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The morality of obeying stupid orders

Posted by John T. Reed on

Copyright by John T. Reed

In the winter of 2008/9, I read and reviewed the 2008 book In a Time of War by Bill Murphy, Jr. It follows a number of members of the West Point class of 2002, the first one to graduate after 9/11.

‘Go back and get it’

West Point ’02 grad lieutenant Drew Sloan had reported the explosion of an IED in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan where he was in charge of a supply convoy. Five minutes later, after Sloan and his men had left the scene of the IED explosion, his battalion commander ordered him to go back and “get the IED.” An IED consists of a large explosive charge, typically an old artillery shell or two, and a detonator, in Afghanistan, typically a wire from a switch to a blasting cap at the IED. The enemy triggers the blast by flipping the switch wired to the explosive. The switch need be nothing more than the simplest switch sold at Home Depot (or Hut Depot in Afghanistan). They could even just touch two wires together or touch one to a battery. We’re not talking the Norden Bombsight here.

On page 218, there is the following:

“Hunter Six,” Ducote said, using Drew’s radio code name, “I need you to go get the IED.”

Drew couldn’t believe it. “Cobra Six: What?”

[Company commander] Ducote repeated the order: Their battalion commander wanted him to go back and get the IED.

“We’ve got to go back,” Drew said to Specialist Lanke.

“Are you kidding me?”

Drew raced back to the site of the explosion, angry as hell...It pissed him off to no end that he was taking a huge risk in order to retrieve a bomb fragment that would most likely be stuffed in some storage locker and forgotten.

But Drew was the ranking officer and the West Point graduate, and he realized that his commander’s order wasn’t illegal or immoral—it was simply stupid, in Drew’s estimation...he was slightly more fearful of going through life with the death of one of his soldiers on his conscience because of something like this than he was afraid of his own death.

Bad guys still there

An IED is a command-detonated mine. That means, a bad guy was hiding where he could see the road and when the vehicle he wanted to attack passed a certain point, he set the explosive off. He and his accomplices were likely still there observing the spot. Often, the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan plants a second IED to attack the rescue party or investigators.

Primary mission

In addition, Drew and his convoy were in the middle of nowhere surrounded by an enemy that almost certainly outnumbered them. Each passing minute brought darkness closer. They had a long way to go to the safety of their base camp. Their primary mission was to deliver the needed supplies to their base camp. The supplies were probably food, water, ammunition, and vehicle operating supplies.

I was struck by the phrase “...his commander’s order wasn’t illegal or immoral—it was simply stupid...”

Stupid is immoral in life-and-death situations. So are reasonably preventable errors that result or could result in unnecessary deaths.

Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith said during the Iraq war,

I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even by criminal, I cannot support that any more.

I think Sloan should have refused to obey the order citing his position on the scene as giving him far superior information to that of the battalion commander. I would not countenance his lying to the superior either about doing it when he did not or falsely representing why he could not do it. If his superiors want IED forensic material, they should have made that a standing order for all convoy commanders, but left it to the discretion of the commander on the scene as to what priority that had in a given situation.


Sloan’s moral overlay, according to author Murphy, was to personally go get the IED wire and trigger switch rather than tell one of his men to do it. It could have been booby trapped. For example, you can pull the pin on a grenade while keeping the handle or spoon held tight to the grenade. The grenade fuse does not start to burn until the spring-loaded spoon pops off—normally the moment you let go of it when you throw it. Then you simply place the grenade under an object heavy enough to keep the spoon from popping, like the trigger switch Sloan went to get. When he lifts it, the spoon pops and he has about three seconds to take cover, if he is aware of the grenade.

Murphy seemed to think that was not the “book answer.” Rather, Murphy says, Sloan should have sent one of his men to get it, “since a platoon leader was supposedly more important to the mission than an ordinary infantryman.”

Speaking as a West Point grad and former Vietnam platoon leader, I would say this.

The platoon leader is not “supposedly” more important, he almost certainly is more important. In a given situation, the platoon sergeant might be more experienced in the present situation. In that case, he is more important than a green platoon leader. But generally, the platoon leader really is more important. Consequently, it would be inappropriate for him to make a habit of walking point in such matters as retrieving forensic IED evidence. He cannot do his job, which is accomplishing the overall mission and taking care of the welfare of all his men, when he is screwing around with a trigger switch. Platoon leaders generally are not even supposed to fire their weapon in a fire fight. Rather, they are supposed to direct the fire and maneuver of their men and care of any wounded. Platoon leaders only have a weapon in case of a close emergency like finding themselves face-to-face with an enemy.

Set the example

But he should at least once do it himself to establish that he was not asking his men to do something he himself was unwilling to do. The battalion commander who gave the order to go back and get the switch should have gone out to get the switch himself. Such commanders often have a helicopter at their disposal.

There is sort of an assumption that the middle-aged battalion commander went back for the switch or took similar dangerous actions when he was a young lieutenant. In this case, that’s bullshit!

If you were a battalion commander in 2004, you were probably a lieutenant about 17 years earlier or in 1984. What combat was that guy in during 1984?

The only U.S. combat that year was 241 sleeping Marines getting blown up by a suicide bomber in Beirut. The Marines did not even get any combat experience from that, let alone Army lieutenants in an otherwise peacetime period.


There is also the issue of expertise. If a particular situation benefits from expertise, like demolition-disposal training or experience, the person with the most pertinent training and experience should retrieve the IED remnants. Neither a rookie lieutenant nor a gung ho enlisted volunteer with no pertinent training should be doing something dangerous that a better trained and experienced person is available to do.

What could have happened

Sloan could have been killed gathering the IED trigger switch. Or one or more of his men could have been killed during the extra travel back to the IED scene and then back to where they were when they got the order to go back. The whole bunch of them could have been killed in what would no doubt have been called “Sloan’s Last Stand.” Custer, who was the leader of the original last stand, was a West Point graduate and he is buried at West Point. Some of Sloan’s West Point classmates are also now buried at West Point.

If one or more of his men had been killed, Sloan would have had to live with his failure to talk the battalion commander out of the order or his refusal to follow it for the rest of his life. I assure you there are thousands of former U.S. officers who have that exact regret. I do not happen to be one of them, and neither is Sloan, but only because of the fortunes of war. Either of us easily could have had that happen to us and our men.

‘Befehl ist Befehl’

Sloan’s behavior was guided by the principle that an order is an order or that they were “only following orders.” Sloan applied it to what appeared to be a stupid order. German and Japanese officers in World War II applied it to orders to murder civilians and prisoners. That ethical basis for action or inaction became famous in German at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals. In German, an order is an order is “Befehl ist Befehl.”

The judges didn’t buy it. They said the officers should have refused to obey many of the orders they were given.

Here is a pertinent section from the Wikipedia discussion of the morality of the “order is an order” defense.

...under Nuremberg Principle IV, "defense of superior orders" is not a defense for war crimes, although it might influence a sentencing authority to lessen the penalty. Nuremberg Principle IV states:

"The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."

The United States military adjusted the Uniform Code of Military Justice after World War II. They included a rule nullifying this defense, essentially stating that American military personnel are allowed to refuse unlawful orders. This defense is still used often, however, reasoning that an unlawful order presents a dilemma from which there is no legal escape. One who refuses an unlawful order will still probably be jailed for refusing orders (and in some countries probably killed and then his superior officer will simply carry out the order for him or order another soldier to do it), and one who accepts one will probably be jailed for committing unlawful acts, in a Catch-22 dilemma.

