A Disobedient Military

Jul 15, 2007

Frederick the Great is reported to have said to some of his senior ­officers, “I pay you to disobey my orders.” The history of military ­disobedience is a long one – and wreathed in myth and controversy.

Would the Normans have beaten Harold in 1066 had Harold’s fyrd (or militia) obeyed his orders not to follow the retreating Normans thereby weakening the Saxon’s defensive position? In contrast, in May 1940 had Lord Gort complied with Churchill’s exhortations to keep the BEF aligned with the French Army rather than withdraw towards Dunkirk and Calais, would enough of the British Army have escaped from France to provide the basis for regeneration? There are many other historical examples, not least Nelson putting his blind eye to his telescope during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. On balance, history indicates that disobedience by senior commanders was often justified and successful whereas disobedience by soldiers more often than not ended in catastrophe.

It is self evident that members of an armed force must be disciplined. The abstract qualities of obedience, service and duty are invariably found in descriptions of what a soldier has to ‘be’ and ‘do.’

“You are not here to think” is a rejoinder that will be familiar to many who have served in the Armed Forces, often emanating from the lips of a non-commissioned officer weary of having to explain and justify why a group of recruits have to do something unpleasant.

And yet the reason why the military require higher standards of discipline than most of their civilian counter-parts is based on the practice of war rather than its philosophy.

If the aim of battle is to destroy your enemy’s will and/or his capacity to continue to fight, success normally goes to the side that focuses the greatest level of violence at the right place, at the right time and for the right duration.

Before the widespread introduction of firearms, only by concentrating as many soldiers into the smallest possible space in either attack or defence was this achievable. A commander needed his soldiers to stand firm, shoulder to shoulder. Even after the introduction of fire arms, their accuracy, rate of fire and reliability was such that fighting shoulder to shoulder was still evident in the tactics for both attack and defence in WW1.
For such tactics to be successful, every man must obey orders – without question.

At Waterloo in 1815, while forming square to repel cavalry, did the British infantryman worry if this was in line with Wellington’s overall intent? Or whether there was another way of doing it?

As weapon systems became more powerful, and communication systems enabled the human voice to be transmitted across the battlefield, sufficient combat power could be generated and focused by fewer, more widely dispersed resources. It became unnecessary to fight in close order and, in any case, it became too dangerous.

We now have an environment where units can generate effects which were once only achievable by larger formations. Fifteen years ago who would have thought that a strategic asset, the B52 bomber, would currently be used in support of the tactical battle? This is partly because of improved C2 functionality and partly because our current adversaries ­present very few operational and strategic level targets.

The increase in capability at lower levels has had the effect of driving authority and responsibility down, often to non-commissioned rank. Junior commanders are now taking decisions which were the preserve of more senior commanders.

Professional Thinking
In today’s environment soldiers, sailors, and airmen or women must be encouraged to think and act independently, indeed the last thing we need is soldiers to obey blindly and unthinkingly.

I have little doubt that had the prevailing attitude in the British Army not been to encourage independent action during the 30 years of anti-terrorist operations in Northern Ireland, we would have failed. It is not by accident that it is often referred to as a Corporal’s War.

Paradoxically, this does not mean that we need less discipline in the armed forces; if anything we need stronger codes of behaviour and higher expectations. Greater dispersion of forces means that supervision is more difficult, as is ‘leadership by example’ particularly in a crisis when you most need it.

Commanders must generate trust and confidence within their structures as conflicts today are increasingly complex and dangerous – and often politically ambiguous and culturally sensitive.

Most important of all, everyone in the force must understand that at some stage, in the absence of clear instruction, or in spite of orders that have been issued in good faith but overtaken by events, they may have to act independently and decisively.

Nurturing Initiative
The situations that arise will often carry substantial political and military consequences if mishandled. Senior commanders must create a climate which encourages and expects junior commanders to take such responsibility, and supports those who act decisively, sensibly and in good faith. Junior commanders must know and understand the higher intent – allowing them to interpret complex situations and enable them to obey in spite of what is happening, or disobey because of what is happening.

There will be failures which must be tolerated because the suppression of low level initiative will increasingly be a contributor to mission failure.

This culture is not easy to create, particularly in armed forces that may be unused to the complexities and nuances of “Operations Other Than War.”

I have never heard nor given a lecture on “How and When to Disobey an Order.” Indeed, in my experience, it has been communicated by example and word of mouth. Like ethos, of which it is a part, it becomes illusive when attempts are made to commit it to paper. It is an attitude of mind; part of what a soldier is rather than what he does. A soldier must willingly grasp this particular nettle; he or she cannot be ordered to!

Rising to the Challenge
Will the recruits of today and tomorrow be able to rise to this challenge? For some time there have been questions posed about their commitment, their levels of education, their willingness to put up with adversity, their lack of deference and their physical and mental robustness.

So far, current performance on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have answered those queries satisfactorily. But like elite athletes, no amount of raw talent will cover serious weaknesses in technique; thus soldiers must learn to obey before they can be encouraged to act independently. They have to understand the implication of independent action and experience the chaos when such action is badly conceived and inadequately implemented.

This is not difficult, as it happens in training whether we like it or not! If properly channelled, a less deferential approach can be helpful as there is less inclination to be overawed by people or events.

My experience has shown that the young officers and junior non-commissioned officers of today are more inclined to seize this challenge than perhaps their predecessors of 20 or 30 years ago. Our recruiting and selection profiles and initial training processes must be calibrated to identify and develop those of an independent mind and be wary of those who appear content merely to conform.
Retired from the British Army (March ‘04), General Deverell’s time as Deputy Commander (Operations) SFOR and CinC AFNORTH provided key experience on multi-national operations.
© FrontLine Defence 2007