Is Dissent Permissible During Wartime?

When America's leaders make the decision to engage in military action abroad, has the time for debate ended, or is it more important than ever that those with doubts about the policy speak out?

Rick Moran explains why he’s supporting the President’s decision to involve U.S. forces in the current United Nations backed operations against Libya and, in part, he makes this point:

First and foremost, I am supporting the president because he is Commander in Chief and he has taken the United States to war. He didn’t take the Obama administration to war, or the Democratic party, or (many) liberals. He has taken the country to war – my country, our country. If we have disagreements – and believe me, I’ve got a ton – they can wait until after the war is over and won.
Simple minded? Sure. Blindly nationalistic? You bet. But I believe that if you begin to question the leader of our country about a decision he has made to commit the armed forces of the United States to battle, placing our children and neighbor’s children in harm’s way, you do nothing to alter that decision and only serve the purpose of the enemy to divide us at exactly the time we must be united.

It’s that simple now, it was that simple for Bush and Iraq, Clinton and Kosovo, Bush 41 and Kuwait, Reagan and Grenada, and on back to FDR and World War II. There may come a time where raising questions no longer primarily aids the enemy but would seek to save the country from its own stupidity as was done with Vietnam. But we are far, far from that point and doubt whether we need to worry about Libya in that regard.

This is certainly an understandable sentiment, and I don’t entirely disagree with it. Up until the Vietnam War, in fact, the very idea of public opposition to a war was simply unheard of in the United States. There were anti-war protesters in the past, but they were almost universally viewed with contempt and, even subject to legal prosecution. During World War One, for example, Eugene V. Debs was arrested and imprisoned for speaking out against the war and encouraging draft resistance. His conviction was upheld by a unanimous Supreme Court.

A mere fifty years later, anti-war speeches and draft resistance were not only permitted, they were part of a growing culture of suspicion about government. Ever since Vietnam, then, whatever social pressure there may have been for opponents of a particular war or foreign military operation has, for the most part, disappeared. Additionally, thanks largely to a series of Supreme Court decisions that chipped away at the legal reasoning the Supreme Court used in the Debs case, there is virtually no legal basis upon which someone who speaks out against war today could be successfully prosecuted.

Is this a good thing? I think that it is. Suppressing speech in a free society is always a bad thing, and social pressure that tells a citizen who disagrees with their government’s policy that they need to shut up and conform can be just as bad. More importantly, its hardly the case that we are engaging at the moment  in wars where right and wrong as as clear as they were in, say, World War II. Muammar Gaddafi is an evil guy, but he is not even close to being an existential threat to the United States, and it is by no means clear that we need to be involved in any international effort against him. If this were such a situation, or if war were actually occurring on the American homeland, then the argument for restrictions on speech in the name in security might be stronger. When the conflict is thousands of miles away, and the goals of the campaign aren’t even being communicated clearly by the President, though, the idea that Americans owe it to their country to support whatever decision their leaders have made strikes me as begging the question.

Dissent is never a bad thing in a free society, and I don’t see any reason why it would be worse during war time, when the importance of speaking out about something that one honestly believes to be wrong would seem to be even more important.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Military Affairs, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. mantis says:

    Is Dissent Permissible During Wartime?

    Absolutely, but it almost never accomplishes anything, sadly.

  2. EJ says:

    dissent is only patriotic when the other party is in power. Didn’t you know that Doug?

  3. James Joyner says:

    Our attitudes about our political leaders have changed markedly since the days of WWII and Korea–partly because of the stream of lies about Vietnam that got exposed.

    But something else is different, too: We’ve stopped declaring war. We occasionally have Congress involved, as with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Authorization to Use Force that preceded Iraq. But wars are nonetheless viewed as unilateral acts by the president rather than something that we’re all in together.

    The All-Volunteer Force concept and the elimination of the draft–which I wholeheartedly support–has exacerbated this trend. Wars really are something that somebody else fight unless you’re in the military.

