“In war the first principle is to disobey orders. Any fool can obey an order. He ought to have gone on, had he the slightest Nelsonic temperament in him.” So wrote First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher in angry critique of Capt. H.M. Pelly, a cruiser captain under Adm. Beatty at the Battle of Dogger Bank in 1915. Beatty had signaled, “Attack the enemy’s rear” and then lost communication with his four cruisers pursuing the German rear contingent of four cruisers, one of which was already disabled. “That poltroon Pelly” joined a pile-on against the three functioning Germans instead of defying Beatty’s signal and forging ahead to hunt any undamaged German. But Adm. Jellicoe, the commander of the British Grand Fleet, had established a command culture of centralized control with inflexible doctrine. He issued orders without guiding concepts and rejected requests for changes. Pelly and all other British officers at Dogger Bank had been taught to strictly obey orders and so fumbled away a decisive victory.

Ironically, since 1805 the model for British sea fighting was Horatio Nelson, who at Copenhagen put a telescope to his blind eye and announced that he could not see any signal to retreat from his senior commander. Nelson’s own battle orders were clear that his prime instruction was to resolutely engage and defeat enemy ships. In Nelson’s mind, the winner would be the first commander to observe, orient, decide, and act. Nelson was audacious and unorthodox and a winner, but Jellicoe’s command culture banned intrepid action and could not produce a clear win.

What is Military Audacity?

This article is not about common insubordination or misconduct. It is about the essential element of the warrior ethos, what Fisher called the Nelsonic temperament, that applies from bottom to top of the military. The courage of the senior leader must be more moral than physical, and courage to break ranks regardless of orders is still demanded of American strategic military leaders during the Trump administration and the era of unresolved conflict.

Military discipline generates power through concerted action by submission to authority. Soldiers are restrained by their oaths, regulations, law, ethics rules, policies, rules of engagement, and general and specific orders. The chain of command has the authority to issue and duty to obey lawful orders. Importantly, soldiers also observe and follow precedent and unwritten traditions.

But during the conduct of operations, stuff happens.

Opportunities for unplanned intrepid action arise when orders are absent or unclear, or communications fail, or when the subordinate’s situational awareness exceeds that of his chief. Sometimes, however, the subordinate simply decides that he has a better idea than those above him in the chain of command. A common doctrine and current operations order coordinate actions, so a subordinate’s disobedience can disastrously bewilder his commander. The hazard in a culture of audacity is that too many nonconformists produce anarchy. There is room for only one maverick at a time on the battlefield.

American doctrine prioritizes instructions over detailed battle orders—the commander’s concept that allows subordinates flexibility in execution. Yet, the commander is ultimately responsible for the outcome, so it defies human nature that he will sit back and just hope for the best. The World War II–era Wehrmacht is the academic model for mission type orders. Yet, Adolf Hitler set a culture of strict obedience to his orders, on pain of death. Did the German army actually practice its own doctrine? Further, the military decision-making process is a formula that, like industrial mass-production, attempts to guarantee that even the dullest commanders and staffs can reach the school solution.

Technology will soon give a distant commander instant observation of the entire planet, the theater of operations, all subordinate headquarters, and all of his troops. Custer, today, would know that Gen. Gibbon’s column had been defeated and so the Seventh Cavalry was unsupported. Today’s general can see through the squad leader’s helmet-cam video feed. President Obama electronically witnessed the killing of Bin Laden in real time. Centralized knowledge centralizes decision-making. Subordinate leaders under such close and constant scrutiny may not have the opportunity for independent action until a peer enemy uses his capability to make our video screens “go black.”

Despite the accepted obligation of the soldier to take physical risks, the audacious leader accepts an extra, moral risk to career and reputation when taking independent and unconventional action and disobeying orders. The lucky and successful maverick will be celebrated in legend and statuary as a brilliant beau sabreur who seized victory. Failure, however, condemns him as a rash swashbuckler and reckless fool. Punished and forgotten, he will be memorialized only in his suddenly closed personnel file. Past success does not guarantee protection against a later failure—Douglas MacArthur was brilliant at Inchon, but was later canned when he overplayed his hand in a failed attempt to politically dominate his president.

