Theme: Voice and Dissent in the Military

International reflections on how society, organisation, politics, operations and media influence individual whistle-blowing

Vienna, 22-24 May 2019

While in any organisation it may need courage to express dissent, this can be even more so for the hierarchical organisations that constitute governments and face significant political and societal pressure, like the military. The media, as well as politicians, contractors and civil servants each have their own interests in the activities undertaken by military personnel. As such, they play an important role in how psychologically safe it feels for employees of any Armed Forces (both military and civil servants) to blow the whistle when they believe something untoward is happening. Also, organisational culture and climate may pose an extra hurdle when speaking out to or confronting politicians, military leaders or co-workers when unethical behaviour is perceived or expected. For the military, a tendency to stay silent is caused by hierarchy, peer group pressure, the fact that the individual is sometimes heavily dependent – on his/her colleagues, the risk of formal or informal sanctions, and so on.
While compliance is generally a laudable characteristic, situations arise where this might not be the case. This is applicable to situations in both military operations (in peace and in combat missions) as well as at the barracks and in staff contexts. For example, commanders are not happy when they need to inform the chain of command that their units and/or materiel are, for whatever (legitimate) reason, not ready to be deployed on a mission. Also, when personnel confront possible corruption by co-workers, it might be hard for them to address this issue. Similarly, in military operations, violations of human rights or other unethical conduct might not be reported for numerous reasons.
Within the military organisation, dilemmas regarding how to deal with such issues, may arise among civilian personnel as well as military personnel. They can arise both under peace-time circumstances – for instance, at the barracks – or under operational circumstances. The outer appearance of the dilemmas concerned may differ considerably. It may involve a failure to carry out safety checks for ammunition storage, a decision to buy sufficient body armour, the illegal selling of military equipment, or a case of sexual harassment. It could also involve an unduly optimistic report on the readiness of crews, the maltreatment of prisoners, individual moral dilemmas regarding undesired behaviour one witnesses, or even the question whether the decision of the political leadership to embark on a particular mission was lawful.
Under such circumstances, (moral) courage is needed for an individual member employed in the military to ask uncomfortable questions, to express doubt and dissent. This means, the organisation needs to evolve from a culture of silence to a culture of voice. While the military undoubtedly needs hierarchy and obedience to fulfil its mission, the same hierarchy and obedience can stifle honest but uncomfortable reporting about developments the military personnel and/or organisation does not want to hear. The same is valid for political, commercial and societal interests.

During the forthcoming conference, we hope to explore these issues from both actual practice as well as their theoretical underpinnings. We also hope to explore questions at various levels within the military organisation and its surroundings, ranging from the squad and platoon to the Directorate of Procurement and including reporting to the office of the Chief of the Defence Staff, political, commercial and media involvement.

What are the key developments over the past twenty years? Is it possible to arrive at a typology of cases, and to what extent do the various types of cases need a differentiated treatment? Is a culture of voice present in today’s military organisations, and is it a desired organisational feature? How does this relate to operations and peace-time activities in the homeland? Is it possible to differentiate dissent and voice in relation to the influence of various stakeholders?
During this conference EuroISME will co-operate with the Centre of Excellence for Integrity of the Royal Netherlands Armed Forces, in order to reach out to as many experts as possible. Both theoretical as well as empirical manuscripts are invited.

A detailed Call for Papers will be published in December 2018; manuscripts must be submitted in the English language. Subscribe to our newsletter or visit this page regularly to stay informed.

Key topics: dissent; voice; psychological safety; discipline; compliance; whistleblowing