  4. hey norm says:

    i do not have a problem with dissent.
    i do have a problem with people who were completely wrong about iraq just 8 or 9 years ago pontificating as though only their opinion counts. as if they have any answers – much less all the answers. it makes my blood boil to see wolfowitz on the sunday shows talking about libya. this guy helped send 4000 troops to their death – needlessly. he helped kill a hundred thousand civilians – needlessly. he helped blow over 2 trillion dollars (unbudgeted in the republican traditon of course) on the nations credit card – needlessly. he helped make irans position in the region stronger – needlessly. he helped weaken our standing in the world – needlessly. and for that he is given a position of credibility on a national news program? really?
    dissent is patriotic. humility sometimes is just a damn good idea.

  5. Moosebreath says:

    “Up until the Vietnam War, in fact, the very idea of public opposition to a war was simply unheard of in the United States.”

    Please look up some history of dissent during the Civil War (e.g., New York Draft Riots, Copperheads, etc.).

  6. PD Shaw says:

    The President did not ask for the support of the country through our elected representatives, so I guess it’s immaterial whether one supports the “war” or not. It’s not relevant to the plan. I certainly feel much freer to “jump ship” if and when the going gets tough.

  7. Rick Almeida says:

    I am a big fan of dissent at pretty much any time.

  8. largebill says:

    This is a matter of semantics. If the question is as phrased “Is Dissent Permissible During Wartime?”
    then the answer must be yes, of course we have a right to dissent. However, not every right must be exercised. Nor is the manner of dissent always appropriate. We can disagree without being disagreeable. During the Bush years I never thought people should not be allowed to protest. However, while acknowledging their right to protest, I retained my right to view the majority of them with scorn and contempt. The loudest and most vocal were disgusting in their manner and dishonest in their rhetoric. The only things accomplished by the protesters was a drop in President Bush’s poll numbers and emboldening of the insurgents. Those who claimed to be opposed to the war quite possibly added to the length of the conflict. The best way to end a war quickly is by winning it decisively.

  9. This is certainly an understandable sentiment, and I don’t entirely disagree with it.

    You should. Moran is arguing the president has the power to attack anyone anywhere on the planet solely at his discretion, without even bothering to inform congress much less get approval and the US people can’t even criticize his decision? That’s not a President; that’s a King.

  10. What a strange title. Might as well ask if ptriotism is permissable during wartime, dissent being the highest form of patriotism and all that.

    FWIW, IMHO, the three primary reasons there wasn’t much dissent before WWII was during wartime waere:

    1) A byproduct of a dominant monoculture in the US that no longer exists. Yes, I realize there were other cutures here then, but in most cases immigrants strove to acheive the same American Dream that most “natives” did. Now? Not so much.

    2) A loss of confidence and descent into the age of irony and cynicism which largely coincides with the Vietnam war era.

    3) Mass Media and all its side effects and after shocks: squeaky wheels, 15 minutes of fame, if it bleeds it leads, and all that.

  11. Oh, and Ishouldn’t emphasize immigration so much in the first point. That’s probably a smaller effect than the counterculture revolution that started in the 50’s and 60’s.

  12. Wayne says:

    Not all dissent is equal. Stating that we should be more aggressive, less aggressive, etc is one thing. Using any little thing that goes wrong to score cheap political points is another. Taking actions or giving out information that hurts the war effort is yet another. Constructive criticism is different from criticism design to tear someone down. Problem is is telling which is which.

  13. TG Chicago says:

    @Mataconis:

    The last time you posted in regards to dissenting a war (yesterday), you approvingly quoted these words:

    Naturally, [antiwar protestors] rooted for more American deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq and for American objectives to go unfulfilled, at least while Bush was president.

    That’s grotesque nonsense, of course, but you nodded along. I’m glad you now realize that it’s possible to protest a war without “root[ing] for more American deaths”.

  14. Michael says:

    If we have disagreements – and believe me, I’ve got a ton – they can wait until after the war is over and won.

    In other words, Moran just gave the President a free pass on pursuing his domestic agenda as long as he keeps the country entangled in needless foreign wars.

