October 30, 2007

A Response from Rear Admiral Houck

Eric Reed’s excellent article thoroughly and fairly described my recent visit to the Law School. I sincerely appreciate the time he devoted as well as Res Gestae’s extensive coverage. However, one important clarification is necessary. The article suggests I said that difficult policy issues “must be debated by politicians and policy makers, not by the military, which should and must simply follow the orders it is given by the White House and Congress.”

The basic point -- that active-duty military leadership should not be in the habit of publicly debating policy issues -- is correct. This is fundamental to civilian control of the military. However, as I also noted more than once during my remarks, military leaders must make their views clearly known to senior leadership within the Administration and the chain of command, as well as to members of Congress under appropriate circumstances. A military leader who fails to give his or her best advice from a military perspective is doing a disservice to the civilian leadership and the American people. This is especially true when the military officer’s advice disagrees with what may be the prevailing view within the civilian leadership. However, once the military officer’s views are made clearly known and a decision is made by duly-elected or appointed civilian leadership, the military officer then has the obligation to execute the decision unless, of course, it is illegal.

Military officers are not automatons who unthinkingly salute and follow orders. We do, and we should, vigorously debate issues with the civilian leadership within both the executive and legislative branches.

Ultimately, however, we serve the American people through their elected and appointed representatives. Once we have had our say, our responsibility is to execute their legal policies and orders.

James W. Houck
Rear Admiral, Judge Advocate General’s Corps, U.S. Navy Deputy Judge
Advocate General of the Navy