shared effort as citizens to shape the politics of a constitutional republic. In fact, military disobedience and political dissent today is far tamer than it has been many times in the past. It represents no threat to our security or to the subordination of the military to civilian authority, particularly when it comes from small numbers of privates and sergeants.

Compare the Oath Keepers and the Appeal for Redress movement to the soldiers of the Continental Army’s Pennsylvania Line, who launched the largest of several Revolutionary War mutinies. At the beginning of 1781, the enlisted men of the Pennsylvania Line expressed their grievances over pay and their terms of enlistment by killing an officer and marching out of camp under the command of a committee of sergeants. Revolutionary officers struggled to contain mutiny from the ranks, but the officer corps itself would soon be responsible for a far more dangerous act of disloyalty.

In the Newburgh Conspiracy, officers of the Continental Army hinted at their willingness to overthrow the new government they had established if they weren’t provided with half-pay for life as a reward for their service. The conspirators at the army’s camp in Newburgh, New York were secretly encouraged by Alexander Hamilton, who—not wanting to let a crisis go to waste—hoped to use the threat of a coup d’état over officer pensions as grounds for direct national taxes.

In comparison, the Oath Keepers have pledged to uphold the Constitution, and the Appeal for Redress movement formally and lawfully petitioned their representatives in Congress to end the war in Iraq. You can take your choice as to which of these events was more ominous.

Liberal Obedience

Unease over military dissent is rooted in a view of the American military that ignores the culture of armed force in a republic born from violent and principled revolution. An April 14 story in the San Diego Union-Times warned readers about Sgt. Gary Stein, a marine who made the apparently unforgivable mistake of talking about his political views on Facebook. Stein’s “Armed Forces Tea Party Patriot” page, the newspaper concluded, crossed an impermissible line with its criticisms of Obama:

Democratic nations rely upon their armed forces for their defense—for unhesitating obedience to lawful orders from military commanders and civilian leaders. The American model, like that of most nations, punishes direct disobedience, as well as open conflict of subordinates with their leadership, military and civilian.

Military personnel are to obey, not to think and speak about what, or who, they’re obeying. Obedience makes military institutions work, and disobedience destroys the institutional premise.

But that’s not true.

Elizabeth Samet teaches future military officers at the United States Military Academy and is the author of a smart and lively book, Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America. Samet borrows a phrase from Edmund Burke to describe a cultural model she locates in the 19th century American military: liberal obedience. “Freely given and prompted by a love of country, liberal obedience cannot partake simply of restricted professional and technical, or immediate, circumstantial considerations,” she writes. “It must be entirely compatible with the intellectual enlargement that distinguishes the liber, or free man.”

The very thing that Americans most feared after their revolution was the possibility of unthinking obedience from armed men following charismatic leaders. Citizens of a republic gave their loyalty to republican principles, not to men. George Washington, a complicated figure whose personal intervention ended the Newburgh Conspiracy, repressed mutinies while tolerating the sentiments that caused them. Agreeing that soldiers at Valley Forge had complained bitterly and constantly about their poor treatment, Washington told a correspondent that their behavior had been a sign of their character as free men.

“An apparently loyal silence under extreme hardship,” Samet concludes, “would have served only as proof that these soldiers had become dangerous automatons who shed their identities as democratic citizens and relinquished their consciousnesses to a tyrannical discipline.”

That’s the thing to watch for from the American military, the sign that we’re entering an actual “Age of Treason” for Mother Jones to fear: an apparently loyal silence, a withdrawal from the public sphere into the isolation of unconsidered obedience. The republic is not threatened by a sergeant’s Facebook page. It would be threatened by a desert of thought populated by two million people with powerful weapons.


No form of dissent, disobedience, or criticism from within the American military today lacks at least a somewhat comparable parallel in the past. No soldier who speaks critically about the armed forces or its wars blazes some entirely new trail. And no petty institutional snit at attacks from within is wholly surprising.

This year, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, an armor officer in the U.S. Army, wrote a pair of reports—one for the public—accusing military leaders in Afghanistan of lying about progress in that war. After ten years of fighting, Davis wrote, victory is no closer. Much of the Afghan National Army, trained and equipped by the United States, won’t fight the Taliban on its own. Asked about combat patrols, an ANA commander “laughed in my face, and said, no, we don’t do that. That would be dangerous.” In an interview in April, Davis told a reporter from the Guardian that he was “persona non grata,” still in uniform but without much of a career ahead of him.

In 1903, the army whistleblower who became persona non grata for his damning report on an American war was the commanding general of the Army, Nelson Miles. Returning from an inspection tour in the Philippines, Miles wrote a long statement to Secretary of War Elihu Root concluding that American troops had tortured Filipinos and murdered prisoners of war. Some, he wrote, had been “shot or bayoneted to death, being in a kneeling position at that time.” His list of charges extended to corruption, supply failures, the unlawful concentration of the population through forced relocation, and widespread demoralization of exhausted American troops.

