A lecture to the Marine Corps Command and Staff College

Dr. Kohn is the co-editor with Peter D. Feaver of Soldiers and Civilians: The Civil-Military Gap and American National Security (BCSIA Studies in International Security) 2d Edition, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0262561426.
>Dr. Kohn is a Professor Emeritus of History and Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was Chief of Air Force History for the Air Force at the Pentagon, 1981–199l. This article is a revised and updated version of a lecture to the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in May 2022.

Thanks, LtCol Anthony, for that kind introduction. It’s a pleasure and an honor to speak to the College class, and my thanks for this opportunity. I must note special appreciation to your Dean, Dr. Jonathan Phillips, whom I have known and appreciated for nearly 30 years, from his time in the UNC PhD program in history: one of the finest teachers and most honest, careful, and insightful scholars in my experience. And a personal friend whose advice, on professional issues as well as on what sailboat and bicycles to buy—two items of his special expertise.

In discussing dissent, we are not talking about simply disagreeing; we all disagree about many things, and frequently.1 After all, we are Americans, at least most of you in this audience. Nor is dissent insubordination or disobeying orders, although dissent can lead to such. Dissent is not about defying or disobeying lawful orders.

Where dissent differs from simple disagreement is that dissent implies disagreement with the majority opinion or judgment, with a consensus, or with established authority, or with traditional and commonly accepted institutional norms, or even orders. Fundamentally, dissent is simply thought. Sometimes, with certain people, it can be an attitude. But in your readings and in the common parlance today in civilian society and within the military, both in general and in the Marine Corps in particular, where it has something of a long tradition all the way back to Smedley Butler and Evans Carlson in the 1920s and 1930s, and after, it is accompanied by the voicing of disagreement in private or even publicly—in other words, expressing a contrary opinion. Not remaining silent. And another part of the definition is that dissent implies acting at the risk of self-interest, personal or professional, or both, and thus that it requires some courage. Risking the personal self-interest of a relationship with a boss, or peers or simply professional self-interest in promotion or reputation. As officers, you know and possess physical courage; dissent is something different, something we might call moral courage. We all know, and are educated to, or to be capable of understanding, right from wrong, and have the training, experience, education, or ability in any given situation to figure out what is a proper course of action, or ought to be, even if one is not aware of all the facts, have all the necessary information, the wider perspectives, and necessities that people at higher levels might have.

Every profession or trade expects dissent. Lawyers, doctors, professors, clergy, business executives, supervisors in factories, carpenters, electricians, social workers, nurses, and the like face, on a regular basis, problems that involve discussion with peers, supervisors, subordinates as to how to accomplish a task or solve a problem. We are a practical, pragmatic, problem-solving people and our culture thrives on differing perspectives and ideas. It is built into our culture. Our politics is infused with dissent. One of our norms—respect for alternative viewpoints—is indispensable, although it seems, unfortunately, to have declined. The country was founded on dissent from British policy, laws, and institutions; our religious traditions from earliest times involved dissenting—splits in established churches and even migration, from Roger Williams leaving Puritan Massachusetts to the Mormons leaving upstate New York and Illinois and settling in the Mountain West—and many of you know that earliest Mormon settlements had their own dissenters and breakaway groups.

Think of countries that do not permit, or do not value, dissent that arises from freedom of thought and expression. Their governments are autocracies, arbitrary, capable of terrible mistakes—such as Russia has committed in invading Ukraine—and the militaries of such governments are less flexible, more corrupt. Businesses across the world, in all societies, that are top-down and do not encourage independent thinking and open discussion often waste money, choose wrongly, misjudge the market or the popularity or appropriateness of their products, and flounder.

In the armed forces, where lives can be on the line and the country’s security or even existence can be at stake, dissent seems to me as important as in any walk of life, simply because of the stakes in military service. It seems to me that dissent is not only a moral and ethical imperative, but an obligation. Think of it at the personal level. If you witness a mistake about to be made, a decision that will lead in your judgment to unnecessary death and destruction, to counterproductive results, to self-defeating consequences, do you not have the obligation to raise questions? To stand by without asking for explanation or clarification, or further discussion, can be something of a dereliction … not serving the mission, your superior, or the people for whom you are responsible, very well or even perhaps adequately.

