Garrison versus Combat: Are there different standards for Obedience?


I ran across the above quote in my reading on obedience, and it resonated with me because of some of the comments that have been raised in response to my prior posts on obedience. One commenters raised an issue as to whether ‘regular’ military have different ideas about obedience than National Guard or Reservists who serve in a different context. Another raised the issue that the quote takes up, whether there is a difference between combat (although the question as to what counts as ‘combat’ is fraught with complexities, so maybe ‘deployed’ versus garrison is a better distinction?) and garrison contexts.

I find the raising of these distinctions interesting as a conventional view of the importance and centrality of obedience as a military virtue is that under fire, lack of obedience can get people killed. That is, one must obey in combat or deployment situations because in those contexts there is not time, as Han Solo put it once, “…to discuss this in committee.” This would seem to indicate that in garrison contexts there is more flexibility in terms of obedience, that there is more flexibility for discussion and negotiation. Is this true? Is it the case that in combat/deployment situations that the costs for disobedience are higher?

In garrison contexts, is there more bureaucracy and micromanaging? Is the appearance of obedience more important here because of how that looks relative to civilian ‘masters’ especially in terms of career promotions and procurement issues?  Here is the idea that what really matters is the appearance of obedience and the sense of predictability and control that comes with that. As a mother, I wonder if this is like wanting to my kids to behave when we go to church, so others will think well of me and trust me in other matters.

In combat, it would seem that there  is more fluidity and changes in circumstance where the individual has to interpret how an order is to be carried out given conditions on the ground.  This seems to be what the above quote is referring to and seems to be an idea with intuitive appeal. War is not predictable or controllable in the ways that we might expect of civilian life or even a garrison context, so wouldn’t it make sense that we make allowances here for some disobedience? But then how does that jive with the conventional idea that obedience is so important under fire to keep people from harm and to achieve the mission?  At the very least, there seems an interesting tension here.

Add to this, the idea from the quote that the enemy gets a vote too.  What does that mean to say that the enemy gets a vote in whether or to what degree our soldiers are obedient?  If we take this idea seriously (which actually I do), then it complicates the moral grounds for obedience; it cannot just be grounded in the notion that x was commanded and the commander has legitimate authority over me.

In combat, might is not be the case that results matter? If disobedience leads to good results then it is forgiven or tolerated, if not approved? If this is the case, this raises other  questions about the grounds for the moral obligation to obedience in the military. It cannot be an absolute or even general obligation, it might be a conditional obligation?         Are we willing to say: One ought to be obedient, unless disobedience produces a greater good? Are we willing to give individual members of the military the discretion to decide this? How do you train for this?

One commenters observed that we might be willing to give this kind of discretion to elite units or persons, but not to the average enlisted member of the military. It is an interesting question to whom we are willing to give such power, under what circumstances, for what reasons and what we expect (in terms of selection, training and accountability) in exchange for that power. We might say that for the general population of the military, the assumption and obligation should be obedience, noting that narrow exceptions will be made.

To what degree is predictability important here? Does obedience guarantee a certain level of control and predictability? When is that necessary and desirable? And when is it actually counter-productive to the mission? Is it odd that we might give troops in more extreme situations (combat, elite forces) more discretion or leeway with regard to obedience (assuming a good outcome perhaps) and less in garrison situations where the adverse impacts of disobedience seems much less?

It does seem clear to me that there is some kind of relationship between risk and obedience.  On one hand, it seems that obedience is designed to mitigate risk of ‘rogue’ behavior and allow for smooth, relatively predictable behavior within a large organization in complex circumstances. On the other hand, we seem to be willing and even expect this expectation to be more conditional and flexible in more extreme circumstances, especially where some kind of ‘greater good’ might be achieved.  Somehow the risk here is worth it. But surely in garrison contexts, there are greater goods to be achieved by suspending or making more flexible the obligation to obey?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s