It should not be a controversial statement to say that soldiers are expected to follow orders. It is one of the fundamental characteristics of a military professional. But what if obedience, as a matter of principle, is not as common a character trait among soldiers as we assume it to be? Recent events suggest that perhaps it is not—and that has serious implications for the Army. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that obedience is one of the foundations upon which an effective and professional military force is built. It is also a fundamental requirement—but one whose presence and permanence is too often taken for granted—in order for the nation and its leaders to trust that the Army can and will fulfill its core function of providing land forces to implement the policies of the United States.
The COVID-19 pandemic response has been as contentious an issue within the military as it has been anywhere else in the United States. In recent months, there has been a great deal of consternation about vaccine mandates in the armed forces. As the first servicemembers have been discharged for refusing vaccination, arguments of varying credibility have continued to fly back and forth, as have justifications for exemptions. Better minds than mine will have to resolve that issue. When it comes to mandating the wearing of masks, however, there can be no such debate within the military.
No amount of mere controversy is sufficient for soldiers to justify disobeying an order. Lawful disobedience requires that the order be “palpably illegal.” Masks have been a recognized protective measure against chemical and biological threats for over a century. How to wear and use masks is taught to every servicemember within weeks of joining the military. Therefore, any argument questioning the legality of an order to wear masks is ridiculous.
Yet many soldiers of all ranks have decided to ignore masking orders. When the Department of Defense published updated mask guidance in July 2021, I was a student in my branch’s captain’s career course. My classmates and instructors had all come from a variety of backgrounds and previous assignments within the military. However, when this order was published I watched dozens of commissioned officers choose open defiance. Most were confident that their peers would see no issue, and that their immediate superiors would not enforce the policy. To an unfortunate extent, they have been correct. Insubordination had become acceptable—and in the case of masks, seemingly expected.
The behaviors of soldiers who are resistant to a military order fall into one of four categories recently described by Eric Hundman: grudging obedience, refinement, exiting service, and defiance. For a military service that requires obedience, the first three of those are acceptable. I did not expect that a masking order would get a positive reception, but I also did not expect that so many of my fellow officers would choose defiance. Many servicemembers and external observers questioned the necessity of the order. This is normal and healthy professional discussion. However, once the order has been issued, questioning whether it should be followed is antithetical to military effectiveness. Barring any legal or ethical concerns (which they must raise with their superiors rather than keep to themselves) servicemembers are duty bound to comply. Failure to do so violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice—and more abstractly but no less importantly, it breaks professional trust.
In the case of masking specifically, there is another dimension to be considered: the appearance of political partisanship. An apolitical military must maintain a nonpartisan appearance, and mask wearing (or not wearing) has become a symbol of partisan allegiance throughout the country. I do not believe that partisan signaling is necessarily the major motivator behind refusal to follow masking orders, but the resulting appearance of partisanship exists nevertheless. The reverse case, however, is not true: soldiers wearing masks cannot be sending a partisan signal, since they are merely obeying a lawful order.
As the Joint Chiefs of Staff reminded us at the start of 2021, the United States military was founded on a bedrock principle of subordination to a civilian authority. Certainly, refusing to wear a mask is a relatively trivial infraction. However, history—including history within our own service—shows us that an organization’s ethics are not abandoned in an instant, but slowly discarded over time. I witnessed officers receive orders published by both civilian and uniformed superiors and elect to ignore them. This is a disturbing precedent. As soldiers we must obey lawful orders, even those that are unpleasant or with which we disagree. Otherwise, we cease to be a professional military force, and there is little left to distinguish us from an extremely well-armed mob.
What about Mission Command?
The philosophy and principles of mission command give subordinate leaders room to implement their superiors’ intent using disciplined initiative. This is the resistant behavior that Hundman characterizes as refinement. Leaders at lower echelons are best able to understand the practical ramifications of any policy implementation. General Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went so far as to say that subordinates needed to exercise “disciplined disobedience” and ignore specific orders to achieve their higher commanders’ intent. On the battlefield, this enables subordinate leaders to react to changing situations and take advantage of new opportunities as they arise, without needing to seek approval from their superiors. Historically the Army has made great use of mission command, enabling victories from the defense of Little Round Top to the thunder runs into Baghdad.
Masking and other COVID-19 policies have been no different. The intent behind these orders is clear: ensure the health and safety of our force. Certain exemptions were bound to come into play. A speaker might remove his or her mask to ensure that every member of a large audience can clearly hear and understand the message. We see examples of this regularly, including in military settings, where it is not an explicitly authorized exemption. Instead, it is an example of mission command in practice. The speaker accomplishes the task at hand effectively, while remaining within the intent of the order by utilizing other mitigation measures, such as distancing. Mission accomplished, intent achieved, and the Army goes rolling along.