Sloan apparently considered whether the order to go back for the IED parts was illegal or immoral and decided that it was not. I think it is ambiguous. I suspect if we call God on the phone and ask him he would say that Sloan’s instincts about the wisdom and risk/reward of the order were correct and that he should not have followed it. (What would Lieutenant Christ do?) I suspect most former combat officers would say Sloan was probably right about the near worthlessness of retrieving that switch and the extreme risk to him and his men of retrieving it.

Some of the other stories involving obeying stupid orders in In a Time of War did result in the deaths of U.S. soldiers. While many see a huge difference between refusing to follow a stupid order and refusing to follow one that violates the international laws of war, the victims in both cases are equally dead. Indeed, the victims in the war crimes cases are the enemy to one degree or another. The victims in following stupid orders cases are your own men. I do not regard letting your own men get killed so you can avoid harm to your career for disobeying an order as being a higher moral duty than refraining from murdering enemy combatants or civilians.

‘We can’t have lieutenants questioning every order’

This is one of the reactions I have gotten when I discussed this article with fellow former military.

Who said anything about questioning every order? I’m just talking about orders that may get you or your men killed or wounded engaging in an activity that should not be done at all or that should be done more intelligently.

The present situation is never resisting any order. That surely is not any more correct than always arguing about orders. Have you seen any media stories about a line Army officer resisting a stupid order that would risk lives for little or no benefit? Me neither. That needs to change.

Matthew Lee, SVP, Lehman Brothers

Investment bank Lehman Brothers went bust in 2008, almost taking down the entire world financial system. Matthew Lee was an SVP there before that happened. He wrote a letter to the CFinancialO and CRiskO of Lehman warning of the ethics problems that led to the bankruptcy. He was fired days later. (Wall Street Journal 3/20/10)

Two Matthew Lees have graduated from my alma mater—West Point—but neither is old enough to have worked at Lehman for 14 years as the SVP did.

The problem is where are West Point’s Matthew Lees? Where are the Army’s Matthew Lees? Where are the U.S. military’s Matthew Lees? The history of all three institutions is almost devoid of the sort of moral courage exhibited by Lee. Shame on West Point, the Army, and the U.S. military for that. And more shame on them for their stiff-necked self-righteous protestations of supreme honor whenever anyone questions their integrity or moral courage. The only thing worse than a moral coward is a moral coward who hypocritically swears he is morally courageous.

The stupid order that contributed to the friendly fire death of Pat Tillman

On the day he was killed, April 22, 2004, Pat Tillman’s platoon had one of its humvees break down in the village of Magarah. The Black sheep Platoon leader was 1st Lt. David Uthlaut. Uthlaut graduated from West Point in 2001. He was the First Captain of the Corps of Cadets. The First Captain is the top cadet at West Point.

Uthlaut requested parts to repair the humvee. They were unable to successfully repair it. Then Uthlaut requested a helicopter to airlift the broken down humvee. That request was denied.

All of this screwing around with the broken down humvee delayed the platoon and forced them to remain in one place under enemy observation for six unnecessary hours. Such delays enable local bad guys to coordinate and set up ambushes or other attacks.

‘Boots on the ground’

Uthlaut wanted to leave the humvee or destroy it. Request denied. He was ordered to split his platoon in two. One half would tow the humvee back to headquarters. Actually, they had to hire a local Afghan who had a big truck to tow it. The other half had to continue on to the platoon’s original destination for the day: Manah. Why? Because “get[ting] boots on the ground by dusk” in Manah “no later than 24 April, 2004” would constitute accomplishing the assigned mission for that platoon for the day—a fact that would be reported up the chain of command.

In Vietnam, we were always supposed to complete our mission and get back to base camp by dusk. And we had good roads there. Afghanistan has almost no real roads. Being out on a road in Vietnam after dark was considered utterly unacceptable and forbidden. The only time I sort of disobeyed an order in Vietnam was I was ordered to get back to Phu Loi from Long Binh on a particular day. Since it would have required us to leave too close to dark and we would not have made it there by dusk, I simply told my men who were with me, “Find a place to sleep. We’ll go tomorrow morning. There’s not enough time to get there before dark today.” No subordinate or superior ever said a word about my decision to me.

‘The show must go on’

To put it in show business terminology, half of Tillman’s platoon had to continue without the other half farther away from base camp because the show must go on. The platoon was ordered to accomplish the mission (make a cameo appearance in Manah) assigned by brigade or whomever way up the line. The phrase used at the time was that higher headquarters wanted “boots on the ground.” In other words, “We are the American Army. We can and do put boots on the ground in many different locations. We are accomplishing little or nothing, but at least it looks like we’ve got everything under control and that we are doing something. We government types always have to look like we are doing something.”

Dragging the broken-down humvee around probably would have prevented the platoon from getting to Manah. So the platoon was split in two—an extremely unwise tactical move known as such at least since Ltc. George Custer (West Point Class of 1861) did it at the Little Big Horn (popularly known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” He and all his men were massacred there). One half of Uthlaut’s platoon towed the humvee, implying a humvee is more valuable than the lives of the men risking their lives to return it. The other was to get their “accomplished the assigned mission” ticket punched (visit Manah) to avoid pissing off the battalion commander who in turn was eager to make a good impression on his higher ups.

Bailey and Hodne

Tillman’s battalion commander was Ltc. Jeff Bailey (not West Point graduate). He ordered his subordinates not to let Pat’s brother Kevin, who was in the same platoon, know that it was friendly fire. Here, I am more interested in the fact that it was Bailey who ordered Uthlaut to bring back the broken-down humvee and to split his platoon so Bailey could report to his superiors that Black sheep platoon accomplished its mission.

It was apparently a stupid order because it exposed the platoon to extremely elevated risk for careerist, not military, tactical, reasons. Men’s lives were risked to avoid abandoning a humvee and to accomplish a meaningless mission that should have been abandoned because of the situation, terrain, and the unnecessary and unanticipated extra risk that would be incurred due to the humvee and split-up and delay. Lt. Uthlaut strongly protested the orders to bring back the humvee and to split up his platoon and to continue with the original mission after the six-hour delay. Good for him.

Uthlaut’s radio contact was Major David Hodne (West Point Class of 1991), a staff officer. Most likely, Hodne was not making decisions. Bailey was. But it may have been Hodne’s decision, not Bailey’s, to split up the platoon and return with the humvee.

Former ranger (not with Tillman) Stan Goff wrote an article in which he said Lt. Uthlaut “strenuously objected” to the order to split up the platoon, continue on to Manah and bring back the humvee. But Hodne overruled him.

And Pat Tillman died. Was the decision of Hodne/Bailey and complying with it by Uthlaut the sole reason Tillman died? No. But it set the stage for fatal poor communications about who was where.

Bailey or Hodne or both issued stupid, selfish, dangerous orders; Uthlaut should not have obeyed

From a morality-of-stupid-orders standpoint, Bailey and Hodne should have deferred to the commander on the scene: Uthlaut. Furthermore, Uthlaut should have done what we called a “command decision” at West Point and did what I did in Vietnam: abandoned the visit to Manah and the broken humvee and gotten his men back to base camp before dusk.

