Review of On Obedience, 2nd Half

Shanks Kaurin defends her “negotiation” approach to obeying orders by citing such aspects of modern military culture as “Mission Command” and what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley has called “disciplined disobedience” (100).  She discusses how wargames and other forms of tactical training can be employed to explore the opportunities for “disciplined disobedience” in war. In fact, one of the benefits of tactical training, in the field especially, has always been that it can help to establish the degree of control and compliance necessary to accomplish a mission. What decisions must be kept at higher headquarters, and what questions can be left to initiative, to an understanding of the stated commander’s intent, and to a grounding in the basics of military operations to include Rules of Engagement (ROE), and the standards of proportionality and discrimination in the employment of fires?   

            For the soldier, especially for the good solder, in fact for most of us, obedience is easy, disobedience is hard. Disobedience based on ethical, as opposed to tactical or legal considerations may be especially difficult, in part because the way of ethical disobedience is under-examined and largely unexplored. I once heard a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff express surprise at a high-ranking military lawyer’s assertion that there was no provision in military law for purely ethical disobedience. The fact that someone who had been the senior officer of the U.S. armed forces was unaware of this fact strongly suggests that the matter of disobedience has received too little attention in the armed forces, and I would be surprised if this lack of attention did not extend to most civic and professional communities. Professor Shanks Kaurin has performed a great service by creating a guide for the discussion and the practice of obedience and disobedience. Her calls on military education to aim at developing the “moral imagination,” aided by what she calls the “narrative pivot,” reflecting on literature, history, art, and film (pp. 162-163) have wide relevance. Her book includes a discussion guide, and it is clearly suitable for the classroom, seminar, and informal book club.

            One in five of those who attacked the Capitol in January are alleged to have been military veterans. One of the radical groups that recruits among vets and that was represented in the attack calls itself “Oath Keepers.” That these veterans could imagine that their attack on the U.S. Capitol was part of a project of fulfilling their Constitutional oath clearly calls for greater oversight and more education in the ethical aspects of military service. As General Milley and other senior officers observed in the last days of the last administration, the stress in military service must be, not on loyalty or obedience to one person, but on the higher loyalty to the principles of the Constitution. Those who hold views in favor of non-Constitutional or anti-Constitutional governance measures like mob rule, violence and threats of violence, subverting or undermining the voting or legislative process, these people cannot truthfully swear an oath to the Constitution, and without that oath they cannot serve.

To speak personally, On Obedience had me reconsider some of the occasions on which I may have chosen the lesser over the greater path out of a dull compliance, or when I failed to fulfill my instructions thoroughly because I stayed with the letter of orders instead of trying to understand the spirit and intention behind them. Then there were times when I took the time to enquire and to understand fully, to perform my duties maybe even beyond or better than what my superiors had intended. Those who read this book may be equipped thereby to raise the standard of their obedience, and to know that there may be times, few if foremost, when to disobey is the higher duty.         

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