A few months later, after a frigid silence, Root publicly announced the general’s retirement date without discussing it with Miles: “The retirement from active service by the President, Aug. 8, 1903, of Lieut. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, United States Army, by operation of law, under the provision of Congress approved June 30, 1882, is announced.” In his fifth decade in uniform, the commanding general of the Army got a send-off that might as well have been chiseled in ice.

Writing on the CNN website in April, former attorney Dean Obeidallah concluded that Gary Stein’s anti-Obama Facebook page was such a hot topic in the news because “these are not normal times. Instead, we live in a grotesquely partisan era.” Living in an unusual historical moment, he concluded, we have to get back to normal: “Inserting partisan politics into our military is dangerous.”

In reality, there is no sudden stain on the virgin snow of the American military. The year before Nelson Miles destroyed his standing in the War Department with criticism of a conflict, another American general had done very nearly the opposite, waging war on critics. In a speech to a civic group in Denver, Brig. Gen. Frederick Funston had mocked American anti-imperialists in Congress as delicate men who deserved contemptuous pity. Talking about Sen. George Frisbie Hoar without mentioning his name, Funston said, “I have only sympathy for the senior senator from Massachusetts, who is suffering from an overheated conscience.” Seeing reports of the speech, President Theodore Roosevelt suggested to the War Department that Funston not make any more speeches. Mildly reprimanded, Funston went on to be promoted to major general.


Compare the Appeal for Redress, petitioning Congress to end the war in Iraq, with military opposition to the war in Vietnam. Army Lt. Henry Howe famously marched in an El Paso parade in 1965 with a sign demanding an end to “Johnson’s fascist aggression,” a choice that landed him in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth. The other side of his sign announced a hope that the nation would have some option other than “petty ignorant fascists” in the next presidential election.

As the war intensified, so did opposition from the ranks. At Fort Ord in 1968, two privates circulated a petition among their fellow soldiers: “We are tired of it. We are tired of all the lies about the war. We are uniting and organizing to voice our opposition to this war.” This theme, criticizing the war as built on a foundation of official dishonesty, was a common one. Retiring from the Marine Corps two years earlier, Master Sgt. Donald Duncan had published a description of his experience in Vietnam under the headline, “The Whole Thing Was a Lie.”

Underground newspapers sprang up on military bases. The Antiwar and Radical History Project at the University of Washington in Seattle archives and documents “GI Movement” local opposition to the Vietnam War. Some posts had several unauthorized newspapers over the course of the conflict, writes graduate student Jessie Kindig, “including Counterpoint, Fed Up, the Lewis-McChord Free Press, and G.I. Voice from Fort Lewis Army Base and McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma; the unit newsletters B Troop News and First of the Worst, from Fort Lewis; Sacstrated and Co-Ambulation from Fairchild Air Force Base, near Spokane, WA; Puget Sound Sound Off from Bremerton Naval Yard on the Washington peninsula; and Yah-Hoh, published out of Fort Lewis by a group of radical Native American servicemen.”

Facing the threat of discipline, soldiers produced radical newspapers off post, gathering in GI coffeehouses to plan and write. Gary Stein’s Facebook page is the mildest echo of far more radical political speech from the ranks.


Accused of leaking classified government material to WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning faces 22 criminal counts, including the devastating charge of aiding the enemy. But no evidence that has yet been made public suggests that Manning intended to help the nation’s enemies; rather, the young soldier is said to have expressed his horror over the “incredible things, awful things” that he discovered about the American war in Iraq as an intelligence analyst assigned to support that war. In an online chat with an FBI informer, Manning said that he hoped a public debate over the material he is alleged to have leaked “might actually change something.”

The real danger to our country lies in the official responses to military engagement in public debate, as when the Army piles on absurdly excessive charges against Manning. Dissent works. Loyal disagreement and principled disobedience can shape vital policy. Military personnel strengthen the nation they serve by forcing policymakers to explain, justify, and correct bad decisions.

If Manning is proved in court to have sent classified materials to WikiLeaks, his actions will merit some degree of discipline. But his apparent intent is as important as his poor choice of methods. A soldier asked us to think about what we are doing as a nation, to confront evidence and discuss it. We have soldiers who risk grave punishment to get us to do our duty as citizens.

In his book Paul Revere’s Ride, historian David Hackett Fischer describes the moment when the militiamen in Lexington, Massachusetts responded to an alarm in the middle of the night in April of 1775. They gathered around Captain John Parker, their commander, who greeted them “less as their commander than as their neighbor, kinsman, and friend.” In the morning, facing British troops, Parker would shout commands. But not that night.

“The men of Lexington did not assemble to receive orders from Captain Parker, much as they respected him,” Fischer writes. They expected to participate in any major decisions that would be taken. They gathered around Captain Parker on the Common, and held an impromptu town meeting in the open air.”

A government of limited powers, ensuring the common defense of free people with the consent of the governed, would not be threatened by a sergeant’s Facebook page or a group of soldiers who entered into a covenant to uphold the framework of government. A culture that cries for silent obedience from its military, on the other hand, doesn’t have much left to defend.

Chris Bray served as an infrantryman in the peacetime Army.