Although I note that I did not request permission to do that, have it denied, and still do it my way—although I would have. I was not dumb enough to ask. Once, at West Point, my Russian class was invited to have supper on a week night at civilian Professor Maltzoff’s house on post. All of us went except one. He insisted on asking if it was OK. We all instantly said, “No, you idiot. Don’t ask. They will reflexively say no.” Which they did. The rest of us just informed our company commander why we would not be in the then mandatory supper march in to the mess hall and enjoyed beef stroganoff with the professor and his wife. We got in no trouble for it.

Uthlaut’s career

Would refusing to split the platoon, return the humvee, and continue to Manah have been the end of Uthlaut’s career?

Probably. They would let him stay in until retirement if he wanted, but he would have no chance of ever being promoted early or making general.

Would he have been court martialed?

Nope. The argument that the commander on the ground has better information would probably have prevented that. Plus the fact that Uthlaut was a former Cadet First Captain probably would have protected him because the Army and West Point would not want a “Former Top Cadet court martialed” headline in the media.

Would Uthlaut refusing Hodne’s overrule have saved Tillman’s life?

Almost certainly.

Is Tillman’s blood on the hands of Utlaut, Hodne, and Bailey?


But at least Uthlaut preserved his opportunity to get promoted early and make general, right?

Probably not. The friendly-fire death of Tillman probably doomed Uthlaut careerwise no matter what the details of the incident. Wrong place wrong time ends your career in the military officer corps regardless of whether it was your fault.

I saw Jon Krakauer, who wrote the book Where Men Win Glory about the Tillman incident and cover-up, on TV a couple of times. Once he expressed relief that Uthlaut’s career had not suffered from the Tillman incident and that Uthlaut was continuing with his officer career.

Excuse me.

The guy’s probably toast

I would not say I’m the biggest expert on how to get promoted early or make general, but I know enough about the Army to know that Uthlaut is done as far as being “competitive” with his peers is concerned. Any time Uthlaut got promoted early or to general, the media would instantly Google his name and add the Tillman history of Uthlaut to the story. The Army generally does not want that, although they seem unbothered by General Stanley McChrystal’s Tillman history when they promoted him two stars more and made him head of Afghanistan. Krakauer, who was never in the military, is naive. Uthlaut ought to know better than to think he is still competitive. Maybe he knows but still wants to trudge through the rest of his twenty years as an also-ran who got his retirement bennies. If so, how low the mighty have fallen for a First Captain to end up that way.

Let me make my point clear. Uthlaut should have refused to split his platoon and continue on to Manah no matter what Hodne or Bailey said. And that would also be my conclusion if Tillman had not died as a result. Uthlaut’s decision to obey a stupid order was the same as Sloan’s that I criticized above. No one died in Sloan’s case (which did not have the danger-increasing six-hour delay). I doubt Uthlaut was thinking specifically about his career that day when he followed orders. He probably was instinctively obeying a major/lieutenant colonel as he had been trained at West Point and probably consciously or unconsciously playing the percentages with his life and those of his men. In other words, he probably thought, “It’s a stupid order and increases the risk to us, but we’ll probably be OK.”

Lieutenants should not play the percentages with lives like that. As I tell my investment book readers:

Low probability is not a risk management technique. Risk management requires that you protect yourself (and your men in the military) from things that CAN happen that are catastrophic. You don’t buy fire insurance for your home because it will probably burn down. Nor do you refrain from buying fire insurance because the probability of fire is low. You buy fire insurance because your house CAN burn down and it would be catastrophic financially if it did. The probability is only considered by the actuary who determines the premium. Uthlaut did the military equivalent of a home owner not insuring his home against fire because the probability of fire is low or because some who had no skin in the game regarding the home equity in question told him to. Unfortunately for Tillman and Uthlaut, the catastrophic loss of life occurred.

Lesson to other current and future officers:

Do not obey stupid orders, that is, orders where the overall big-picture benefits of the mission are insufficient to warrant taking the risks.

I am told that Uthlaut is a great guy (typical of first captains), still in the Army, and seems to be having a great career. Well, here’s my verdict on him. His failure to exhibit any moral courage whatsoever in the Tillman incident in the proximate cause of Tillman’s death and the death of the Afghan soldier near Tillman. Furthermore, Uthlaut is extremely well-informed on the sleazy cover-up of what happened to Tillman and still wants to be a member of the organization that did that. He is sleazy.

Friends of Uthlaut, spare me your excuses for what he has done and what he failed to do, and your character witness testimony about what a great guy he is. The fact that he thought the unit should not be split is not in dispute. Nor is the well-documented cover-up. Nor is the fact that he is still a U.S. Army officer. As to your excuses and character witness testimony, “Objection, your honor. Irrelevant.” “Sustained.”

Colonels in a worse position to lead

And with regard to lieutenants versus colonels, see my article that our recent wars have been lieutenants and captains wars and that colonels and generals are often more of a hindrance than a help. The key issue, the size of the maneuver units, is being determined by the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan. The enemy usually acts in fire team (5 guys) or squad (10 guys) size units. Accordingly, we respond appropriately with platoon (40) and company (120) size units.

Platoons and companies are commanded by lieutenants and captains. Colonels and generals command battalions, brigades, divisions, and corps. In our current wars, those are merely administrative, not combat maneuver, organizations. But big shots being big shots, they want to call the shots for a small unit engaged in combat with the enemy.

They need to shut up and let the commanders on the ground in the battle make the decisions. Furthermore, as I said above, the colonels and generals of today, by the timing of their becoming officers during peacetime, are exerting too much micromanagement over situations they, themselves, never experienced when they were peacetime lieutenants and captains. Their superior time in the military is mostly garrison duty and little or no combat. But they assert themselves in ways that imply they have superior combat knowledge to the lieutenants and captains. In fact, they have little or no combat experience at all. See my article on General Petraeus including discussion of his combat experience and medals.

Correspondingly, the lieutenants and captains need to be more assertive with their superiors because of their superior vantage point as well as the lack of combat experience of the longer tenured and therefore higher ranking officers.

OSS leadership obstacle course

The OSS was the predecessor to the CIA. It started during World War II and was led by a bunch of very smart guys. One of the things they did was devise a leadership testing obstacle course. It was somewhat like the various games played by today’s reality TV shows. Groups of five or six guys would be given a task: typically to get themselves and a large object like a 55-gallon drum across an obstacle. They would also give you some MacGyver-like assortment of props like a length of rope and a plank or two long poles or a length of pipe.

They would appoint a leader for each station. Officers with clipboards would take notes on how the team and its appointed leader handled the task. My West Point class went through this at Fort Benning in June, 1967.

At one station, there was about a ten-foot high wooden wall and a moat. We had a 55-gallon drum and a bit of rope. I am probably garbling the details, but it doesn’t matter for my point here. The leader typically made the assumption that he should position himself on the side that had the most team members. But as they watched team after team perform the task, they noticed that one member of the team would always end up on top of the wall and he would end up becoming the defacto leader even though he was not the appointed leader.

Why? Because he had the best vantage point. The leader was on the ground on one side or the other of the wall and could not see what the team members on the other side of the wall were doing. But all the team members had to work together to accomplish the task. Only the guy on top of the wall could see everything and coordinate their efforts. The lesson was that the team leader had to put himself where he could see everything so he could coordinate everything. The authority assigned him by the cadre meant nothing if he failed to do that. By not being smart enough to recognize that he had to have the catbird seat vantage point in this particular situation, he ceded his ability to lead to the member who did have that seat. Indeed, if he insisted on being in charge from the ground, because he had been appointed the leader, the team would fail.

