Discipline and Obey: Is there a link?


(Photo compliments of a tweep… Is this critter disobedient? Ironic? Unaware?)

After the energetic discussion (thanks all!) related to last week’s post, I got to thinking about whether there is a link between various activities in military training that are designed to instill and practice discipline and obedience. The first thing that popped into my mind is that the drilling, focus on standardized appearance (uniform in many senses of the word), standardized behavior and the like are designed to render human thought, appearance and behavior more predictable and standard.  But why?  Presumably, so that under fire people have been habituated (hello Aristotle! For more go read Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics) to think and act in certain ways that will facilitate the success of the mission.  Obedience seems to be one of these habits.

To buttress this view, I would mention Gabriel and Savage’s classic work on Vietnam, Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army Crisis in Command which claimed that many of the problems they saw with the performance of the Army during Vietnam (fragging, drug use, lack of discipline and bad unit cohesion) could be boiled down to bad leadership among the officer corps. In their view, the officers failed to lead, show character, take risks and generally seemed unconcerned with the men they lead; this led to the issues highlighted above which then impacted unit cohesion and ultimately mission effectiveness. In their view, bad leaders created circumstances in which there was no or bad discipline which led to disobedience in various format which impacted the combat mission.

Which brings me to my eldest son. Who began the week by being manifestly disobedient to his father, which then had various ripple impacts within the family unit.  Naturally I have been thinking about the link between his disobedience and the varying levels of discipline between our two houses. Surely if there had been better discipline (parental and his own), there would not have been disobedience? Right?

This all seems very clear and straightforward. Good discipline is necessary for obedience, which is necessary for mission effectiveness.  Now, this may be my contrary nature, but its too neat and clean.

So is there a link between discipline and obedience?  Michael Foucault in Discipline and Punish saw a link between discipline and control in various contexts; that the control of bodies creates certain kinds of habits in relation to political and social structures (obedience being an important one in schools, penal institution and the military.)  Is it the case that discipline is practice and habituation for obedience? Is there a clear connection such that one cannot have obedience without discipline? Are those who demonstrate better discipline more obedient? (And is that a good thing?)

What if discipline makes a certain kind of obedience (habituated, perhaps somewhat uncritical) more likely? What if there are people who are obedient, not out of discipline or habit, but because they have made a moral judgment about the value of the command, the commander and/or the context and impact of obedience? Or what if those disposed to be disciplined as just also more disposed to be obedient and there is really no link there?

Which brings me back to my sons.  My eldest is actually quite disciplined and likes structure, but vastly prefers it is HE is in charge of said structure and discipline, ergo disobedience on certain occasions. My youngest (for various reasons) is impulsive and rather undisciplined, though he is happy to inform on others who are breaking the rules; but he is by far the more obedient of the two children. Of course, this is only an example and there are obviously many factors at play, in addition to the fact that they are not in a military context (although they disagree – noting their momma missed her calling as a Drill Sergeant!)

But it does raise the question about the connect between these two values in the military, although I would note that neither is explicitly mentioned in the various iterations of the Core Values (although they come in indirectly in other documents and discussions of professionalism and the military/warrior ethos.) 

What say y’all?



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