The Duty of Dissent

October 11th, 2009

They teach a lot of things at the US Military Academy at West Point, but one thing they don’t teach is the honorable duty of dissent, a vital element in a democracy. I was reminded of that while reading a new book about the latest crop of veterans protesting military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. A long time ago, I resigned from West Point and joined the campaign for ending the war in Vietnam, where I learned more about democracy as an activist than I ever did as a soldier.

“I have been impressed by the courage and inspired by the persistence of these veterans,” journalist Dahr Jamail writes in The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (Haymarket Books, 2009). The contrast he makes between fed-up soldiers who became activists and others who die in despair is startling.

Jamail’s probing into causes for the steep rise in suicides among soldiers and recent veterans sparked this thought: The best way to prevent suicides in the military and at home after a war tour might be quite simple — encourage and enable soldiers to speak out about their concerns and get a responsive hearing.

Testifying last year before an ad hoc Congressional committee convened to put on the public record war criticisms by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, former Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan said he wanted to register not only his own concerns from two tours in Iraq, but also call attention to a particularly chilling death in the war. That was the June 2005 death of Army Colonel Theodore Westhusing, who officials said shot himself shortly before his tour in Iraq was to end, leaving a bitter suicide note addressed to his commanding generals.

“I cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human right abuses and liars. I am sullied — no more,” Westhusing, who was 44 and due to return to teaching at West Point, wrote. “I didn’t volunteer to support corrupt, money grubbing contractors, nor work for commanders only interested in themselves. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored.” Westhusing’s wife told Army investigators, according to an extensive report in The Texas Observer, that he’d conveyed similar concerns to her. “I think Ted gave his life to let everyone know what was going on,” she said.

The Texas Observer plumbed this tragic story in a March 2007 feature article. “The disillusion that killed Ted Westhusing is part of the invoice that America will be paying long after the United States pulls its last troops out of Iraq,” wrote reporter Robert Bryce. “Some 846 American soldiers died in Iraq in 2005. Of those, 22 were suicides. Westhusing’s suicide, like nearly every other, leaves the survivors asking the same questions: Why? And what was it that drove the deceased to such despair? In Westhusing’s case, the answers go far beyond his personal struggles and straight to the heart of America’s goals in Iraq.”

A lot of other soldiers have sent a similarly anguished message, as they’ve been committing suicide in record numbers. How to stop an epidemic of soldiers killing themselves in greater numbers than are dying on battlefields has baffled military leaders.

Yet there is an alternative way of handling disillusionment and despair. The alternative is the action that Captain Montalvan and other veterans have undertaken—to speak out in public about military experiences that haunt them. That’s the focus of Jamail’s book, which profiles a variety of outspoken soldiers.

One of those profiled in The Will to Resist and in Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent (PoliPoint Press, 2009), is Camilo Mejia, a former National Guard staff sergeant who refused to return to Iraq a second time and served nine months in prison. Mejia did his time, wrote a memoir and hit the lecture circuit, crisscrossing the country as a leader of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Mejia’s lawyer as he faced a court-martial to challenge the legality and conduct of the war in Iraq was Louis Font, a West Pointer who refused to serve in Vietnam.

Perhaps Col. Westhusing and many others might still be alive, if West Point — and indeed, the entire US military — provided a civics course in Military Dissent, with case studies of officers and soldiers who spoke out about troubling military actions. Such a course could start off with a discussion sparked by this quote: “Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels — men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.” (Dwight D. Eisenhower, West Point grad, in a speech in 1954 as President of the United States.) It could survey any number of current military critics, including members of West Point Graduates Against the War, Veterans for Peace and the star-studded list of generals who protested the Bush administration’s policies that violated the Geneva Conventions and other international prohibitions against torture of prisoners.

Rules of Disengagement, by National Lawyers Guild activists Marjorie Cohn and Kathleen Gilberd, offers a handbook on dissent against a variety of military practices and policies. “Service members who fought in Vietnam, and recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, have challenged not only the rules under which they operated but also the very propriety of American engagement in those wars,” they write. “We offer service members practical guidelines for dissent and disengagement, from political protest to requesting discharge from the service.”

In whatever forum or format, speaking out can be vital for a soldier in anguish, as well as for the public to understand what’s going on that’s so upsetting to many military veterans. “Kids grow up wanting to be GI Joe and save lives. But military policy is dictating that people do terrible things, things that violate their conscience, and then have the psychological burden of carrying that around, because the military says you can’t talk about it. Soldiers live with it and die with it,” Perry O’Brien, an Afghanistan vet, said of why he helped organize the “Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan” hearings at the National Labor College in Maryland last year.

“It’s not going to be easy to hear what we have to say,” Kelly Dougherty, a former National Guard sergeant who served in Iraq, said at the Winter Soldier hearings, as recounted in Rules of Disengagement. “It’s not going to be easy for us to tell it. But we believe that the only way this war is going to end is if the American people truly understand what we have done in their name.”

