Critical Dilemma: Loyalty versus Honesty

By General Joseph P. Hoar, USMC (Ret.)

Honesty has been a casualty in the past two years as the U.S. government made major errors planning and conducting the war in Iraq. Moreover, no one has been held accountable and there has been no acknowledgement of failure. President George W. Bush’s characterization of the “catastrophic success”—aside from being an oxymoron—is a poor alibi for mismanagement of reconstruction.

During the past two years, while traveling in the Middle East and visiting in Washington, I listened to the steady drumbeats of retired and active duty flag and general officers, foreign service officers, civil servants, and officials of friendly Middle Eastern governments: stories of spin and information suppressed, senior leaders enunciating desired goals and then tasking subordinates with finding facts to confirm those goals, promotion denied a CIA operative who did not come up with the “right answer” regarding Iraq’s nuclear program, and offers of assistance in the search for peace and stability rebuffed because they came from “terrorist” or “axis of evil” states. Investigative journalists consistently uncover themes of bad news repressed by the government, which often uses security classification as the means of concealing embarrassing information.

No one is naïve enough to believe this kind of behavior is new to Washington. But why should many military and civilian officials continue to favor loyalty over integrity? Arguments for loyalty in some cases are those of political affiliation and friendship. Further, disloyalty might well impede career advancement, retirement plans, home mortgages, and tuition for the kids. Finally, there is the argument that “I can do more to fight this kind of behavior inside the government than I can by resigning or going public.”

The latter view was exemplified in 1971, when former Chief of Staff of the Army General Harold K. Johnson spoke to the student body of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in an atmosphere of nonattribution. After some 40 minutes of describing the sad state of affairs related to the Vietnam War, an Army major rose to ask him why, given the unsavory situation in 1964-68, he did not resign. General Johnson responded to the effect that he could better deal with the problem inside the government than out. Years later, he regretted his failure to resign his post in protest.

In the U.S. military services, loyalty and honesty—often described as integrity—are highly prized virtues. They rank right behind courage as prized characteristics of an officer. Although there is perpetual friction and competition between them, we need go no farther than the oath taken by all military officers: “I solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic . . .” This provides the necessary direction as to where our primary loyalties should lie—to the Constitution, not to our commanders. As a matter of custom in the Marine Corps, officer promotion ceremonies include a renewal of that oath to underscore at each promotion that there are new opportunities to contribute. Equally important, it reminds officers their overriding fealty is to the nation.

Senior military commanders are most likely to face this dilemma. Because their responses are key to high-level policy decisions, they must realize that weighing honesty against loyalty is an abiding responsibility. When the history of the Iraq war is written, we can be sure that historians, journalists, and government officials will connect the dots dividing those who acted out of honesty and those who acted out of loyalty.

Retired Marine General Hoar, a former commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command, heads J.P. Hoar and Associates, a consulting firm. He is a member of several boards, including that of the Center of Naval Analyses.


General Hoar was commissioned in 1957. He commanded infantry units from platoon through regimental level. He also commanded three Marine air-ground task forces. He was General Schwarzkopf's chief of staff from 1988 to 1990 at U.S. Central Command, followed by the Marine Corps Operations Deputy during Desert Storm. During his last three years in the Marine Corps, he served as Commander in Chief of U.S. Central Command. Since retirement, he has headed J.P. Hoar & Assoc., a consulting firm.

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