Best solution: The nominal leader recognizes where he needs to position himself to lead and puts himself in that position.
Second-best solution: The leader initially fails to recognize that he has to be at a certain position to lead, but belatedly recognizes that and defers to the team member who is in that position because there is not time to trade positions with him.
Failing grade: The leader fails to position himself correctly but stubbornly refuses to defer to the better-positioned team member because he places a higher priority on his being in charge at all times than accomplishing the mission.

Insecure about their leadership

The colonels and higher in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan who are insisting on ordering around lieutenants and captains who are engaged with the enemy or who could be at any minute are insisting on asserting their appointed authority from some base camp by radio in spite of the fact that they cannot see or hear anything that’s going on there and in spite of the fact that they have never done the mission in question themselves in the past. This leadership mistake, which was definitively identified by the OSS in that test we took at Fort Benning, often, if not usually, produces stupid orders that can and often do get men unnecessarily wounded or killed and prevent missions from being accomplished. Lieutenants and captains on the ground in combat or dangerous areas have a moral duty not to let some lard-ass rear area guy on a radio make them do stupid things.

If Colonel Lard Ass wants to lead, he needs to get “on top of the wall.” In the Sloan convoy case, the battalion commander needs to be in the convoy. If he chooses not to be in the convoy, which is reasonable, he needs to defer to the lieutenant who is on micro decisions about how to conduct the mission. Being with the convoy is a great position to make judgments on getting IED parts, and the colonel probably ought to ride in an occasional convoy to see what it’s like. But in general, the convoy is a lousy place from which to command the whole battalion. Since that, not commanding small supply convoys, is the colonel’s job, he generally needs to be at his TOC (Tactical Operations Center or the location of the radios connecting him to his various company commanders). He also needs to visit his companies and observe their actions frequently. For that he should have a mobile TOC which is typically a helicopter with radios he can use to talk to the companies.

But colonels should not be micromanaging platoon leaders in combat or dangerous situations from afar. Platoon leaders and company commanders need to think twice before ceding their local decision making to a superior officer who is not in a geographic position to understand the situation and who is making immorally stupid decisions on how the lieutenant or captain should conduct his mission. That’s especially true if the colonel in question never had any combat experience when he was a lieutenant or captain.

OSS expertise test

Another Fort Benning leadership test station illustrates the point I made above about the lieutenant not doing a dangerous job to prove his manhood if the job requires special expertise and another member of the unit has that expertise.

Again, I am hazy on the details but the deal was you got two long poles and some rope and you had to use the poles to make an A-Frame to hoist a heavy object over an obstacle.

Most team leaders quickly figured out that you needed to use the poles and rope to make the A-Frame. The problem was they did not know how to make an A-Frame with two poles and a rope. There is a trick to it.

Most groups of Army officers include former Boy Scouts. The guys running the test may have elicited that information about each team member before the overall multi-station test began. Boy Scouts learn how to tie various knots. If you form the two poles into an A-Frame first then tie them together, the A-Frame collapses. You have to place them side by side and parallel to each other, tie them tightly together, then spread the legs of the A-Frame, which makes the knot even tighter.

In this test, the key is for the leader to find the member who has the knot expertise and to defer to him on the construction of the A-Frame. As with the wall, many leaders neither figure that out nor cede any control because they feel as the appointed leader, they have to be in charge at all times.

In both cases, the subordinate—the guy on top of the wall or the guy who knows how to tie the knot—must assert himself and persuade the appointed leader to defer to him for the moment to get the job done. This is a subordinate resisting stupid orders that interfere with accomplishing the mission or unnecessarily risk the welfare of the men. (The OSS test can include artificial life-and-death situations like the moat is said to be full of crocodiles or the enemy will arrive here in X minutes.)

Joker One

The following is a paragraph from the July 13, 2009 article “In Praise of Simple Competence” on page 67 of that BusinessWeek:

Simple competence was central, too, for former U.S. Marine Lieutenant Donovan Campbell, who led a platoon in bloody street battles in Iraq. As Campbell’s account, Joker One, tells us, he earned his men’s respect and protected them through simple acts: training them to get in and out of a Humvee quickly, reminding them to eat, and arguing with superiors when those in his command were unnecessarily put in harm’s way.

Note that he is described as “former U.S. Marine Lieutenant.” Arguing with superiors typically ends your career. Not arguing with them ends your man’s life. The outrage is the vast majority of lieutenans—even thouse planning on getting out of the military ASAP—would never argue with their superior about anything because they fear it would get them a bad efficiency report and/or fewer medals. This is not speculation. When I was in Vietnam, I was amazed that even the two-year draftee OCS officers would never do anything that might piss off the brass even when they told me privately they agreed with my refusing to do the same stuff. I asked them why. They said they needed good efficiency reports from their brief stint in the Army to get a good civilian job. When I told them I doubted a civilian employer would ask for any such thing, they agreed, but still said, “But they might.” The lieutenants also expressed fear that things might not go so well for them during the remainder of their Vietnam tour.

No doubt men died to spare lieutenants and captains that remote risk to their careers or the remaining months of their tours in the combat zone. No doubt some of those lieutenants and captains died for the same reason. If so, that was poetic justice. More likely, it would be their men who died as a result of their refusal to argue with the boss.

Outliers Chapter 7

Read Chapter 7 of the 2008 best-selling book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It is a fascinating account of how excessive deferential behavior by subordinates toward their superiors causes plane crashes and many industrial accidents The book cites numerous studies in great detail.

Basically, two heads are better than one. And in life-and-death situations like aircraft in difficulty, you need the best judgment, that is, the multiple-heads judgment. If the co-pilot or other subordinate has a 24/7, 365 decades-long habit of always deferring to the higher ranking person, people die.

Korean Air

Major accidents in which too much reluctance by a subordinate to challenge a superior’s decisions were the main or a major factor include:

• Korean Air Flight 801 (1997)
• Korean Air flight shot down over Russian air space (1977)
• Korean Air crash in Seoul (1979)
• Korean Air crash near Sakhalin Island (1982)
• Korean Air crash in Andaman Sea (1987)
• Korean Air crash in Tripoli (1989)
• Korean Air crash in Seoul (1989)
• Korean Air crash Cheju, South Korea (1994)
• Three-Mile Island 1979
• Avianca Flight 052 (1990)

The Korean Air crash rate was 17 times that of United Airlines which had a normal industry crash rate. Why?

Korean culture and Korean Air corporate culture required copilots to be extremely deferential to pilots. Pilots would physically slap co-pilots when they made a mistake. Co-pilots had to perform such servile activities as cooking the pilot’s dinner and serving it to him during layovers.

Power Distance Index

Dutch psychologist Geert Hoftede was one of the experts who figured out what was going wrong. Among other things, he developed what he called his Power Distance Index. Here is what Gladwell says about that on pages 2004 and 2005.

Power distance is concerned with attitudes toward hierarchy, specifically with how much a particular culture values and respects authority. To measure it, Hofstede asked questions like “How frequently, in your experience, does the following problem occur: employees being afraid to express disagreement with their managers?” To what extent do the “less powerful members of organization accept that power is distributed unequally?” How much are older people respected and feared? Are power holders entitled to special privileges?

In the military officer culture, perhaps excepting Air Force air crews, the answers to all those questions are a capital YES. Those in control of nuclear weapons also generally have a protocol that requires some subordinates to concur with the superior’s decision to use the weapons.

