Speaking Up When It Really Matters:
The Case of Major General John Batiste
Jeffrey J. Matthews, author of Generals and Admirals, Criminals and Crooks: Dishonorable Leadership in the U.S. Military—which was reviewed by the New York Times as “a thoughtful study of the ways in which power corrupts”—writes about the importance of speaking up at the right time to facilitate change.
When ordered into harm’s way, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are expected to be physically courageous. Generals and admirals, however, are far more likely to confront situations begging for acts of moral, not physical courage. Illegal orders must be disobeyed, but what is a senior officer to do, especially in times of war, when working for a deceitful leader or when given immoral and dangerously irresponsible orders? Dissent? Retire? Resign in protest?
Many American generals were justly criticized for lacking moral courage during the Iraq War. Despite having serious misgivings about the necessity for war and the adequacy of post-invasion planning, they did not assert themselves to contest the Bush administration’s optimistic assumptions and sanguine forecasts of a quick victory and rapid drawdown.
One Army leader who stood out was Major General John Batiste. He demonstrated moral courage by dissenting honorably while in and out of uniform. Batiste commanded the Army’s First Infantry Division early in the Iraq War. Before long he realized that the Bush administration had not deployed sufficient ground troops and other resources to secure the divided and war-torn country. He “freely and forcefully” expressed his concerns about the “shitty war plan” up the chain of command, including the Pentagon, but to no avail.
In April 2005, Batiste was offered a plum assignment, deputy commander of the V Corps. Although the position would earn him a third-star, he surprised many by declining the promotion and choosing retirement instead. “How can I look myself in the mirror if I take this job,” Batiste thought. “I didn’t sleep for nights,” he recounted. “But I was not willing to compromise my principles for one more minute.”¹ A year later, Batiste broke ranks with Pentagon and began a very public campaign criticizing the Bush administration’s rush to war and its failed prosecution. Batiste felt morally obligated to speak up. “If I don’t speak out,” he said, “who the hell else will?”²
One leadership lesson from Iraq is clear: senior military officers possess an inalienable responsibility to speak out against imprudent warfighting policies that unnecessarily risk the lives of fellow citizens. To remain silent or to be easily cowed is cowardly; and the rationalization that one should quietly follow orders is morally bankrupt. To avoid unethical complicity and salvage one’s integrity, moral courage is best demonstrated by speaking out, and in extreme circumstances retiring or resigning in protest. Such acts of principled dissent do not challenge the authority of one’s superiors, but rather contests the prudence of their directives.
¹ Thom Shanker, “Army Career Behind Him, General Speaks Out on Iraq,” New York Times, May 13, 2007.
² Greg Jaffe, “The Two-Star Rebel,” Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2006.