The decision to scrap the boss’s plan has many ingredients. What is at stake? Is the decision a calculated risk or a gamble? What are the odds? Does the maverick have superior local situational awareness? Have changed circumstances overcome the existing orders? Is the proposed plunge from order into uncertain disorder due to flamboyant personal leadership style; or, to a broken decision-making process? If the disobedience fails, can the maverick recover the situation and will he be rewarded for his recovery? He who believes that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission must be prepared to be fired without counseling. Can the innovator think outside the box without falling out of bed? These questions apply from the tactical through the strategic levels.

What Kills a Culture of Audacity?

Collegial decision-making by tiers of committees and councils smothers the bold individual, or at least conceals his identity. The audacious person who realizes no benefit or credit for his risk feels unfulfilled and frustrated and is discouraged from further attempts. He may be marginalized or even fired for being out of step.

For a maverick to survive his unorthodoxy, he must achieve an immediate and recognizable goal, like a battle won. Nothing shields like success. In a conflict against a non-state enemy, the unclear, open-ended mission objectives that are beyond the find–fix–destroy model do not present a recognizable line in the sand for the audacious to cross. Without that line, unconventional thinking looks like unfocused incoherence.

Rules of engagement and the laws of war restrain commanders, who now also have a staff judge advocate officer on hand to approve orders for fear of the consequences of being second-guessed. Casualties, lack of obvious success, and collateral civilian deaths discourage public support for long campaigns, and commanders who allow these to get out of hand get sacked. Such anxiety begets an eagerness not to lose, which is not at all the same as resolution to win. It promotes the strategic defensive versus strategic offensive. The author has a friend who once confided, “Each morning, my goal is to not get fired.”

The non-state enemy, however, is unconstrained—his strategy is based on boldness and unpredictability. Frustrated American commanders often complain in post-war memoirs that they would have won if the political hacks and bureaucrats had not tied their hands with policies. If these flummoxed commanders are later able to make policy as civilian officials, they may imitate their enemies instead of maintaining the moral high ground.

Moral courage is more challenging than physical courage. It is easier to be morally brave when one is financially secure, or when one’s career ambitions have been satisfied. Gen. Patton’s financial independence probably enabled his professional boldness. Marshal Turrene supposedly said, “Show me a general who has made no mistakes and I will show you a general who has seldom waged war.” But few American generals have survived making a mistake.

Audacity at the Strategic Level Under Commander-in-Chief Trump

At ascending levels of command, American commanders have greater opportunities to make wide-ranging, independent decisions about tactics, operations, strategy, logistics, and management. Digitalization of the world has put military officers into new functions and authorities that can possibly affect billions of people through cyber war. Strategic defense officials must consider the Constitution and politics in their decisions. The progress of American personal freedom has been retarded or rolled back by a new sacrifice of privacy and due process during the current long war. The National Security Agency and Justice Department can be powerful political tools for the administration that appoints their directors. The Watergate scandal demonstrated that politicians with sharp elbows can seek and use stolen information to subvert the political process.

America and its defense institutions are entering the age of Trump, in which, like the age of Andrew Jackson, the head of the government and state is a self-styled fighter and outsider, upsetting conventions, relying on a “kitchen cabinet” of unofficial advisors, and inaugurating a new culture in American government. Today’s senior officers are pioneers in a new era of the military’s relationship with the presidency. Those officers are always obliged to challenge their president’s assumptions and intentions in the performance of their duties, within our constitutional government and in the context of America’s critical role in the world. That obligation takes decidedly more courage under administrations like Trump’s or Jackson’s.

The ancient Romans recognized the government leader’s qualities of high character—gravitas—and its associated moral authority—auctoritas principis—that were prerequisites to possess imperium—the power to rule. There is a new attitude toward these qualities in today’s American politics. The electorate has accepted what previous common wisdom believed to be disqualifying personal and public comportment or impropriety by a senior official. The taint of scandal is now almost inconsequential. The new administration has been accused of seeking to becloud a vigilant press and it does not seem to fear bad “optics,” the perception that something is fishy.