Here is an email I received about this article:

Mr. Reed,
Re: your "stupid order" article:

On its face it makes a lot of sense. I agree wholeheartedly with your points on moral courage, and on the guy with the best perspective making the decision.

In my submarine enlisted time, we had a concept called "forceful backup" where a subordinate's *duty* to to provide meaningful backup to the officer in charge of the situation, whether in the engine room or the control room. During tests and evaluations, it was a black mark if you *didn't* challenge a seemingly bad order. (The inspector would write it up as "The electrical operator failed to provide meaningful backup to the engineering officer…") But then again, everyone in a submarine engine room is a smart guy. (Yes, everyone.)

Also, in my surface ship days, good CO's would demand and reinforce to subordinates that we owed him a full appraisal of the situation; if he gave an order after knowing all the details, we were to follow it…but ensure he knew all the details. I think many ship's navigators have an example of the CO wanting to do one thing, then when you show him the chart, he changes his mind.

I think that's a sea service vs. land service culture issue; in my (limited) Army, Air Force and Marine Corps experience, you salute and carry out whatever the boss says, no matter how dumb. I don't think that's a good way to do business.

Good for the Navy. I think that policy makes a ton of sense and it needs to be extended to the other U.S. military services.

Other than the Navy and nuclear weapons situations, the typical military officer in the U.S. military is extremely and dangerously deferential to his superior to the point of reluctance to warn of imminent fatal crash. Read the chapter in Outliers. It’s unbelievable. In one crash, a deferential co-pilot could not bring himself to tell the pilot they were about to crash (out of fuel). He was sure enough they were going to die to tell flight attendant by answering her what-was-wrong question with a finger slash across his own throat. We know this because the attendant survived the crash. The pilot and co-pilot did not.

And it is extremely applicable to Army and Marine officers making life-and-death decisions in combat situations.

One finding about air crews was that the planes were safer when the co-pilot was flying than when the higher-ranking, more experienced pilot was. Why? Because the pilots were not reluctant to criticize the co-pilot who was flying the plane when he seemed to be making a mistake. Furthermore, co-pilots are not spare tires. Flying is so complex and dangerous that the co-pilot’s role is as a continuous double checker. Ground combat commanders need that sort of assistance at least as much as pilots.

Speaking as a former Vietnam platoon leader, and stateside platoon leader and company executive officer and company commander, I would say that sergeants, lieutenant, and captains do routinely question each others’ decisions. You can see it above in the exchange between Lieutenant Sloan and his company commander Captain Ducote and his enlisted man Specialist Lanke. The lieutenant questioned the captain. The specialist more severely questioned the lieutenant. But nobody dared questioned the lieutenant colonel battalion commander.

Don’t judge by results

Some would say, “Sloan and his unit were not attacked while getting the IED trigger. So what’s the problem?”

The problem is that you do not evaluate decisions by results. You evaluate them by what the decision makers, Sloan in this case, knew at the time. What he knew at the time was that he and or his men could easily be killed or wounded going back for that IED. They also suspected, probably correctly, that the higher commanders had not adequately weighed the danger against the benefit of getting the trigger. He did not know then what we know now, that there would be no attack. Based on what he knew at the time, he should have refused the order.

The oft-heard military superior’s line, “You don’t get paid to think” is a formula for unnecessary deaths. Everybody in the U.S. military needs to think.

Charge of the Light Brigade

The following sentiment expressed by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his legendary poem The Charge of the Light Brigade is another formula for unnecessary deaths:

Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:

However, it is extremely instructive for my purpose in this article to give you the whole stanza that contains those two lines:

Original words My modern English translation

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"

Was there a man dismay'd?
Were any of the soldiers worried about that order in that situation?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
The soldiers knew the order was stupid.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
They could not argue with the officer who gave the order about the wisdom of the order.

Theirs but to do and die:
Their only role was to obey all orders no matter how stupid and suicidal
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
The soldiers complied and were immediately slaughtered

This poem is about an actual fight called the Battle of Balaclava. It was fought on October 25, 1854.

Should the officers who made the charge have argued against the order? Absolutely. It was suicide. The “Valley of Death” as Tennyson called it was surrounded on three sides by 20 infantry battalions with 50 artillery pieces. The Light Brigade was about 1 1/2 battalions of horse cavalry.

Why was the commander so stupid? He was not. The messenger officer who relayed the order simply misunderstood it. The top commander wanted the Light Brigade to stop the Russians from getting away with a number of British cannons they had just captured on the reverse side of the Southern causeway. In other words, he wanted the Light Brigade to attack the back side of one side of the Valley of Death, not charge down the middle of the Valley.

What we have here, is a failure to communicate. (Cool Hand Luke)

Had the Light Brigade officers protested to the top commander, the top commander would have said something along the lines of,

@#$%^&*! I did not order you to charge into the valley. That would be suicide. I ordered you to charge around the back of the causeway.

And the slaughter would not have occurred.

What we have here is a failure to communicate combined with a failure to “make reply” and “reason why.” The crime of the messenger officer was negligent homicide. The crime of the Light Brigade officers was conscious moral cowardice.

Gallipoli was another disaster where the commanders at the front should have sacrificed themselves in front of a firing squad rather than sacrificed their men in that suicide charge.

Revolutionary War General Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who was German, famously commented that when you gave a German soldier an order, he did it, but you gave an American soldier a order, he asked why.

We won that Revolutionary War. We would have won more of our wars in the last 50 years if more NCOs and junior officers asked why and demanded a good answer.

High commander knows more than lieutenant

Many justify obeying orders that seem stupid because the higher ups know more than you. Like Presidents Johnson and Nixon during the Vietnam war? 58,000 men died there to prevent the Communist North Vietnamese from taking over South Vietnam. They took over South Vietnam.

Perhaps the high water mark, such as it was, of U.S. military resistance to President Johnson is depicted in my article about a meeting between the joint chiefs and President Johnson. It is a great example of military moral cowardice that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of men.

People assumed their seemingly stupid policies must have been based on secret information and obeyed them. Apparently not. They were just stupid. We lost the war.

Come to think of it, has there ever been a war where the top commanders revealed something afterward and everyone said, “Oh, that’s why you gave that order we thought was so dumb?”

I cannot think of any.

True, before some big operations, top commanders do know some secrets so big that it would be impossible or overly costly to change plans when a guy who knew the secret got captured. For example, D-Day commanders might order a combat patrol that seemed stupid on D-Day minus one, the day before D-Day. But it was needed for the success of the massive amphibious landing on the following day.

But such missions are rare nowadays. As stated above, today’s wars are small-unit wars because our enemies dare not assemble in large concentrations.

Not in today’s wars

Generally, there are no such “the top guys know stuff that would make you realize that the mission is not stupid” orders nowadays. When a lower commander thinks an order sounds stupid, he should make sure he understands the order correctly, as should have been done before the Charge of the Light Brigade. If he still thinks it’s stupid after making sure he understands it correctly, he should explain to the superior why he thinks it should not be done.

Willing to die for his men

If the superior won’t back down, the lower leader has a moral decision to make. If the lower leader thinks the mission is too dangerous for its benefits, he should resist the order to the point of refusing to carry it out. This makes sense, even if he were shot for the refusal. In the book In a Time of War, West Point Class of ’02 Lieutenant Todd Bryant tells his platoon that he would die for any of them. He later did die, although not in a way that constituted dying for one of his men. He was just at the wrong spot at the wrong time.