On the other side, in command of others, would you not want your people to express their views, give you the benefit of their experience, knowledge, and judgment in the process of deciding a course of action—if not whether to act, how to act, what are the alternatives and the risks. It seems to me that every supervisor needs to encourage subordinates to make their views known in some way or in some venue, to know that they are heard and considered, that the boss is open to ideas and thoughts that might be out of the box or unpopular. That there will be no penalty for disagreeing with the boss. You must be careful not to intimidate your people into silence. At the beginning of his tenure, as the legendary Army Chief of Staff during World War II, George C. Marshall, reputably told his immediate staff that they were not doing their job. The staff was surprised, some even shocked, and they asked for an explanation. Marshall told them that they had been working with him for a week and not one of them had disagreed with him.2

At least this is the theory of dissent and leadership. I have made it sound simple, cut and dried, no problem. But we all know that the devil is in the details. The realities, as many of you know and probably have experienced, is that dissent is always situational. That is, it depends on a number of factors, and on the circumstances.

First, the situation, the context. Is it at the tactical level, as a junior officer, or higher, at the operational level, or even higher in a geographic combatant command or in Washington or the strategic level? Is it in the field, in combat, in a unit engaged, or at a command post or headquarters, or on a staff, at home or abroad? Is there time to dissent, to discuss? Does it involve allied forces or is it all Americans? If the latter, are other Services involved, or civilians, or local populations and civilians, local leaders or institutions or partners? Is it about a policy or its implementation, say the rules of engagement, established recently or further in the past, by your command, at a close level above you or in Washington far away? Does the dilemma involve a decision or its execution? Is there time to discuss or debate the policy, decision, order, or action? Are lives at stake? Is accomplishing the mission at stake?

In other words, how important is the issue? How consequential, and is the officer in a position, because of experience, knowledge, information, and the like, to make that determination accurately? All of this requires judgment and sensitivity, acute observation, and considerable thought.

Additionally, the people involved in a situation are a crucial consideration. One has to gauge the situation, and how often to dissent. With your peers, it seems easier to dissent. To your superiors, more difficult.

And then there is the problem of how to express dissent. Speaking up, in private or within an organization or up the chain of command, but not out to the public or people who will make your views public seems to me more problematic. That is, you can speak privately one on one, or in a small group with people you know and where there has already, through personal knowledge or time together, a bond of respect and trust. Perhaps a contrary view is best offered in private, with carefully crafted language. One has to read not only the boss, but the context, and one has to make clear, always, that you are subordinate, not just in words but also in tone, body language, and understanding of the issue and the person in charge.

When I worked in the Pentagon in the 1980s, there was a saying, “that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission.” Think about that. Like all aphorisms, it can be untrue or even dangerous. My father, a canny Illinois lawyer with a likeness of Abraham Lincoln on his office wall, loved aphorisms. One he often expressed was in my judgment wrong: “You’re never sorry for what you don’t say.” Well, I disagree with that, particularly on the subject of dissent, as I will explain in a moment. On another aphorism, he was dead right: “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” The points are these: what counts are the situation, the circumstances, the importance of the problem, the people one is trying to reach, to engage, to influence, and more.

But if dissent is a moral and a professional obligation, one with personal and professional risks, in a discussion with important consequences, and an officer who disagrees and remains silent: has he or she fulfilled the duty to his or her subordinates and the loyalty to superiors? It is a ticklish question, an important question, but also one that should not be paralyzing either in the abstract, as a matter of theory, or particularly troubling in the everyday carrying out of your duties. It is simply a part of your profession, as it is with all of the professions, with life in general. When to speak up, when to remain silent. Do not make a big deal of it, or think about it all the time, making it a defining element of your officer-ship and relationships with your contemporaries and superiors. It is just a natural part of officer-ship in a professional military service. As one retired four-star admiral said to me recently, “All of us carry out orders we disagree with, occasionally and sometimes often.”3