  15. Drew says:

    Legally, yes. Of course. Obviously.

    Culturally, not really. I think this has more to do with the vagaries of a two-party vs. parliamentary system than anything else. The in-team will always see dissent tainted by allegiance to the out-team, while the out-team will always have incentive to hamstring the in-team by any means neccessary. The last premise there may be a bit of a stretch, but given the sheer amount of spoils on the table for the in-team, I think any means neccessary is a precondition for participation.

  16. Moosebreath,

    Please look up some history of dissent during the Civil War (e.g., New York Draft Riots, Copperheads, etc.).

    But of course the Copperheads were imprisoned or forced to flee to Canada for the most part, and the New York Draft Riots were put down with violent force. Neither of those things would be possible today

  17. michael reynolds says:

    I understand Rick Moran’s instinct and it’s one I share. I backed Mr. Bush on both his wars although I personally didn’t like or particularly respect him. Nevertheless, he was my president. As was his father. I was in front of the Sr. Bush’s house holding a sign that read “One Term George,” at one point. But I fervently supported his Kuwait war and gained a great deal of respect for him over time.

    But I don’t think I could ever suggest to any American that they had to stay silent on a matter of policy.

    I’d certainly suggest that they not put partisanship ahead of patriotism. But I’d always hope that and since the start of the Obama administration I’ve seen very close to zero evidence that the Right is capable of such thinking. Moran is obviously an exception, as are the writers of OTB.

    The hysteria of the Right toward the Obama administration is without modern precedent. I thought I’d seen crazy when Republicans tried idiotically to impeach Mr. Clinton.

    But the GOP’s treatment of Mr. Obama is quite simply unhinged. Insane. And shows the deep sickness at the heart of the Right in this era.

  18. Moosebreath says:

    “But of course the Copperheads were imprisoned or forced to flee to Canada for the most part, and the New York Draft Riots were put down with violent force. Neither of those things would be possible today”

    Saying the government will use its powers to defeat dissent during war is hardly the same thing as saying it didn’t exist pre-Vietnam, as you originally did. Further, people from Andrew Sullivan to Megan McArdle to Glenn Reynolds advocated violent suppression of Iraq War protestors, all without seeming to become pariahs.

  19. tom p says:

    Dissent is as American as immigration.

  20. Fog says:

    “The All-Volunteer Force concept and the elimination of the draft–which I wholeheartedly support–has exacerbated this trend. Wars really are something that somebody else fights unless you’re in the military.”
    Bingo, Mr Joyner. There’s a fundamental lack of serious debate when so many have little skin in the game. When I was a kid, you best believe I was paying attention to events in Vietnam.

  21. G.A.Phillips says:

    Dissent is as American as immigration

    legal and moral….

  22. tom p says:

    legal and moral….

    Tell me GA… never mind moral, were the Pilgrims legal immigrants? A yes or no answer would be most appreciated.

  23. Barry says:

    largebill says:
    Tuesday, March 22, 2011 at 15:04

    This is a matter of semantics. If the question is as phrased “Is Dissent Permissible During Wartime?”
    then the answer must be yes, of course we have a right to dissent. However, not every right must be exercised. Nor is the manner of dissent always appropriate. We can disagree without being disagreeable. During the Bush years I never thought people should not be allowed to protest. However, while acknowledging their right to protest, I retained my right to view the majority of them with scorn and contempt.

    “The loudest and most vocal were disgusting in their manner and dishonest in their rhetoric. ”
    Claim without proof – or truth, IMHO

    “The only things accomplished by the protesters was a drop in President Bush’s poll numbers and emboldening of the insurgents. ”
    Claim without proof – or truth, IMHO – and a claim of ‘aiding the enemy’, without pointing out how Bush & co. did far, far more.

    “Those who claimed to be opposed to the war quite possibly added to the length of the conflict. ”
    And here you go again. Recyled Vietnam War claims, if I recognize the smell.

    “The best way to end a war quickly is by winning it decisively.”

    Perhaps you should told Bush, and the fawning sycophants who supported the war.