If you are willing to die for your men, which I think goes without saying for every member of a U.S. military unit, then be willing to die for them in front of a firing squad because you felt their lives were being risked unnecessarily by the order you refused to carry out. There is no moral distinction between dying by the hand of the enemy because you were physically courageous or dying by the hand of your own commander because you were morally courageous.

In fact, I am not aware of any such execution in the entire history of the U.S. One U.S. deserter was executed in Europe during World War II. There were other deserters. They were not executed. Furthermore, they were exhibiting physical cowardice, not moral courage. Big difference.

The order will be carried out with or without you

What about the Wikipedia discussion that your refusal to carry out a stupid order will mean nothing to your men because your superiors will simply relieve you and assign another officer who will carry out the stupid order? Here is that quote again:

This defense is still used often, however, reasoning that an unlawful order presents a dilemma from which there is no legal escape. One who refuses an unlawful order will still probably be jailed for refusing orders (and in some countries probably killed and then his superior officer will simply carry out the order for him or order another soldier to do it), and one who accepts one will probably be jailed for committing unlawful acts, in a Catch-22 dilemma.

Your refusal will accomplish nothing, goes the argument. Somebody else will just do it.

Let somebody else do it. At Nuremberg, the judges would have said, “If you had let someone else do it, we would not be hanging you now.”

But let’s think this through more.

Safer baseball

When I was a Little League coach, I was Mr. Safety. (See my article on baseball safety.) In one season, I got everyone to agree to use a safer ball known as a RIF ball before the season. But another coach got mad at me for coaching my base runners too well. He decided to attack me by getting the other coaches to rescind their vote in favor of the RIF ball.

Trouble sleeping

One guy who was persuaded to vote against the RIF ball later admitted to me that he had trouble sleeping the rest of the season out of fear that a player would suffer a serious injury as a result of not using the RIF ball and the whole world would turn their gaze on the two guys who voted against the ball after voting in favor of it. I say the whole world because I had promised the parents I would leave no stone unturned if anyone tried to stop us from using the RIF ball. When they did, I sent news releases to all the local media. The local ABC affiliate broadcast live from one of my games. Two local daily papers and two local radio stations broadcast the story. The guy who started the fight spent the week hiding under his bed.

Now let’s project that story onto an officer who replaces me because I refuse to carry out an order I believe is suicidal without sufficient benefit to the nation to justify the risk.

I, Lieutenant A, am relieved for refusing to take out the overly dangerous patrol. My men know why. Lieutenant B is then told to take over my patrol. He wonders why. He is told. My men look at him. He needs to explain why he is there instead of me and what he is going to do and why. They know me and why I am not there. He’d better have a good explanation. In fact, he has none. He will follow the order just because he is the kind of guy who follows orders. Lieutenant A should have followed the orders because they were orders. End of discussion.

Now he is going to take those pissed off men who each have a loaded weapon out into a dangerous area. All will be worried about whatever it was that made me refuse to take out the patrol. Lieutenant B will be worried that I was right and that he will be killed or wounded or—worse—that one or more of his men will die or be horribly wounded because I was right and he should have done what I did.

Then there is the battalion commander who gave the stupid order and who relieved and replaced me. He also needs to worry about whether I was right. Suppose my old unit goes out and gets completely wiped out. How will he look then?

In the media

This sort of story would end up in the media one way or another. I rebuffed media who wanted to interview me about less dramatic fights when I was an officer, and they accepted my decision. But investigative journalists are less likely to do that today. Plus in situations like this, there are typically dozens of soldiers who have enough of the story to tell someone who tells someone who publishes it.

The way such a story would come out in the worldwide media would be that an experienced, airborne, ranger, West Point lieutenant who volunteered for the war and who had taken out many similar patrols before was being court martialed for insubordination or cowardice. It would also come out that the battalion commander who was making the accusation was mainly unhappy about his being disrespected. It would also come out that the battalion commander had never taken out such a patrol himself.

With all that as a backdrop, the battalion commander and Lieutenant B had better hope and pray as hard as they can that no one gets hurt on that patrol. The fact is, I would not have done it if I was not highly confident that the patrol would result in unnecessary casualties.

So relieving me and sending that patrol out under another platoon leader is not so easy if you think ahead a couple of moves.

Can’t control media

Don’t get me wrong. No one can control media coverage. It takes on a life of its own and goes in unpredictable directions. But that works both ways. It prevents the colonels from being sure how they will fare, too. Their approach would typically be to keep the media out. One way to do that is to diffuse the situation.

The most likely course of action would be for the commander to chew my ass and try to intimidate me. When they found that would not work, they would go consult higher commanders in a rage. Typically, the higher commanders would analyze it all in light of what might be a “black eye” or a “feather in their career cap,” to use the phraseology from the book Catch-22. Probably, cooler heads would prevail. Probably, the patrol would not go out at all that day. Probably when it finally did later, the colonels involved would rethink the matter to make sure they would not look bad if there were casualties. They might strengthen the patrol. They might give the platoon leader more discretion with regard to the route and transportation method. They might lay on additional air or artillery support and/or a rapid reaction rescue force in reserve.

I would never command a platoon again. I get some muted punishment and maybe get put out of the Army with an Article 15 (roughly the equivalent of a traffic ticket) or some such. (Former Army quarterback Lieutenant Colonel Nate Sassaman was driven out of the Army with an Article 15 after he told some subordinates to lie about an incident.) Most likely the incompetents at battalion and higher headquarters would, before long, resume their incompetence, but for a brief while, they would be more careful with the lives of their men.

You do as much as you can and you do not rationalize that you should do nothing because you cannot do everything. Most career officers do use that sort of rationalization. You can see the classic example of it in my recitation of the standard Army counseling session where they tell new officers why you must go along to get along.

If other young officers followed the “refuse to follow stupid orders in life-and-death situations” example, the whole situation would improve.

Not in my unit

I suspect some old walrus officers reading this will say. “Well, I would never want that Reed guy under my command.”

I’ll bet. How about this though? If your son were at the front in a war, what would you think about my being his platoon leader?

Harvard Business School is organized into Sections. A section is 85 people who attend class all day together every day in the same amphitheater the first year. One day when I arrived later than most, some of my section mates told me they had just informally voted on which member of the section they would most want to work for and I won. I was amazed and asked why. They said they thought I was the guy who would fight for his subordinates the hardest. They were almost certainly right about that.

Where loyalty comes from

Actually, I learned that at West Point. You don’t get loyalty by demanding it. You get it by giving it. And taking care of your men is priority number two, after accomplishing the mission, not priority number six or 14. But when I got into the Army, it appeared that not every officer got that lesson from their officer training. Refusing to comply with stupid orders in life-and-death situations is one of the primary ways you take care of your men. If you feel you owe your men physical courage, but not moral courage, you are a half-assed leader and a moral coward who throws down his weapon and runs from even the slightest career danger with his tail between his legs. I think you ought to be shot for that. Many U.S. military officers have been shot or otherwise killed by their own men for that. It’s called “fragging” and the military does not like to talk about it.

Jamie Dimon’s take on loyalty

Jamie Dimon is CEO of JPMorgan Chase. In a March 26, 2010 letter to his shareholders Dimon said this about loyalty:

While I deeply believe in loyalty, it often is misused. Loyalty should be to the principles for which someone stands and to the institution: Loyalty to an individual frequently is another form of cronyism Leaders demand a lot from their employees and should be loyal t them—but loyalty and mutual respect are two-way streets.

