On the difference between the military refusing and "resisting" a nuke order

I turned on CNN this morning and one of the hottest topics they kept coming back to was a comment from a STRATCOM Air Force General regarding a potential presidential order to launch tactical nuclear weapons. The reason for the media’s obsession will become obvious in a moment, but the original commentary deserves a look. What precisely did Air Force General John Hyten mean during his remarks at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia when he answered a question about an “illegal order” to launch nukes? (CBS News)

“I think some people think we’re stupid,” Hyten said in response to a question about such a scenario. “We’re not stupid people. We think about these things a lot. When you have this responsibility, how do you not think about it?”

“I provide advice to the president, he will tell me what to do,” Hyten added. “And if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I’m going to say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up with options, with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.”

Hyten said he has been trained every year for decades in the law of armed conflict, which takes into account specific factors to determine legality — necessity, distinction, proportionality, unnecessary suffering and more. Running through scenarios of how to react in the event of an illegal order is standard practice, he said.

First, let’s at least acknowledge why the MSM is in such a tizzy over a story which involves nothing more than a public conversation on a completely hypothetical topic. (There hasn’t even been so much as a suggestion that such an order was ever received by General Hyten or given to anyone by Trump.) It ties into two of the media’s favorite themes which they frequently seek to reinforce. The first is the idea that Trump is a “dangerous madman” who has access to nuclear weapons. That was one of the key messages in Tom Styer’s hyperbolic impeachment advertisement…. an “unstable president with access to nuclear weapons.”

The second is the idea that Trump is so incredibly dangerous that the military should be ready to thwart him or, if need be, to remove him. (You can find several examples of people actually talking about the concept here.) The left side of the print and cable television world has been bringing up such ideas on a regular basis as a way of softening up the ground for a Democrat in 2020.

With that out of the way, listening to the full remarks of Hyten rather than just the money clips, you can get a sense of what he’s talking about. He goes on to point out that his is primarily an advisory role in such dire circumstances rather than some sort of ultimate arbiter of the decision. He doesn’t say that he would flatly refuse a direct order from the Commander in Chief, but rather that he would point out legal realities and open a dialogue about possible options, trusting in the President to listen to his counsel and take those concerns into account.

It’s worth noting that all enlisted men and women who enter the military take an oath which states that they will, “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” Of course, the General is an officer and they take a slightly different oath without the line about obeying the President and the officers above them, instead pledging to, “faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.”

For the most part, this means that the President has a free hand. He’s supposed to take advice and consider options offered by his military advisors, but in the end, he makes the decisions and the military follows his orders. All the way down the line it’s the same in all but the most extreme circumstances. So long as you are following the orders of a superior, they take the responsibility for the fallout. Granted, if you are ordered to do something obviously illegal and immoral, you have the option of refusing and you might be off the hook once an investigation is completed. But the military frowns on independent thinking because it only remains functional if people follow orders.

The subject of nuclear engagement is something of a special case, of course, and Hyten is correct in saying that the top brass undergoes training for what to do in such worst case scenarios. But even if he strongly disagrees with the President’s decisions, note that he more commonly refers to “resisting” an order rather than “refusing” it. He’s been in this game a long time and well knows that it would be a virtually unique situation where he could consider defying the decisions of the Commander in Chief.

Just as an aside, I can tell you from personal experience that there were plenty of us in the military, from the top to the bottom, who didn’t much care for Jimmy Carter as Commander in Chief. But you know what? We followed every one of his damned orders to the letter. And our military today will follow the orders of Donald Trump. Take it to the bank.

In the end, as I said at the top, this was a hypothetical conversation which probably never should have been taken up on the public stage. And it’s almost entirely being used as a tool to paint the President in a bad light rather than any serious discussion of foreign policy or military procedures.