Is there a military duty to disagree?

*Note: Written to join my own “Arsenal of Ideas”…not for any wider publication.

Yes. If you accept the adage that ‘none of us is as smart as all of us,’ then competitive argument and constructive criticism is essentially the only way the military profession grows and succeeds.

I see this as a corollary to the military profession’s clear-cut duty to disobey an illegal order.

Let’s start with some ground rules. Clearly, it’s not helpful to have bickering within the chain of command. That sort of infighting hurts, rather than helps, decisions get made and implemented.

This ‘duty to disagree’ has two criteria for appropriateness: first, a time – only before a firm, final decision is made; and second, a temperament – only respectfully, objectively, and professionally.

When does this ‘duty to disagree’ end? When the decision-maker has made the decision and  the organization has moved from the choice phase into execution phase. This is when the biggest drawback lurks – if the disagreement creates too much friction, it may harm the organization’s unity and may risk slowing the process from decision to execution.

But the upside is a better end product, and to my mind, we need wiser choices much more than we need faster function (a generalization I can stand behind).

Now, some might say that the profession grows through individual reflection, which is only partly right. Sure, the profession demands reflective practitioners that experience, reflect, learn, and then improve. But reflection works best on the individual level. An army of one. So it’s fairly narrow.

More importantly, we’re all different. We interpret things differently, all of us. And so we have this crazy ability to see the exact same action, event, or activity – and then come away with completely different interpretations.

These interpretations and ideas eventually must collide to arrive at some commonly-held consensus, which is the consensus that large organizations require to act in unison to achieve objectives.

To create faith in this consensus, there must be widespread belief that the idea will succeeed. The best way to engender that faith is through an open debate (where the best idea wins) which precedes a final decision.

The ‘duty to disagree’ is, of course, very similar to the book/movie World War Z’s “tenth man” rule. The “tenth man” exceeds what I’ve described and formally requires that ten percent of staff officers take the ‘red team’ position to counter an otherwise unanimous choice. It’s a good rule-of-thumb and complements the ‘duty to disagree’, which I consider a more general, ongoing commitment to personal disagreement when there’s grounds for opposition to current thinking.

I’ve heard it said that newly promoted generals shouldn’t expect to hear the truth ever again. If that saying were accurate, that’d truly be a tragedy. Because if anyone in America needs to hear some hard truth, it’s general officers. A culture that encourages a ‘duty to disagree’ could draw some of those hard truths out.

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