But that does not mean refusal is an option. Mission command has never given subordinates license to outright ignore the orders and intent of their superiors. To receive an order and directly contradict it while hiding behind the concept of subordinate initiative is to abuse mission command philosophy. Making daily life a little bit more comfortable is very far removed from achieving a commander’s intent (in this case, it was the direct opposite) and is not at all what is meant by mission command philosophy. Even as he was calling for disciplined disobedience, General Milley also emphasized that soldiers need to “be comfortable with being seriously miserable.” Mission command is an outstanding piece of doctrine, but defying an order does not fit into its philosophy. That behavior falls instead under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which clearly prohibits failure to obey a lawful order or regulation. Insubordination is not mission command, it is a crime.
How Did the Army Get to This Point?
Relying on military justice alone is not a long-term answer here. The number of officers I saw in violation and the diversity of their backgrounds leads me to conclude that this is a broader, more institutionalized problem. To solve it, the Army is going to have to examine how it got to this point and the psychological dynamics at play. As a cadet at the United States Military Academy and in my professional military education since commissioning, we spent a significant amount of time learning about the psychology of effective leadership. We studied emotional intelligence, bases of power, motivational theories, organizational culture, and more. For good reason, too. The techniques of building shared understanding and getting subordinate buy-in are more effective than simply relying on the authority of rank.
But the focus on leadership psychology in these educational settings came at a cost. We did not spend nearly as much time and effort teaching about the need for subordination and why we must rapidly execute an order, even one we may not fully understand. We did not emphasize that we must drill this practice as part of our normal routines. We did not explore the practical and ethical implications of failing to do so. As a result, leaders took away an implicit lesson that if they had to rely on their rank to force an order through, they were bad at their job. Both the significance of rank and the lawful authority implicit in it are consequently diminished. In extreme cases, the risk that results is that orders are not obeyed solely because they are lawfully given, but analyzed based on perceptions of quality. Simultaneously, the same processes result in leaders who are unwilling to enforce obedience among their subordinates. If resorting to the Uniform Code of Military Justice is tantamount to admitting that you are a bad leader, then it is no wonder that leaders would choose to brush insubordination aside rather than take it to their commanders for resolution.
Certainly, this did not happen at once. These traits bear many similarities to those described by Dr. Leonard Wong and Dr. Stephen Gerras in Lying to Ourselves, where they highlighted systemic dishonesty in the Army. As part of that, they outlined the concept of ethical fading, and how it “allows Army officers to transform morally wrong behavior into socially acceptable conduct.” Many of the organizational characteristics that they identified as promoting a culture of dishonesty are likely also responsible for a culture of willful insubordination. But there has been no attempt to counter this shift. The Army presumes that the subordinate attitudes developed during initial entry training will last throughout a full career and makes no effort to reinforce them afterwards. Despite character development being part of the mission statement of every military educational institution I have attended, and despite fulfilling obligations being a stated part of the Army Values, this was never a topic of instruction or discussion.
Rebuilding Subordinate Culture
Subordination is a key component to an effective military force. In order for commanders to maximize their units’ effectiveness on the battlefield, their subordinates must execute their orders fully and without delay. When subordinates fail in that regard, the best-case scenario is that higher commanders will have no choice other than increased supervision and micromanagement. This bites back in two ways: the higher commanders cannot devote their full attention to operating properly at their own echelon, and the subordinates cannot exercise disciplined initiative and bring about the benefits of mission command. The worst-case scenario is far more grim: one or more lethally trained and equipped soldiers deciding to outright refuse orders can come with life or death consequences.
Insubordinate attitudes are a problem that extends beyond training and education, and into the Army ethos and culture. A professional military cannot leave this problem unsolved. Like so many other issues, the Army cannot address this with just a stand-down and a slideshow. Leaders at all levels must commit to the unique military ethic, setting the standard and demonstrating its necessity. The Army must also do the much harder work of identifying those who do not subordinate themselves to lawful authority and holding them publicly accountable. Insubordinate conduct is often in public view. If the repercussions are not widely known, soldiers receive a message that insubordination is tolerated or quietly condoned. For those in the Army who do not believe that insubordination is in fact problematic behavior, only two of Hundman’s behavioral categories remain available: correct yourself and obey orders, or exit the Army. Soldiers who do not follow orders have no place in the military.
Ignoring orders always comes with consequences. In the case of my own organization, the insubordinate officers in positions of authority corrected themselves relatively swiftly—after one of their subordinates tested positive for COVID-19. Rather than closing the barn door when they were told to do so, they waited until the horse had bolted. Their negligence was not without ramifications. Here, it meant that additional servicemembers were exposed to COVID-19. In other circumstances, the costs of insubordination will be far graver.
Capt. Eoghan Matthews is officer in the United States Army. He holds a BS from the United States Military Academy.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Spc. Denice Lopez, US Army