Military blunders

The History Channel used to have a series called Military Blunders. I would not be surprised if they were told by the military to stop it because it revealed more incompetence than the military wants to admit to. The media that depend on the military’s cooperation, like the History Channel and the Military Channel, will not be exposing much military incompetence if they know what’s good for them.

Here is a list of many of them from a Wikipedia article on great blunders:

* 1788 - The Battle of Karánsebes in which an Austrian army started firing at each other, thinking that they were under the attack of Ottoman Empire forces. The battle caused 10,000 casualties, while the enemy was a two day march away.
* 1854 - The suicidal and ill-advised Charge of the Light Brigade in the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. It was based on Lord Raglan's orders. Tennyson, in his famous poem praising the valor of the cavalrymen, wrote: "'Forward the Light Brigade!'/Was there a man dismay'd?/Not tho' the soldier knew/Some one had blunder'd." Of the action, French marshal Pierre Bosquet said C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre; c'est de la folie. ("It is magnificent, but it is not war; it is madness.") (Raugh, Harold E., 2004, p93)
* 1863 - Pickett's Charge was an infantry assault ordered by Confederate General Robert E. Lee against Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's Union positions on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863, the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Its futility was predicted by the charge's commander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, and it was arguably an avoidable mistake from which the Southern war effort never fully recovered psychologically. The farthest point reached by the attack has been nicknamed the high-water mark of the Confederacy.
* 1876 – At the Battle of the Little Bighorn (also called Custer's last stand), George Armstrong Custer, after leaving behind additional troops and heavy weapons, having divided his force into 4 parts, attacked what turned out to be a vastly numerically superior force. Custer and all 210 men with him at the time perished.
* 1899 – Battle of Colenso during the Second Boer War. Inadequate preparation and reconnaissance combined with uninspired leadership led to a heavy, and in some respects humiliating, British defeat.
* 1930 to 1940 – The Maginot Line in France. The Maginot Line is widely considered a great blunder because the German armies went around it. However, the German forces did not dare attack the Maginot Line directly (except in Alsace, where it was successfully breached); Germany had to invade Belgium in order to circumvent it, and in the few incidents during World War II where the line was involved, it proved a highly effective defensive fortification. Thus, many historians feel that France blundered, not in building the Maginot Line (which was effective for what it was), but in relying too much on it for defense.[1] (GBIH)
* 1937-42 – The construction of the Imperial Japanese Navy's Yamato class battleships proved an incredible waste of resources; of four vessels laid, only Yamato ever even fired her guns at another ship; none had any major effect on the war, with the carrier-conversion Shinano sunk on the way to final fitting out and the fourth, unnamed ship being completed to 30% before being scrapped.
* 1954 – Battle of Dien Bien Phu - Prior to the battle, the French forces established a military base in the bowl of a valley and left the heights surrounding the base unguarded since they were considered inaccessible for any military advantage; however, the Vietnamese under Vo Nguyen Giap used those heights to position heavy artillery and anti-aircraft weapons, to bombard the base from an unassailable position and ward off air support respectively.
* 1993 – Battle of Mogadishu - A decision by General William F. Garrison to capture some of Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid's subordinates in a broad daylight operation resulted in two Black Hawk helicopters shot down over Mogadishu, three others damaged and 18 American soldiers and one Malaysian soldier killed in action with another 81 soldiers wounded and one taken prisoner. While the operation achieved its objective of taking Aidid's lieutenants, it effectively cemented the status of the 'nation building' force as enemies of the Somalian people. The event itself can be seen as a consequence of an earlier and greater blunder on July 12th, when US Cobra gunships attacked what was believed to be a meeting of Habar Gidir military figures discussing further attacks on UN forces, resulting in the deaths of 73 Habar Gidir elders who had in fact been meeting to discuss Aidid's removal as clan leader.

Naval disasters commonly believed to be the result of a major mistake or extremely bad decision making.

* 1893 – HMS Victoria collided with HMS Camperdown near Tripoli, Libya, during maneuvers. The Victoria quickly sank, taking 358 crew with her, including the commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon. At a subsequent court-martial, the collision was ascribed to an explicit order from Admiral Tryon. It has been hypothesized that he had confused turning his ships through 90 degrees with turning them through 180 degrees when he considered how much sea room was needed. The former maneuver was much more common and required considerably less room.

* 1905 – The Battle of Tsushima – the Russian Baltic Fleet, under Admiral Zinovi Petrovich Rozhdestvenski, was intercepted by the Japanese Combined Fleet while sailing from Europe to the Russian port of Vladivostok and had two-thirds of its ships destroyed while inflicting minimal damage on the Japanese. The Japanese fleet, under Admiral Heihachiro Togo, managed to "cross the T" twice on the Russian fleet, easily outmaneuvering the older, poorly maintained Russian ships, which were slowed even more by the wear-and-tear of their long journey from Europe. Only three ships made it to Vladivostok, with three more ships fleeing to the American port of Manila. Russia lost nearly its entire Baltic Fleet, including all eight of its battleships, while destroying just three Japanese torpedo boats. The decisive Japanese victory also marked the decline of Russian influence in East Asia and the rise of Japanese dominance in the region.

* 1941 - The Attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 (December 8 in Japan standard time). Although the attack sank or crippled numerous US Navy capital ships, many military historians consider the attack a long-term strategic blunder. For instance, the American aircraft carriers (a priority target) were absent, and the oil storage facilities and dry dock naval repair yard (whose destruction could have crippled the Pacific Fleet's operating capacity) were untouched. Worst of all was the psychological effect: instead of discouraging the USA as intended, it enraged the American population. Apart from the preceding, historians such as Richard Overy have pointed out that the Empire of Japan could never have won a full-scale war against the United States and its Allies. In other words: Japan lost the war the moment it attacked the United States, making it a truly disastrous blunder.

I am surprised Gallipoli especially the Battle of the Nek are not on the list. On 2/12/10, I saw a documentary about Gallipoli. They quoted a junior officer there as blaming the mess on the incompetence and negligence of the top ranking officers. And the amphibious landing at Tarawa. And the Alamo. Read well-regarded books on these battles so you recognize that there is stupidity in many combat orders, and the monstrous human cost of obeying such orders.

My point in mentioning famous military blunders is that each is arguably a case where subordinate commanders should have refused to follow stupid orders. Their moral bankruptcy resulted in lost battles, lost wars, and huge numbers of casualties in relation to the number of men on the stupid side.

Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny is fiction, but it is a plausible, fabulous illustration of subordinate leaders appropriately refusing to comply with stupid orders. The Caine Mutiny is a book and a play/made-for-TV-movie and a movie.

Pickett’s Charge drop-outs

On 1/18/10, I saw a Military Channel documentary about Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg on 7/3/1863. A historian said there were numerous eyewitness reports that a substantial number of Pickett’s men simply declined to participate in the charge. They turned around and walked off the field. They were not cowards. They were experienced combat veterans of other battles. Their decision was just based on common sense. They knew from their battle experience what was going to happen and concluded it was just “Charge of the Light Brigade” suicide that would cost more in Confederate lives than any conceivable benefits. None but martinets criticize their decision.

