Environmental Scan Draft for NEH Proposal

Environmental Scan Draft for NEH Proposal

This project started with a simple question, “Did General Westmoreland ever publicly speak out against President Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War?” Military officer dissent in the armed forces is a controversial topic.  Military officers follow strict codes of proper behavior in the armed forces, one being that the military should not publicly speak out against the President, except in rare cases.  While there are several reasons for this code, the main objective is to maintain healthy civilian-military relations.  In a democracy, healthy civilian-military relations can be sustained only when the military is subordinate to civilian control.  If the military becomes too powerful, it threatens the very existence of freedom and democracy due to it’s ability to overpower civilian rule and force a coup.

Throughout its existence, The United States of America has maintained healthy civilian-military relations.  The proof is that we have the most powerful and largest military in the world without threat of coups.  According to Samuel Huntington in his book The Soldier and State, the military must always be subordinate to the state/civilians and that there is no room for politics in the military- “The military profession exists to serve the state.”[1]  But this does not mean that the military leaders always agree with civilian authority, and doesn’t always have to.  Part of the role of military leaders is to advise civilian leaders on matters of war, but also to carry out those orders without question even if they disagree.[2]  How do military leaders dissent? In Armed Servants, Peter Feaver uses principal-agency theory to explain ways the military can dissent.  He explains how military personnel can either choose to work or shirk (the act of not working) if they do not agree with civilian authority.[3]  Shirking, which can be punished, can take place in a number of forms from refusing or stalling to do work to a military coup.[4]  Public protests against civilian leadership is another form of shirking.[5]  This is a risky move for several reasons.  Much of military code operates under what Huntington calls objective civilian control, or normal theory.  While this theory states that civilians should not interfere military decision-making, it also expects that the military stays completely subordinate to civilian leadership and not participate in politics.[6]  Given the strict guidelines of military code, military leaders risk being demoted, forced to resign, even court-martialed.[7] However, there is a code that also says that the military has the right to speak out against civilian orders that are morally wrong (as was in the case of using torture on prisoner during the Iraq war)[8] or is unconstitutional, as all military personnel swear an oath to defend the Constitution.  It is a risky business, but some military leaders chose to speak out.

While it is expected that military leaders can openly disagree with the President and his advisors behind closed doors during talks, once the president makes his decision the norm is for military leaders to follow out his orders, even if they do not agree.  This is not always the case, although public dissent is not all that common, at least up until 2000.  Prior to the Vietnam War, some notorious military leader dissenters existed including General Smedley Butler and General Douglas MacArthur, but dissenting was not a norm.  During the Vietnam War, most military leaders did not openly speak out against President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decisions that ultimately led to over 58,000 U.S. soldiers killed.

But Vietnam changed everything.  After the Vietnam Papers became public, the military and civilian leaders operated in an exchange that upset the delicate balance of civilian control simply because politicians, military leaders and the public did not want another Vietnam.  Simply put, civilian leaders start giving more authority to the military.  After the end of the Cold War, and starting with the first war with Iraq, public military leader dissent becomes more frequent.  General Colin Powell is well known for his public opinions against sitting Presidents and their Cabinet while he was active in the military.  “The Revolt of the Generals” is a well-known case about senior flag officers who spoke out against the Iraq war policies following their retirement.[9]    Scholarship addresses these cases either on an individual or biographical basis or in the fields of political science and civilian-military relations of how military leadership dissent affects the balance of civilian-military relations.  We have not come across a deep mining of materials available on military leader dissent against presidential decisions on war and conflict to determine if military leader dissent is rare from 1960 to before the second Iraq War.  This project seeks to conduct this research.

This project seeks to use newspapers and magazines in databases and sections of papers of influential military leaders as sources.  The ranks of the military leaders researched include TBD.  To mine newspapers and magazines we will use OCR and work in conjunction with active and retired military leaders to identify key terms.  Once we analyze the outcomes, we will look to see what further questions we need to ask the sources.  Also, military leader biographies as well as their paper collections housed in archives will be scanned and mined looking for the same.  Papers of military leaders will only include public sources, such as speeches, memos, interviews, etc. as this project is not concerned with private exchanges at this time.  This project will take note of who was dissenting and why, paying particular attention to why they dissented (moral grounds, unlawful orders, constitutionality of decisions, weakness of military, etc).  The project will also identify whether the dissenters were active military or retired when they publicly dissented since there is argument about upholding military honor codes after retirement.  The data will be broken down by military service, military rank, and time period/conflict (to see changes over time).  The data will then be evaluated to look for historical trends in dissent and match the history of the time period, comparing any existing data.

            The research will be presented digitally using an interactive timeline.  The timeline will allow users to click on a year for historical information of the climate of the times (setting tone), examples sources of military dissent from the archive (providing proof), photos and interviews (to humanize the subject) and other important pieces of information.  Visualizations will also be used to show changes including bar and line graphs (with interactive progression) and interactive textplots, as demonstrated in the website Quantifying Kissinger by Micki Kauffman.  The visuals should not be overly complex, and where it does get complex, a video will be included to explain the data.  This will make the site more user friendly to those of all ages (being mindful of possibly veterans who are older), and not only computer savvy individuals.  The introductory pages to American Panorama present a clean and simple look and instruction page that could be useful for this site.  Should the research result be conducive to mapping, then mapping will be included.  This could be useful to see what conflicts around the world military leaders have spoken about against the President.


[1] Huntington, p. 72-73

[2] ?

[3] Feaver, ?

[4] Feaver, 68

[5] Ibid.

[6] Huntington, p. 71

[7] Snider, p. 8

[8] Milburn 2010

[9] Snider, 2

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