07/06/19 – Every time a national security whistleblowing story hits the headlines, a standard reaction is that the person who disclosed it should have spoken up using official channels rather than going to the media. For those of us working in the field of whistleblower protection, we know it is highly likely they did try to raise it internally, but for whatever reason the official channels failed. The real question we need to ask is can we make it safer to speak up about wrongdoing and have it addressed within the system. This WIN guest blog by Dr. Ashley Savage, an independent specialist on whistleblowing based in Vienna, is based on a recent conference he attended which explored the military whistleblower’s dilemma.
Voice and Dissent in the Military
Most, if not all, whistleblowers face uncertainty when deciding whether or not to blow the whistle. Will they be listened to? Will they be protected? Will they lose their job? Will they be retaliated against? These situations become all the more difficult when the culture of the organisation does not actively support whistleblowing. Military whistleblowers face particular challenges: a rigid command structure, rules on discipline, and restrictions on speech with potential criminal consequences for non-compliance.
In May 2019, the European chapter of the International Society for Military Ethics (EuroISME) hosted its annual conference at the National Defence Academy in Vienna, Austria. Significantly, the theme of the conference was “voice and dissent in the military” which allowed for in-depth consideration of whistleblowing in the armed forces, military ethics, and when and how it is appropriate, legal and ethical to disobey a direct order. This was a rare opportunity to focus specifically on military whistleblowing – bringing together a mix of academics, practitioners and military personnel providing a broad range of presentations and room for discussion.
A constant theme throughout was the notion of “loyalty”. Military whistleblowers are often considered disloyal for raising a concern, even though their motivation is to correct wrongdoing and malpractice. Being seen as disloyal can result in severe retaliation not only from superiors but also from colleagues, friends and even the wider community. This may stem, in part, from the unique nature of military organisations where commitment to service is built on camaraderie and a sense of shared purpose. Blowing the whistle is then perceived as a rejection of a shared way of life.