For more information:

Winter Soldier on the Hill, Congressional Progressive Caucus, May 15, 2008 
I am Sullied — No More, The Texas Observer 
West Point Grads Against the War

(This article was also published at EarthAirWater.)

Articles written by
Tags: , , , , , ,
Categories: Military, Politics | Comments (14) | Home

Bookmark and Share

14 Responses to “The Duty of Dissent”

  1. Jenn of the Jungle |

    I agree on many points, but throwing the vile Winter Soldier scum into the mix lost me. There are other avenues. Most there were lying sacks.

    I know scores who have served or are currently serving and they can talk and do. It doesn’t help when you have the MSM and scads of code pinko’s calling our soldiers baby killers.

  2. Kevin |

    I’ve not seen any substantive evidence that most Winter Soldiers were lying sacks. Plenty of claims. But people once claimed that the Earth was flat. Didn’t make it so.

    Great essay, Jan.

  3. Brian Bagent |

    I agree in principle, but the military absolutely cannot have active soldiers, in a time of war, dissenting with their orders. It is a morale killer, especially for those that are as convinced of the righteousness of the action as are those that are as convinced of the unrighteousness of the action. It will certainly bring about more death and maiming for those that are not dissenting.

    Honest men can certainly disagree about things, but there simply isn’t room for this sort of dissent within the ranks. Jan, you did the honorable thing by resigning from the USMA. These soldiers are doing the right thing, but only if they have a DD-214 in hand when they dissent. The culmination of the dissent will always be Leavenworth or desertion, and General George Washington himself presided over the hanging of deserters.

    The solution to these military follies(Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, etc), as always, is to pare down the size of government back to only what the constitution authorizes, to a place where the power of the federal government is limited. Where there is much power, there is much opportunity for widespread corruption. Where there is little power, there is much less opportunity for corruption, and then only on a much smaller scale.

    But even before that, the charter of the central bank must be revoked and we must return to lawful money (as opposed to legal tender money), again, as mandated by the constitution and codified in the Coinage Act of 1792. As long as the Federal Reserve Bank can “make” money out of thin air, and as long as the Federal Government believes that it can continue with ever-increasing budgets, budget deficits, and apparently a limitless debt (now standing at nearly $11 trillion), the corruption will continue unabated.

    The problem is not with business, for it stands to reason that no businessman can seek favors where there is no power to grant favors.

  4. doris |

    Glad to see Kevin back, is this the real, original Kevin?

  5. Harvey |


    The first thing that occurred to me as I read this article is that “the honorable duty of dissent,” may well be “a vital element in a democracy” but the military is not and never has been a democracy; apparently that is another thing they neglect to mention at West Point — or more to the point in the recruiter’s office. Once out of the military all the normal rules of American society apply.

    Perhaps I’m looking at it simplistically but it seems to me that we’ve had an all volunteer military for some time now and anyone who joined up thinking that war was all glory and heroics and then realized that he or she couldn’t “hack it” (the realities of war and or of the military itself) has a personal problem — and aside from suicide they have two choices, man up and do the job or serve their hitch in the brig.

    Am I lacking compassion? Perhaps by many people’s standards, but I can’t help draw the conclusion that anyone who committed suicide in the military had a character flaw that would have eventually led to the same end when faced with conflict and/or pressure outside the military.

  6. Jan |

    Harvey, I’ve known veterans who committed suicide long after getting out the military. What you see as a character flaw, others are beginning to realize is a real disease (with the awakward name, post-traumatic stress disorder).

  7. Tom |

    There are different kinds of dissent inside the military that are acceptable and, to some extent, encouraged. Among rank-and-file soldiers, there is always a level of complaining. It’s so common that soldiers and their leaders alike wryly observe that soldiers aren’t happy if they aren’t bitching. Among the leadership, especially higher-ranking officers and NCOs, it’s expected that dissent from policies, strategy, and tactics will be voiced within the system. That’s a healthy thing, and it’s one of the factors that make our Army better than others.

    Sometimes outsiders (especially naive journalists in tailored bush jackets, agenda at the ready) look at this and draw false conclusions. CNN, for example, often takes an interview with a typical soldier bitching about this-and-that and makes it the centerpiece of a story slamming the military.

    Other kinds of dissent — I suppose you could call it destructive dissent, or fundamental dissent — can’t be tolerated within the system. Soldiers or their leaders who are so disaffected that they can’t work within the system must either get out to voice their dissent or take the consequences for disobedience or failure to follow orders and regulations.

    Once out of the military, American soldiers have almost complete freedom to dissent in any (lawful) way they wish. If a safety valve is needed for former soldiers who need to speak out, I can’t imagine a more free environment in which to do it.