No complaints

One of the members of the West Point class of ’02 in the book In a Time of War was proud of his “no complaints policy.” That is, he never complained about anything. He seemed to think that was a virtue, a manifestation of career officer savvy and character. It certainly will protect you from ever pissing off the boss which is job one for a careerist. But in many situations, never complaining is an immoral policy.

There is a time and a place for everything, including complaints. All well-run companies, including my little home-office company, have complaint departments, now called Customer Service departments, to solicit and take care of complaints. A number of our procedures were changed because of the complaints to better procedures. And the military darned sure needs that far more than John T. Reed Publishing.

When I was a company commander, I wrote “Complaint Department” on a white paper cook’s hat and roamed around the mess hall during meals soliciting complaints like the owner of a family restaurant. On one occasion, I got a complaint that fried chicken had not been cooked all the way through. Undercooked chicken can literally kill you. I instantly got it corrected. People who never complain can get you killed.

Never complaining violates the “never say never” rule. Never complaining sends a false message that everything is currently perfect. Not complaining when you should can and will be used against you in a court of law. Never complaining means you have no standards at all. Never complain is what I call an “If you err” error. People often say, “If you err, err on the side of blank,” like refraining from complaining. The only correct admonition on erring is, “Don’t err.” Errors can and have gotten people killed in the military, in airplanes, in industrial accidents, and so on. I wrote about a number of actual case histories above. I know it’s hard to never err, but there is no legitimate short cut or simplification like, “It’s OK to always err on the side of blank.” Avoiding erring at all is the only proper rule.

Challenger disaster

On January 28, 1986, the Challenger space shuttle was launched and blew up 73 seconds after blast off killing all seven astronauts aboard. Why? As a result of asbestos hysteria, NASA was forced to make their O-rings out of a substance that no longer contained asbestos. The new material was more vulnerable to malfunction in low temperatures.

On launch day, temperatures were low. Engineers said don’t launch because of the low temperatures and the effect of those temperatures on the new O-rings. However, bureaucrats in the chain of command had been embarrassed by an abnormally high number of prior postponements of that mission launch. The Challenger Accident Investigation Board said,

The organizational structure and hierarchy blocked effective communication of technical problems. Signals were overlooked, people were silenced, and useful information and dissenting views on technical issues did not surface at higher levels.

No Highway in the Sky

This was analogous to a fictional situation depicted in a novel and 1951 movie named No Highway in the Sky starring Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. In the story, Stewart plays “Theodore Honey,” an aeronautical engineer who figures out while on a transatlantic flight that the plane’s tail will fall off during the flight due to a design flaw that, when combined with metal fatigue, causes metal fracture. He immediately tells the pilot and crew and they make an emergency landing in Newfoundland.

But they subsequently conclude he’s a kook and prepare to resume the flight. He pleads with them not to do that. When they refuse, while he is in the cockpit, he grabs the landing gear control and shoves it to the raise position. As the landing gear comes up on the parked plane, it severely damages the plane preventing continuation of the flight at that time. Further testing seems to prove the engineer wrong. I won’t tell you how it ends.

Organizations that purport to be honest and ethical, like my alma mater West Point and former employer the U.S. Amy, ought to show that movie to their students and discuss the moral implications of the situation and the actions Honey took. I will not hold my breath, however. What Honey did was moral and correct. But I cannot imagine West Point or the U.S. military encouraging their members to do what Honey did. But that’s exactly what they should do.

Many would ask, “What if Honey turned out to be wrong?” Then he needs to be punished but for incompetence for not for bad intent. Indeed, a person acting like Honey did is acting courageously because he knows his career will be over if he’s wrong, but he weighs that against the lives of the passengers in question and correctly concludes the lives trump the career.

Three years after the fictional movie, two real world de Haviland Comets, the world’s first commercial jet liner, crashed because of metal fatigue.

Private Bill Henkelman, the U.S. military’s all-time moral courage star

It seems to me that every order the 339 Infantry Regiment received in 1919 in and regarding Russia was profoundly stupid and those who gave those orders needed to be courtmartialed. They were not. Private Bill Henkelman was. He denounced the orders they were courtmartialing him for not following ferociously.

The court martial officers backed down in return for Henkelman agreeing to try to calm down the troops. The Wall Street Journal did an article about this on Veterans Day weekend 2018 in an article titled “An American Tragedy in Russia.” 244 American servicemen died in that insane action.

The 339th’s commanding officer Lt. Col George Stewart at first reported to higher headquarters that morale in the unit was excellent. That was a bare-faced lie, which is what I would expect from a Lt. Col. You don’t get to be a Lt. Col. by speaking truth up the chain of command.

Censors removed truthful reports from letters sent home by the troops. As far as I know, no officer or NCO showed any moral courage in this incident. Only a private did. Typical, and it was 100 years ago, proving that lack of moral courage is not just an affliction of an occasional bad apple in the U.S.military. It is a deeply embedded habit. If you find yourself in this situation, follow the example of Private Henkelmen, not the amoral careerist Lt. Col. George Stewart.

The need to protest dumb orders

The following is from my Web article “Why I created these military Web pages:”

Here are some quotes about the need to speak out against wrongdoing.

“...the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood.” Henry David Thoreau

“To sin by silence when [we] should protest makes cowards of [us all].” Abraham Lincoln

Some people have knowledge about the military such that they can recognize the errors, omissions, and dangers in the military information in the media. I am one of them. Sadly, and dangerously for the military and the nation it defends, the vast majority of those knowledgeable, good people choose not to get involved.

“If you are among brigands and you are silent, you are a brigand yourself.” Hungarian poem

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke

“Who can protest and does not, is an accomplice in the act.” The Talmud: Sabbath, 54b.

“The hottest place in hell must be reserved for those who, in the face of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” -Winston Churchill

“Qui male agit odit lucem.” (“He who behaves badly hates the light.” John 3:20)

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“When the shameless meet the spineless, the shameless win.” When it comes to physical courage, military personnel do just fine. But when it comes to moral courage, they are almost all spineless.

“Like me, you could…be unfortunate enough to stumble upon a silent war. The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. Either way, you’re accountable.” Arundhati Roy

“When others do a foolish thing, you should tell them it is a foolish thing. They can still continue to do it, but at least the truth is where it needs to be.” Gray Council leader Dukhat, Babylon 5 episode 75 "Atonement"

The Center for Moral Courage says, moral courage is exhibited by,

“A person who is courageous in the face of ethical challenges...does the right thing even if it’s not popular...refuses to stand idly by while others engage in unethical or harmful behavior...

See also my article on the lack of moral courage in the U.S. military officer corps.

Here is a link to a very candid and knowledgeable YouTube animation about how officers get promoted in the real world of the U.S. military.

Corporal Meyers’ Medal of Honor

On 9/15/11, Obama pinned a Medal of Honor on Corporal Dakota Meyers, the first to be awarded to a Marine other than posthumously in the Iraq or Afghan wars.

What did Meyers do to earn it? Among other things, he refused to obey stupid orders. Sometimes as in most of the examples above, the stupid orders caused unwarranted risk taking. In Meyers’ case, the risk he took was warranted—risking two men to save 36. He was ordered not to try to rescue the men. He rescued them anyway.

See my article on that at

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions. If there are any errors or omissions in my facts or logic, please tell me about them. If you are correct, I will fix the item in question. If you wish, I will give you credit. Where appropriate, I will apologize for the error. To date, I have been surprised at how few such corrections I have had to make.

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