I recently asked my Instagram followers what topics they’d be interested in getting my opinion on. A lot of good ideas came in, and I’ve looked at the list several times looking for inspiration. I won’t write on a topic I don’t have an opinion on or care about just for the sake of writing, but one topic in particular keeps creeping up in my brain. The reader asked, “at what point should soldiers (enlisted/junior officers) consider resisting the orders of brass?” I’ve spent some time thinking over this issue very carefully. Some may see the memes or articles I write and get the wrong opinion that I’m the type of person who would casually ignore the orders of an officer appointed over me, but to the contrary, I would make a decision of this gravity with serious deliberation about what I was actually refusing to do and the consequences of ignoring the order. I also considered the many articles written about disobeying an order and if I would be contributing something of value to the conversation. This is a difficult topic to cover, with many intricate details that must be considered in the context of what’s being considered. I don’t think I could have given this topic its due justice at any point previously in my life, and I’ll explain why.
I’ll discuss what I consider to be the prevailing reason most people would consider disobeying an order; emotion. There are very few permissible examples I can think of to disobey an order. A lot of barracks lawyers will get heated when discussing a situation and how so and so can’t legally give that order, but I can almost guarantee they’re wrong in every situation. What many have forgotten in this democratic age of social media is that you’re a piece of property. You belong to the government, and with few exceptions, they can make you do, and do TO YOU, a whole host of things that I’ve come to realize most aren’t aware of. Generally speaking, we live in a country where the standard of living gives us this notion that “they can’t do that to me.” Often, they won’t, but it’s not because they can’t. However, if we’re going to discuss how and when to disobey an order, the first human element that must be removed is a person’s emotions. The only thing emotions contribute to a situation is chaos. You often won’t like what’s being directed of you, it may present itself as immoral in the scope of your upbringing or viewpoint, or you may just feel that it’s counter productive and does more harm than good. There are many things to consider, and if you’re an officer or NCO, then you’re obligated to run these things through a filter of your knowledge and experience, which SHOULD be commiserate with your rank and position. At no point in time should you give audience to your emotions, because they’ll betray you every single time and leave you holding a bag of insubordination and contempt in each hand. You have one thing to consider, and this is whether the order is lawful, meaning it complies with our code of ethics and rules of engagement. We are, however, creatures of emotion in every fiber of our being, so this is obviously easier said than done (I’m looking at me right now).
In 2004, a platoon of reserve soldiers refused to leave the wire because they felt they were not adequately equipped with the right gear for the mission. Many of the OG GWOT (original gangster global war on terror) folks remember a very different world when the “fun in the Iraqi sun” world tour kicked off for Uncle Sam and the boys (and you REALLY remember if you were a Desert Storm Vet), but in 2002, there was no such thing as protective gear. Here’s a Kevlar, it won’t do much, but I got it at CIF; it’s real nice (say it in the voice of Ricky Bobby). You know how you have multiple sets of body armor, knee/elbow pads, eye pro, helmet modifications, and a ton of other junk you’ll likely never wear anywhere other than the range? That wasn’t a thing in 2002. People were paying out of pocket to buy whatever body armor they could afford off of ebay. The military was promising to reimburse troops at some point, though I’m sure many never saw a dime of that promise. You know those up-armored MRAPs we have now? Back way up. Not only did those not exist, but there weren’t up-armored Humvees, and there weren’t even armor kits to put on the Humvees that did exist at that point. We had soft top Humvees, soldiers wore LBVs or LBEs (depending on your upbringing you either called them load bearing vests or equipment), and they did cool things like hold your canteens, magazines and grenades, along with a neato butt pouch that resembled a fanny pack and held whatever pleased your 1SG the most. All this to say, the political climate of a nation that wanted to kick Saddam’s ass (please don’t venture off into lala land with a discussion about 9/11 and Iraq having nothing to do with it) and was 100% behind the troops, gave the media fuel to stir the righteous indignation of the people into asking why our boys and girls didn’t have the correct gear to properly protect them. Add to that idea a new thing in 2003 called IEDs which were absolutely wrecking us. Every single red blooded American had a yellow sticker on their car that said support the troops and was furious that our government wasn’t doing enough for these brave souls who were off in some far flung land. (Who remembers the SPC that asked Donald Rumsfeld, the SECDEF at the time, the loaded question about when we’d be getting body armor, on live TV nonetheless? That little stunt caused some serious fallout behind the scenes.) Anyways, that platoon used the cultural dynamic I just described to refuse to leave the wire. To surmise the result very quickly, they got crushed; badly. Refusing to obey an order because you weren’t given the right tools for the job is not a lawful reason. In fact, every single member of that platoon got crushed. Some with higher rank obviously got it worse than their subordinates, but everyone got something. The Army had to send a strong message that you don’t get to pick and choose what you want to do; when you’re given an order, you obey it. In that context, it’d seem the answer to our original question is “never,” but I’m getting there.
