Authority and Disobedience: What does it mean to give an order?


Who is in the driver’s seat?

Recently a Twitter follower of mine observed that a commander should not issue an order that he (or she) knows will be disobeyed, and another follower agreed with this, noting it would be a sign that the commander did not really mean it, or has lost his/her mind. This interchange caught my attention as it seemed odd: Why would a commander issue an order he knows will be disobeyed? How does he ‘know’ it will be disobeyed? Does that mean that a commander ought to only give an order he ‘knows’ will be obeyed? And how does he/she ‘know’?

This leads to a conceptually prior question: what is the point of giving an order? What is the status and aim of an order? It might seem that the answer is obvious: to get others to do something! When I order my kids to clean their room, isn’t it obvious that the point of that is to get them to clean their room?

But is it really that obvious in military contexts? If it were, the above conversation is even weirder as it would not matter whether or not the order is likely to be obeyed and what the commander ‘knows’ or doesn’t about the likelihood of the order being obeyed; this issue might only be a practical consideration and ought to have nothing to do with the status of the order itself. On any given Saturday, it is highly possible that cleaning the room order will be disobeyed and I know this fact full well. But I give the order, and if it is not obeyed, maternal sanctions ensue.

Consider some possible reasons why one might give an order:

First, you issue an order to give instructions about what is to be done.  This seems simple and straightforward; it is simply the act of communicating what you would like done. But then, is this merely a suggestion of sorts? or is there more? Am I giving my children a suggestion about home maintenance?  It seems more accurate to say that I am communicating either a demand or an expectation that their room will be clean. Is there a difference between a demand and an expectation?

Second, maybe an order is not primarily about the action, but to indicate the will and intent of the commander. The idea of Commander’s Intent seems to back up this idea – that the order is about carrying out a particular intent with respect to Mission and that there may be more than one way to accomplish this. This would leave more discretion to the person carrying out the order.

Third, it is possible an order gives an opportunity to test and show loyalty, obedience. The order has little or nothing to do with the content of the order itself, but is rather about showing respect to the commander and his or her authority.  To an outsider, some of the orders that are given in military life (especially in a garrison context) seem to have little to do with a particular objective or task, and seem more oriented to practicing and proving obedience and a narrow kind of relatively unreflective loyalty.

Fourth, it might be that the intent is to get something done that would not be accomplished in the absence of the order. It seems that there are two pieces to this, A) that is to do something that people would not think to do on their own or B) would not be inclined to do so without an order.  It seems to be that the order to clean their room falls under the second as with that command, they do not WANT to clean their room.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have to issue the order.  I don’t have to command them to eat candy, open their birthday presents or go play in the pool; they WANT to do these things and will do them without commands.

But what about the other piece here? Is it the case that my children would not think of cleaning their room on their own? Well no. There have been some odd instances when they just decide that are going to clean their room – as a game, a bet or to try and extort/ earn extra money from me. The problem then is that this IS something they would think to do on their own, but not necessarily when I want it to be done. To avoid various problems and to advance certain ends (my sanity, a sense of order), there needs to be predictability to when they clean their rooms.  So the order is issued on Saturday morning when other cleaning tasks are happening and before other things can happen. They do not necessarily see the broader picture of what I have planned for the day, and where a clean house fits into that plan.

So we return to the military context, why are orders given? What is the intent of the practice of giving and following orders?  What is the function in the military Eco-system?


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