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Military Dissent and Protest: When Soldiers Refuse Orders to Use Force

July 25, 2022
David Pion-Berlin


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, David Pion-Berlin, a distinguished professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, discusses the tension soldiers sometimes face between following presidential orders and avoiding civilian casualty in the latest from PVG on military dissent.

At a time when the horrors of war are on full display in Ukraine, it is important to understand that militaries sometimes choose to dissent when leaders order them to use force. Whether in foreign conflicts or against protesters at home, armies resist such orders, by staying in the barracks or avoiding direct clashes with civilians. The implications are enormous: military disobedience can save lives.

Yet, dissent is difficult because it clashes with a time-honored principle of most states: civilian control. We expect armies to answer to their political superiors, not to take matters into their own hands. If soldiers shirk their obligations they risk punishment and may undermine the president’s authority. How can militaries abide by presidential commands and yet avoid confrontations that could result in civilian casualties? Or can they?

In a recent study of protest and military dissent in Latin America, my co-author and I find that instead of fully obeying on the one hand or refusing to deploy on the other, militaries hedge their bets by complying conditionally. They adjust their tactics after deploying to minimize risks to soldiers and protesters alike.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.