At some point, everyone is going to reflect, to some degree, on their life choices and what actions led them to where they are in life. When we’re young, we are ambitiously head strong, often without wisdom or clarity to guide us, and we learn hard life lessons. As we grow, we take those painful lessons into consideration. The scars they’ve left give us pause to consider the action we’re about to undertake, and we deliberate. If you’ve led troops in combat, you’ve learned a lot of those lessons, very quickly, very painfully, and your pause button is immensely larger than someone else’s who hasn’t walked in your shoes. There’s an age old wisdom that demands commanders not second guess their troops on the ground. They weren’t there, they can’t understand the events that led to a decision or action being made, and they should support their soldiers if they’ve truly kept the commander’s intent in focus. This is a nice idea in theory, even put in play by a few, but it rarely happens. Senior commanders love to play Captain Hindsight, to armchair quarterback the play, and point out every mistake that was made while they were enjoying much more decent living accommodations. My point is, a soldier who’s engaged in the chaos of combat, which he’s entered into with minimal or no ground intelligence at all, who has troops with varying degrees of experience all making decisions of their own, and who often has split seconds to make decisions, doesn’t have the luxury of pulling out his legal pad to ensure he’s followed every directive to the T. He must decide, with an accumulation of experience and moral allowances, what will take place right this second which may cost the life, or lives, of his soldiers. Psychologically, a human being is predisposed to make gut reactions based on thoughts they’ve had in a more controlled environment. What a person deliberates and focuses his mind on in the quiet of his study with a glass of bourbon will be the fuel that drives his adrenaline infused, chaotic decision in the midst of battle. All of this to say that a soldier may end up disobeying an order because the quiet deliberations he’s had with himself reside in his soul, which structures the fiber of his being and sends his sympathetic nervous system the subconscious direction necessary to react in times of distress. While this isn’t necessarily a deliberate choice to disregard orders, it happens because of the conscious thoughts a person has processed in less volatile moments. The conscious mind decides in quiet, or intentionally in a split second, what they can and can’t live with. Our humanity is either left intact or disrepair, but a lifetime of consequence is the result. Those who live with that regret would likely do anything to have that moment back and redo whatever incident they can’t reconcile with in the moral confines of their heart and mind.
General Milley caused a lot of heads to turn in 2017 when he stated, “subordinate needs to understand that they have the freedom and they are empowered to disobey a specific order, a specified task, in order to accomplish a purpose. Now, that takes a lot of judgment … it can’t just be willy-nilly disobedience. This has got to be disciplined disobedience to achieve the higher purpose.” He went on to state, “disobedience, when done, must be done with trust and integrity, and you must be morally and ethically correct.” General Milley was talking about a communications restricted environment when soldiers would have to disobey lower commander’s orders in order to accomplish the purpose, or higher commander’s intent, because they wouldn’t be able to pick up a radio to clarify. This is unique in that it’s not specifically disobeying orders due to a moral or legal hang-up, rather, it’s to accomplish the known end-state. This strikes me as a very subjective grey area that would likely be debated from command to command. Where one person sees intent, another sees insubordination and disobedience. Nonetheless, the traditional idea of moving out and doing what you’re told by the person who told you to do it has been compromised. I’m an intent kind of guy. However, if you’re going to be an intent kind of guy, you need to read and educate yourself at nauseum. Like General Milley said, it takes a lot of judgement and can’t just be willy-nilly disobedience. The consequences of your disobedience can be your very life.
Orders are important. A military without obedience and discipline is a danger to itself and the nation that hosts its presence. The US military has been an enormous force for good in the world. While we are not free from culpability in some incidents that defy the values we claim to uphold, by and large our military has been the greatest force for good in our world in the last century, and I stand by that statement 100%. We exist to uphold a constitution that values the individual liberties of all of its citizens. We do that through a myriad of ways, but our primary function is to defend that piece of paper which upholds the preservation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We exist to protect the values that allow a man to exist and pursue his own desires. If we do anything contrary to that, then we are failing in our purpose. This, above all else, gives a soldier the right to “resist the orders of the brass.” We can’t live in contradiction to our sworn oath or we’ll invalidate ourselves and compromise the greater purpose, the higher intent, which is the mission of every single person who wears the uniform of our nation.