Orders in the Army

Can an inferior officer argue with a superior officer? Does the inferior officer have to be EXPLICITLY told “that’s a direct order”, is that just Hollywood-talk?

In the United States Armed Forces, it’s an offense to obey an unlawful order. A junior may argue the merits of such an order with the superior; however, he must do so “in a polite, military manner.” The superior does not have to specifically state, “That’s a direct order.” All that’s required is that it be clear that the instruction (order) be clear.

And having to do the explicit “that was an ORDER, mister” thing tends to be viewed as evidence of bad communications or leadership skills on the part of either or both of the parties. Someone already at the NCO level or an officer past his first deployment will be expected to know better – I have heard a “that was not a suggestion, soldier”, but only directed at very junior personnel who may not yet have caught on completely.

Are you saying a junior can only argue the merits of an unlawful order - i.e. whether it’s lawful? Can a junior argue a perfectly lawful, yet remarkably stupid order? Like if the superior is missing a critical piece of information that makes his order a really bad idea?

A junior can discuss any order–again, in a “polite, military fashion”–with his superior. A good follower, if he has that missing piece of information, will provide his superior with that information. If he doesn’t have that information, then he’s not likely to know better than the superior, is he? If it’s a situation where the lack of information itself causes the order to be a bad idea, a good follower will suggest a modification of or alternatives to the order to his superior.

Members of our military are not, nor are they expected to be, automatons.

Thanks. I didn’t intend for my question to come off as snarky - it was just that your phrasing seemed to imply that a junior could only question an order he thought was unlawful, not one that he thought was stupid.

It depends. In a situation that is not severly limited by time or circumstance (such as someone shooting at you) there is nothing wrong with a subordinate making a suggestion. In fact a good leader should seek input from those they are leading. One of a leaders responsiblies is to mentor juniors so they can become leaders themselves. That is as long as it doesn’t become quibbling or arguing. Even if the soldier thinks the order is stupid.

Now that I think about it (and reread your question), no you can not question an order just because you think it’s stupid. You may be allowed to give some input as to how the order is carried out. You may not, depending on circumstances.

I was a squad Sergeant in the early eighties. At that time we were trained to challenge an order we believed to be illegal. For example “Sgt. see to it those prisoners are killed.” Of course few officers would be stupid enough to say such a thing. More likely is an ambiguos order such as " Sgt. see to it those prisoners are neutralized." Since a prisoner is already a neutralized enemy soldier, the order suggests still further action be taken. The Sgt has every right to ask for a clarification of the action to be taken. Even further on the scale of ambiguity is “Sgt. take care of those prisoners.” Does the officer mean escort them to a proper holding facility and insure they get medical attention and food, or kill them? Once again, the Sgt has the right to ask for clarification. The officer has a duty to provide clear orders, such as “Sgt see to it those prisioners reach the holding facility safely.”

Orders which are legal, but stupid fall into a different catagory. As pointed out by Monty

Say an order of “Sgt. take your men up this path.” While not a discussion, the Sgt. might ask “Is the Lt. aware that is a known mine field covered by three machine guns?” If given this new information the Lt. says the order stands, to refuse to obey the order would be mutiny.

The Danish version was “Do you not understand the order, Soldier?”, and that was very much a warning that unpleasant things were just around he corner.

Once a rapport has been established between officer and enlisted men, it’s generally speaking very clear which orders are of the “do-it-my-way-this-instant” variety and which are more along the line of “I’d like to see the following happen”.

<soldier story>On maneuvers, I (being a lowly private) got away with openly contradicting the orders of my company CO - on the battalion frequency, no less(!) - because I had the crucial bit of information he didn’t have, i.e., my unit had just taken the objective he was calling an all-out artillery strike on. The lieutenant was busy getting his squads in place, I had the radio on, seconds were of the essence and so I spoke way, way out of line.</soldier story>

On a related note: Does anyone ever actually say “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

I used that term a few times when I was in the Navy. I was also given a Direct Order once, when I refused to get my flu shot.

Most O-Gangers would use the phrase “and that is not a request” when giving orders, especially if the enlisted guy was hesitant about performing his duty.

It would not be mutiny, which is the actual or attempted takeover of the unit from the person in charge of said unit. What it would be is “refusal to obey a lawful order.”