    Suicide in the military, particularly the U.S. Army, has historically been lower, often much lower, than the suicide rate among the U.S. population of similar age and education. In 2008, the rate went above the civilian suicide rate (20.2 per 100,000 versus 19.2 per 100,000). That’s not much of a statistical difference, but it’s worrisome because of the increase in recent years. It isn’t good enough to be just equal to civilian rates, and the military is taking aggressive steps to deal with increased suicide rates.

    Suicide among veterans is another issue entirely. The rates are hard to pin down because of inadequate reporting, and I’m not sure there’s evidence of a current rash of suicides. In any case, the recognition of PTSD problems in the past couple of decades and measures taken to deal with it are encouraging.

  8. doris |

    I guess some folks have a real problem dealing with having killed people. Maybe they thought they could handle it, but as time went on, it became too much of a burden to bear. Just because they are the enemy, they probably don’t deserve to die anymore than we do for fighting for their causes. Who is right, who is wrong, it is your duty and decision to make, a heavy load for some.

  9. doris |

    We need to end both wars and bring our service people home. They are fighting for nothing, nothing at all, and they know it.

  10. Kevin |

    Yes, Doris. Same Kevin. I’ve been heavily burned out on politics and that really hasn’t changed. So don’t expect me to be a fixture here. I can barely muster interest in my own blog let alone other blogs.

    What brought me back this time is that I’ve got a good friend – we were best friends in high school – who is career Army (1st Sgt, I believe) and a multi-tour veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as the earlier Gulf War). A mutual friend from highschool is in Iraq right now getting in his combat tour so he can advance to Colonel.

    Anyway, I knew that Tom and Jan both write authoritatively about war from a veteran’s point of view and I came looking for something specific… and found what I was looking for right on the top of the page. First Tom’s essay comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam and then Jan’s fine essay here on dissent – both of which have been topics of discussion between my friend and I and both of which I passed on to my friend.

  11. Tom |

    Good to see you, Kevin! I’ve been tied up with a lot of things lately, to include travel to and from the U.S. I’ve barely been keeping up with things here and haven’t been able to read other sites. I’ll see you at PK soon.

  12. Kevin |

    Tom & Jan,

    Here’s a question of sorts from the friend I mentioned to Doris in my last comment. With some very minor editing, this is in his own words:

    “I see a lot of Officers do, and do, and do what is ordered by the CIC. Most do it maybe not in full support because all who are in the military follow orders reguardless what they may think, turn 180 and then blast the decisions given to them – that they themselves directed to thier commanders – with books and news articles. It just doesn’t seem like their integrity, though it may be different now that they are out, is as important anymore.”

    Since he’s still active duty he’s not going to post the question himself, so he asked me to pass it on. The timing of which was interesting to me because it was the same morning that Jan posted this essay on dissent. Which I pointed him to. But as I say… being active duty presents an ethical conflict for him so I’m passing this on in his stead.

    Your thoughts?

  13. Jan |

    Kevin, I wrote this essay because it was upsetting to read about a full-bird colonel committing suicide when he could have resigned and spoken out about his concerns. Lower ranking troops don’t have that option, but I think they should have other options if they reach a point where they are thinking about shooting themselves. I think they should be able to request and get a reassignment (which go on all the time for bureaucratic reasons). That would be good for the trooper who is burned out or bummed out in their current posting and good for the military, which has to do something constructive about the steep rise in suicides. Regarding your friend’s question, I think most people in the military try to do the assigned mission, but many become frustrated to find out that the mission is impossible or is using the wrong tool for the job or flat out turned into a disaster. As the Pentagon Papers about the escalating missions in Vietnam demonstrated, the information about what doesn’t work or creates a disaster often doesn’t reach the decision makers. So somebody has to make that information public. That’s not an easy thing to do, but it beats sinking into despair when speaking out might make a real difference in people’s lives.

  14. Tom |

    Kevin, I agree with what your friend is saying. It does seem that retired senior officers are writing more books and scoring more talking-head gigs than they ever did before. All they have to do to sell books and get on TV is to denigrate the military service they spent their lives in. Not only is it an issue of integrity, it’s a betrayal of those they served with as well as those who still serve. If their dissent was so strong while they were on active duty, the honorable thing would have been to resign or retire early in protest and then make their case.

    I agree with Jan’s comment above that lower-ranking soldiers who feel so stressed that they contemplate suicide should be able to state their problem and be reassigned or otherwise managed to reduce the threat of suicide. Generally speaking, that’s the way it is now. However, it’s unavoidably true that this is damaging to the individual, particularly those who are careerists. But that’s true in most professions, particularly those involving shared danger requiring high standards of personal and professional performance. Good examples are police and firefighters.

Leave a Comment

(To avoid spam, comments with three or more links will be held for moderation and approval.)


Recent Posts





Creative Commons License;   

The work on Opinion Forum   
is licensed under a   
Creative Commons Attribution   
3.0 Unported License

Support Military Families 

   Political Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory

Listed in LS Blogs the Blog Directory and Blog Search Engine  

Demand Media

Copyright 2024 Opinion Forum