George C. Marshall was particularly candid about the necessity for choice. He established an independent and candid relationship with Franklin Roosevelt when, newly promoted and appointed Assistant Chief of Staff of the Army in the late 1930s, in a meeting the President made his own views clear and went around the room asking those present if they agreed. All did until Marshall, who told Roosevelt that he most definitely did not agree and why. People there told Marshall his career was over, but Roosevelt respected Marshall’s bravery and honesty, and in 1939 appointed him Chief of Staff over several other higher-ranking people. And for the next six years, when dealing with Roosevelt and with Congress, the general admitted after the war that he always saved voicing his dissents for the most meaningful, important, consequential problems or issues, and let the unimportant pass without offering contrary views, lest he forfeit his credibility or influence with these politicians on matters he considered crucial. “I never haggled with the President,” Marshall remembered. “I swallowed the little things so that I could go to bat on the big ones. I never handled a matter apologetically and I was never contentious.”4

A good example of the necessity for silence occurred at an Army Air Forces base in North Africa in 1943. Years ago in discussion with two retired generals, both four stars, the mission to take out the Axis oil refineries at Ploesti in Rumania came up. Then Col Jacob Smart, a member of the chief of Army Air Forces colonels group at Headquarters in the Pentagon, said he thought up the idea of a low-level bombing mission to avoid the fighters and flak. Hap Arnold, the Army Air Forces chief, accepted the risk and told Smart that since he came up with the idea, he should go over to North Africa and sell it to the crews that would have to fly it. Leon Johnson, the other general, then a colonel and group commander, told Smart and me that he knew the attackers would be shot to pieces and the mission likely would fail—and it did—and Johnson won the Medal of Honor for his bravery and leadership. I asked him why, if he thought it would fail, why did he not refuse to fly the mission or object to it? He was dumbfounded. In the middle of World War II, against a murderous enemy in an existential world war, it never occurred to him to refuse the mission. As far as I know, he did not dissent; to do so, in retrospect, might have unhinged his unit.

I would be particularly careful not to confuse dissent with disobedience and even insubordination, at the various levels of combat and command, as in the reading by Andrew Milburn. He cites personal instances when he disobeyed or violated orders. But every example is from the tactical or operational level, the example of the Prussian officer and king. Milburn avoids the strategic level and above, as when, in an essay over a decade ago, he cited Douglas MacArthur in Korea as an example to be followed.This was and is nonsense; MacArthur was guilty of insubordination and disobedience at the policy, strategy, and presidential levels. The necessity for civilian control of the military, so pervasive in the U.S. Constitution and so foundational to the American government, admits of no disobedience. Officers can dissent in discussions with civilian superiors, but in private, speaking up but not out (i.e. to the press or the public), and even in testimony to Congress, senior officers must be extraordinarily careful in discussing their advice to the most senior civilian officials.

As the field officer, and throughout the military in many and perhaps most situations at the tactical and operational level of war, there is the expectation that officers have the discretion to adjust their orders and their decisions, if necessary, to implement the commander’s intent. The Armed Services seem in the last generation to try to locate decisions at the lowest level where commanders on the ground are likely to have the best knowledge to judge what needs to be done to accomplish that intent. Officers must navigate uncertainty and risk, not just in battle, staff work, or in deciding when it is imperative to dissent, to speak up. When it comes down to it, moral courage and physical courage come out of the same wellspring of character and judgment.

One other example. There may be times when orders can be disobeyed and perhaps should be. On a trip to Vietnam some ten years ago, the group I was with visited tunnels used by the Viet Cong near a town northeast of Saigon. One member of our group told us that, as an Air Force major near the end of the war, he had been a forward air controller marking enemy targets on the ground. When an order came through to vector an attack on a certain village because a South Vietnamese brigade was taking fire from it, he refused—twice. He told his superiors that he had flown over it many times, never taking fire, that if the South Vietnamese brigade was being fired upon, it should assault and take the town, not level it and kill all its innocent civilians. The major was accused of insubordination, taken off flying duty, and hauled before the four-star commander of U.S. air forces in Vietnam. His superiors presented the situation to the four-star. Legal orders; clear situation; twice ordered, threatened, consequences made clear. At the hearing, the major explained why he refused the orders to mark the town for destruction. Gen John Vogt, the commander—a distinguished officer, a fighter ace from World War II—then cleared the room and asked the major again, what happened and why. Same story. Vogt pondered, then told the major to return to his unit, that he would be put back on flying duty, and the incident was closed.

