Articles,  Lt. Gen. Rakesh Sharma

‘OBEY THE ORDER’ – NO QUESTIONS ASKED, OR…

Lt. Gen. Rakesh Sharma, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM

Adjutant General(Retd.) & GCTC Executive Board Member

 

 
A recent trail on social media extolled a statement of General Mark Milley, the Chief of Staff for the US Army in May 2017, with a stunning comment about the order and discipline of the institution – that soldiers can and probably even should disobey orders.  In a statement reported by the US Army News Service, he suggested the goal of the commanding officer needs to be a priority for his soldiers, rather than the specific instructions.  To quote the statement, “we’re the military, so you’re supposed to say, ‘Obey your order’.  That’s kind of fundamental to being in the military. We want to keep doing that. But a 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 the purpose. It takes a lot of judgment.”

A serious matter, indeed!  For the traditional militaries, this is but heresy, a kind of profanity! Cut to home, the Armed forces are bound by the respective Acts, like the Army Act Section 41, that unequivocally and strongly proscribes willful defiance of authority of any lawful command given personally by a superior officer. Of course, lawfulness of command and superiority of the officer exercising it are separate, material issues.   Even the US Code of Military Justice Article 92 has similar provisions, which the new call of the Chief may be countering or expanding his vision.  Easiest way is to bury the proclamation of the US Army Chief as much ahead of its time, as irrelevant or not implementable in Indian context – citing the active combat profile of the army units, the education levels, the need to exercise effective command and control on operations, the differing culture of the two forces, or simply proverbial zero-error syndrome in a steep pyramidical ladder.  Thus rightly in the Indian Armed Forces, this debate should be a dead end, not susceptible to any acrimonious contestation.

Fact is, that the laws that facilitate behaviour in the armed forces are not as if etched in stone, and are indeed evolving.  The pace of evolution of military jurisprudence post the establishment of the Armed Forces Tribunals and increased litigation in the Apex Court is to say the least, dramatic.  With continual change in civil domain, like the Juvenile Justice Act 2015 or the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, there is concurrent effect on the armed forces.  The Armed Forces Acts hence have to remain live to the transition that takes place nationally and effect similar changes, lest a litigant contests the implementation of the Acts, being not in conformity, with national jurisprudence.

Taking a step away from the legal/ quasi legal aspects of the declaration of the US Army Chief of Staff, the connotation is that a subordinate may have better judgment or analytical capability to assess the best methodology for completion of a given task, and by disobeying orders, or modifying the command, would achieve the higher commanders’ objective in more befitting a manner,.  If ‘disobey’ is to be accepted, then every junior soldier-analyst, could take the task in his own hands, in the manner he or she considers best, and may succeed, or even fail!  If the exhortation of the General is contested, then there would be curbs to initiative, ingenuity and imagination.  In the US Army, there exists a very high degree of situational awareness, that could facilitate even-handed decision making by a subordinate, one that our own Army is still working towards, and is likely in some distant future. However, a few independent performers like the Special Forces or infantry long range patrols, under the overall laid down aim and broad modus operandi, have a fair degree of independence in execution.

‘Nothing succeeds like success’ stated in Realmah in 1868, later become title of many a treatise, and is apt in the context. Then, again, victory has many fathers (even commander who may have misjudged, would rush to take credit), defeat is an orphan (certainly the fault will befall on the initiator subordinate)!    To say the least, the issue is problematic, for a decision has many correlations, and just a change, that comes in from disobeying without knowing the complete plan, may even jeopardize the larger mission. However, interaction with the youth of today gives a kind of hope, freshness, novelty and imagination that has not been subsumed by extensive drilling in the Academies.  The younger lot seems to challenge status quo, continually.

It could be easiest to brush away the remarks of the US Chief of Staff, with plethora of reasons. Or it can be retorted on imperatives of legal underpinnings of implicit obedience. Truly, stated in the form it was, the subordinate being empowered to disobey a specific order for a specified task, even with caveats, is too dramatic to be accepted ad-lib.   The responsibility to complete the mission devolves on the command chain, and that is gospel and sacrosanct. However, having stated that, the converse cannot be brushed away in the din of strong voice of hierarchical command structure in the futuristic environment.  The conceptology of war fighting is in transition and the technological prowess of the younger generation and increasing access to it makes significant changes in command and control environment.   In no time follies of an inferior plan thrust down or inaction in the face of demand of action, can become folklore, thanks to the proliferating social media. Even well-regimented organizations like the uniformed forces, have to accept that voices of dissent or categoric pointed questioning, and alternatives placed forth by subordinates as inevitable. A learned senior had once prophesized of a style of leadership which denoted democratic, decentralized, dictatorship – in that order, with larger emphasis on the first two! A consensual team-based approach, involving the subordinates too, in evolving answers to intransigent and vexed issues, may find many an out of the box and forward looking solution.  The Indian Army hence needs to crystal gaze the serious transition to the oncoming command and control systemic, and prepare so.

The US Army Chief is on the right lines in prognosticating the future of command.

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