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Unmaking Modern Strategy: Part II

Understanding why soldiers disobey orders helps us understand the military as a collection of people and not just an instrument of the state.

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This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

War is a thing humans do. Not just in the sense of war as part of the human experience, but in the emphasis on humans, plural. Armed and coordinated conflict is a group process, and sustaining violence long enough to achieve political objectives, or at least reach a ceasefire, requires humans to coordinate together over time and space. As modeled and abstracted, the soldiers and officers making decisions in a war often respond uniformly or, in some simulations, only break from orders when faced with rout and a collapse of morale in the field.

Disobedience in war, though, is a much larger part of the story than just what happens to toy soldiers when the dice on a leadership test roll come up bad. Understanding the ways in which soldiers challenge orders, from outright refusing to follow to modifying plans based on local assessment of the situation, offers insight into militaries as a collection of humans, rather than a raw instrument of the state.

Understanding the ways in which soldiers challenge orders, from outright refusing to follow to modifying plans based on local assessment of the situation, offers insight into militaries as a collection of humans, rather than a raw instrument of the state.

In “The Diversity of Disobedience in Military Organizations,” Eric Hundman offers a typology of disobedience, patterns of behavior that recur between and through wars. Under this categorization, resistance to top-down orders can come as defiance to the order, refining the order, grudging obedience to it, or exit from the military. “Fundamentally, the categories of disobedience I identify are all linked by a subordinate’s choice to resist explicit military orders that he judges to be somehow inappropriate,” writes Hundman. “This is a crucial point: orders themselves are not objectively appropriate or inappropriate. Instead, subordinates receive orders, decide what they mean, and only then judge their appropriateness.”

Soldiers are, fundamentally, not drones, and the ability to consider and disagree with orders means orders cannot just be issued on the assumption that they will be perfectly executed. In looking at how individual choices, especially but not only of officers, change the dynamics of war, Hundman can reconcile two competing impulses in understanding war. The first is that of war as a mechanistic clashing together of forces, dictated by raw numbers of people and weapons. The other is that war is full of narratives of individual action taken in the name of or despite given orders. One example is Israeli paratrooper commander Ariel Sharon’s decision, in defiance of his superiors, to lead forces across the Suez canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, a decision that led to both military success and a personal mythology around Sharon that would go on to fuel his post-war political career.

What’s most important in the study of disobedience, however, is the way in which militaries adapt because of it. This can include efforts to convince soldiers of the correct course of action, punishments to stave off disobedience, or even fostering a climate where refinement in the name of victory is actively rewarded. “Do attempts to prevent coups, for instance, prevent innovations in military procedures from being adopted throughout the organization?,” asks Hundman. “Does more desertion tend to improve cohesion in the military organization by removing those who tend toward disloyalty?”

Military failure can be read as a singular phenomena, but if it’s instead understood as a dynamic process with many moving parts, it’s easier to see how struggling militaries improve or how successful militaries stumble as a conflict drags on. War isn’t just a thing humans do, it’s a thing humans have to continue to choose to do, over and over again.

Kelsey D. Atherton

Reporter

Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of Inkstick's weekly newsletter, Critical State. His reporting has appeared in Popular Science, C4ISRNET, and The New York Times.

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