Now another commander might have thrown the book at the major. The man had made a moral and professional decision not to kill in his mind innocent people because the South Vietnamese brigade commander did not want to risk his own casualties in a ground assault. You make up your own minds. Was this moral courage? The right choice?

Command at any level is not a popularity contest, even if officer evaluations are being done with 360-degree inputs. Situations are often unclear, information lacking, choices difficult. Just as command is filled with uncertainty, so too is the need and appropriateness for dissent. Officers are often forced to “lead from the middle,” that is to help their superiors get through ambivalent choices, advocate and argue for a course of action that runs against the thinking of a group. Or, as is more often the case, take a decision or order that is disagreeable or that even appears wrong to one’s subordinates, and make the best of it. As one former Marine officer said a few years ago, when at a conference on wars of choice, when asked how one leads people in battle when they think the war is wrong and they oppose it: he answered that he always did everything in his power to accomplish his mission with the least harm to the people under his command and to the Iraqis involved in the action.

There are times when one has to speak truth to power, but as Marshall understood, you cannot do it all the time or you become a nag and a problem. As you rise in rank and responsibility, you will learn the instinct to assess the audience and the situation. Do not take counsel of your fears any more than you do in combat situations. One Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who had to deal with a most difficult, frequently abusive, dismissive, and yet indecisive Secretary of Defense, told me that he always wanted the Secretary to be glad when he, the chairman, came into the room, knowing that he needed to be listened to. That it was essential to tell the Secretary what he needed to know even if he did not want to hear it. Marshall said essentially the same, in dealing with FDR: pick spots, save dissent, or unpleasant truth for what really mattered.

Let me close with one more thought. The Marine Corps is going through a set of dramatic changes as we speak. The law of averages tells me that some of them, hopefully, a tiny, tiny few, may be wrong or need adjustment or modification or whatever. This means that Marines at every level must be even more willing to dissent than in “normal” times, lest a mistake from the top—or near it—cause difficulties, even inefficiencies or deaths, that otherwise could be avoided. You who are not Marines in this audience should also take notice, and be prepared to dissent equally. I know the other Services face great challenges brought on by technology—to name only a few, cyber and drones, artificial intelligence, uninhabited ships and planes and vehicles—and a rapidly changing, and threatening, international situation. Not to speak of funding limitations, of changes in our alliances, and in leadership, all of which reverberate downrange. Be prepared for such; be attuned to the contributions you can make not by going along to get along, but by contributing your experience and expertise, reading widely and thinking critically, and dissenting when it is called for, and it can be helpful. Your Service and the country will be the better for it.


1. As a verb, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “dissent” as “to differ in sentiment … To withhold assent or consent from a proposal, etc.; not to assent; to disagree with or object to an action … To think differently.” The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Dissent.”

2. Marshall and his staff at the beginning of his tenure.

3. Conversation in 2021, repeated in the fall of 2022 in Durham, NC. The Admiral had been a COCOM commander and after retirement, a senior civilian reporting directly to the President.

4. Quoted in Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Ordeal and Hope, 1939–1942 (New York: The Viking Press, 1965); and Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Education of a General (New York: The Viking Press, 1963).

5. Andrew Milburn, “When Not to Obey Orders,” War on the Rocks, July 8, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/07/when-not-to-obey-orders; Thomas E. Ricks, “Richard Kohn Fires a Warning Flare about a Joint Forces Quarterly Article,” FP, September 29, 2010, https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/09/29/richard-kohn-fires-a-warning-flare-about-a-joint-force-quarterly-article; Andrew R. Milburn, “Breaking Ranks: Dissent and the Military Professional,” Joint Force Quarterly 59 (4th Quarter 2010).