To be sure, the cultural shift in America’s political landscape extends more widely than the executive branch. In January 2017, 119 Congress members attracted criticism when they proposed to avoid scrutiny of their own ethics by making the Office of Congressional Ethics subordinate to the House Ethics Committee and thus accountable to the people it investigates. The members recanted under heavy public pressure, but their desire has been expressed.

Since 2001 the military has been engaged in persistent kinetic and cyber war in which the United States is the common denominator—the Bellum Americana—with no end in sight. The strongest military on the planet has not been able to resolve a conflict on its own terms for a long time. The new administration’s war strategy begins by replacing civilian policymakers in the defense establishment with recently retired flag officers in a departure from the precedent of clear civilian control of the military. These retired soldiers must have the inspired unorthodoxy to break an unfortunate recent US strategic cycle:

American and allied troops (1) fight and bomb to the fury of local civilians; (2) fund and train partner forces; (3) hand over the combat to the partner forces; (4) either accept defeat or re-enter combat; and (5) repeat.

The conditions for the group of ex-flag officers entering the top of the Trump administration are historically unique. They will be a significant number of policymakers working between the president and the services and commanders. These recently retired executors of policy will now make policy in the never-ending war and growing militarization of the American executive branch and the national budget. If these men felt unduly restrained by civilian-imposed policies while in command, they can do it their own way now. If they felt scorned by the Obama administration, they may see an opportunity to restore their reputations and confound their enemies, but hubris will not sharpen their judgment. The retired generals may want America to be the world’s best policeman, but we could possibly become the world’s death star, instead.

What is the expected role of these new militarized policymakers? Many generals have aspired to the presidency, itself, and most of them found that the electorate is not impressed simply by high rank or military fame. The presidential campaigns of Gens. Pershing, Leonard Wood, MacArthur, Wesley Clark, and Alexander Haig failed quickly. Presidents who have been generals had no notion of commanding forces in the field since George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion. Commanders and civilian military authorities have different charges: the soldier is dedicated to winning wars, and the civilian is dedicated to good governance and stewardship. Will these ex-flag officers turned policymakers be force providers, or force directors?

We assume that senior US military leaders will refuse to carry out unlawful orders. Trump has already waffled on his support of torture and wants to grow the extra-legal prison at Guantanamo. US government operatives and officials, however, have already employed torture during the Bellum Americana and more such people can be found to replace anyone reluctant to obey a presidential order. Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden’s statement during the campaign that military members would refuse orders to conduct torture earned widespread media attention. And yet, it will take courage to gainsay an administration that insists on loyalty and remembers grudges.

The spirit of an organization’s ethos and standard of deportment emanates from its head. Will serving military leaders be more effective under looser standards for their public or private behavior? Will they lose the public’s respect for the integrity and honor of America’s military institution that has been earned since Vietnam and the Tailhook scandal? The military’s leaders must retain control of the future of their values-based institutions.

These new conditions will greatly try the still-serving strategic leaders, especially if the administration’s policies become unlawful, unethical, or unwise. Military leaders must have the courage to speak truth to power and insist on access to the decision-maker. There is no American military tradition of resigning in protest of orders. If ethical circumstances turn dark a general can always rationalize acquiescent participation with the self-delusion that he can eventually beat the devil only while being one of his imps. Col. Billy Mitchell broke ranks, accused senior service leadership of incompetence, and was court-martialed, but other officers have waited to sound off until they had safely retired from the arena. In this new historical era for our military, it is still true that, “In war the first principle is to disobey orders. Any fool can obey an order.” Generals and admirals must be willing to leave their stars on the boss’s desk when defending the nation, the Constitution, and the integrity of the defense establishment. They must accept the risk of audacity.


Michael Symanski is a retired US Army major general, commanded at all levels through two stars, and served in the Department of the Army G-3/5/7. After retirement, he was a senior mentor to the Afghan Ministry of Defense. He has an MA in history from the University of Illinois.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US government.


Image credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton, DoD