Having said that, the Lieutenant in your example still is responsible for ensuring the safety of his men. Perhaps his response would clear up if the order in this example is actually lawful. If he were to say, “I don’t care. Follow your orders!,” it’s quite clear he’s not using his noggin. If his response were to be, “Yes, I’m glad you mentioned that. Other members of our squad will be laying cover fire for you. Make sure you keep your head down and don’t take unncecessary risks,” then that would show he’s balancing the mission objective and his other responsibilities.

Can you be legally ordered on a suicide mission? I mean, a mission that clearly has greater than 90% likelyhood to result in death?

I suppose if you’re ordered on a suicide mission, the alternative of spending a couple of years in a military prison for refusing doesn’t seem so bad. But what’s the actual law? I know that ordering troops into combat means that some of them are very likely to get killed, so officers routinely give orders that lead men to their deaths. But what about ordering individual soldiers into what you know and they know will be suicide?

I mean, sometimes you’ve got to take out that machine gun nest or everyone dies. But if the Lt thinks it’s so important, why doesn’t he volunteer to do it himself?

There is a litany and procedure for these things.

When not in an eyeball to eyeball situation with the author of the order the first question is: “by whose order.“

The second question is a request for clarification, sometimes phrased as “do you want me to do so-and-so.”

The next question is to ask if the author of the order understands specified circumstances that make the execution of the order problematic (there are situations where following an order might look pointless, reckless or downright suicidal, but in fact is a critical part of a bigger scheme that you don’t know about).

The next question is a request to have the order in writing signed by the author, or the bearer who is the author’s alter ego for that purpose.

When you have been through the whole litany, when you have given the author or his representative every chance to take it back, then you are in the soup. At this point you have to decide if you are going to obey or refuse. If you have a good reason to refuse (i.e. the order is unlawful) and you have made your record you will be OK. If not, you are going to have to bear the consequences.

You have to remember that a military organization is not a debating society. It is a rigid hierarchy and intended to work that way. Obedience is not, however, a right or an absolute duty. Soldiers have every right to be lead intelligently and for their leaders to have some respect for subordinates’ lives and judgment. It is the officers who don’t respect their follower’s judgment and lives who end up with a high explosive birthday treat.

In the bad old days it was regarded as good form to hang a expended pin and ring on the door to the offender’s hooch before resorting to the actual detonation of explosive ordinance in his bed roll.

The one and only place I’ve ever seen that “litany” was in a novel, Space Cadet.

You may remember my brother, Chouinard Fan, who was recently left his active position as a Captain. He says:

“Respectfully, sir, I think that _______________________________, but it’s up to you.”

He says you can argue pretty much anything, as long as you just have a good tone about it. Apparently some people get away with quite a bit, as long as they don’t yell, and remember to use “sir”.

If you think your sergeants are too stupid to listen to, then why were you provided them? They’re not too stupid to listen too, and junior officers especially should listen closely. He told me that as a 2LT, he pretty much said, “That’s a plan” to whatever his senior sergeants suggested.

Like it or not, my friend, it’s straight out of Captain Gelding’s lesson plan for the instruction of junior officers 101, circa 1968. Maybe that’s where the Space Cadets guy got it. Or maybe (more likely) that’s where the guy I stole it from got it.

I’d have to say that it’s a good thing that things have changed since 1968. My time in the military stretched from 1979 to 2000.

Of course they may debate an order. No superior wants to do something stupid due to lack of new information, and everyone understands that this happens now and then. Officers usually don’t run around barking orders at each other, usually everybody knows what needs doing, and there is a finite number of ways to get them done. Everyone knows that if you push an issue inappropriately, you risk getting a bad rating. I have never heard anyone say “that is an order”. I once heard someone being told “you are relieved of responsibilities effective immediately”. For an officer, that’s a career death sentence, nobody ever wants to hear that, so generally they will become more cooperative as the tone of discussion becomes more pointed.

You might have to explain this a little further. I can only hope that I am mistaken is sensing some personal animus here. It may well be that things were done differently in some other service and at some other time. But during the late unpleasantness in Southeast Asia my recitation was the school answer for dealing with questionable orders. It was also the historical method for resolving that sort of difficulty. If you want to pick a bone why don’t you E-mail me. I’ll update my profile for the correct address. I don’t want to cause trouble, just want to get things straight.