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  • Orders and the ability of people to follow them is what distinguishes professional militaries

  • from the rabble of an armed mob.

  • Disobeying orders cuts at the very foundation of military discipline and can have disastrous

  • consequences beyond just the damage caused by an individual person.

  • But what happens when a soldier disobeys an order?

  • Some examples of insubordination worked out, such as when Admiral Nelson disobeyed orders

  • of naval doctrine to win the decisive battle of Trafalgar.

  • However, disobeying orders by individuals can also turn out very badly such as when

  • several Marines in Afghanistan desecrated the corpses of dead Taliban fighters and severely

  • damaged the US image in the region.

  • Disobeying an order can take a wide form of acts but can broadly be interpreted as breaking

  • some sort of military law or regulation or failing to carry out an action.

  • Some common examples of disobeying orders could be as trivial as failing to have a proper

  • uniform or being late to an appointed place of duty.

  • Disobedience can then go as severe as breaking lawful orders to not disturb civilian property,

  • to cowardice before the enemy and desertion.

  • All of the rules and regulations that troops must follow are usually codified in law such

  • as in the United States under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice.

  • Punishments today for failure to obey orders pale in comparison to what was handed down

  • in the past depending on the country, era, and conflict.

  • While in the US military today, troops might face at worst-case scenario fines, some jail

  • time, and a less than honorable discharge, that was not always the case.

  • Rather, military justice in the past, even in the US military, was largely focused on

  • both corporal and collective punishment to mete out those who disobeyed orders and discourage

  • others from doing the same.

  • To get an idea of where military justice comes from, one must look back into ancient times

  • at one of the most successful and well-documented militaries: the Roman military.

  • The Roman military fought and won battles across three continents and against dozens

  • of enemies often to their numerical disadvantage.

  • To maintain order and discipline, the Roman army, both during the Republic and Empire,

  • would often issue death sentences for those who disobeyed orders.

  • Though not the most common sentence, the most well-documented punishment for disobeying

  • orders for entire units, usually in battle, was the decimation.

  • Coming from the latin word to remove a tenth, it was the ultimate punishment to render to

  • units who failed to perform satisfactorily to a commander's orders.

  • Though carried out sparingly through the 800 years of Roman history, its impact was well-noted.

  • If a unit was selected for decimation, the entire unit would be separated into ten-man

  • groups and each man would draw lots.

  • The one unlucky enough to be chosen would be beaten to death by the other nine men in

  • his group and the rest would be forced to live outside the protection of the camp for

  • an undetermined amount of time until the commander decided that they could rejoin the rest of

  • the army.

  • Probably the most well-known, though hotly debated and probably fictional, story of decimation

  • was that of the Theban Legion in 265 AD.

  • The Theban Legion was commanded by a man named Mauritius and was recruited primarily from

  • amongst the Coptic Christians in Egypt.

  • It was during this time that Roman authorities were really trying to crack down on Christians

  • in the empire and the idea of having Christians in the ranks displeased the emperor.

  • Despite their doubts of the loyalty of the legion, the Romans sent them to Gaul to quell

  • an uprising.

  • After a successful campaign, the men were ordered to take part in a ritual to the Roman

  • Emperor Maximian honoring him as a god.

  • The Christian men refused to do so and were then ordered to be decimated.

  • After the first decimation, the men were resolute in their belief not to partake and were decimated

  • again and again until the entire unit had killed itself.

  • Then, those not present at the battle but who had been guarding other posts along the

  • way were summarily executed by the Romans.

  • Though this is the most fantastical story of decimation, there were multiple, verified

  • occurrences of the practice such as during the war on Spartacus, the infamous slave rebellion

  • the TV show was based on, where several hundred men were killed.

  • There were also several occurrences in the late Roman Republic but the practice seems

  • to have died off by the time the Roman Empire came around, which casts even more doubt on

  • the story of the Theban Legion.

  • From the fall of the Roman empire until the mid-1800s, the majority of the world's militaries

  • would rely on corporal punishment for soldiers and sailors to keep them in line.

  • One of the best examples of pre-modern militaries was that of the Russian army.

  • After the ascension of Peter the Great to power, he wanted to transform the Russian

  • military into a respectable and feared force on par with any from Western Europe.

  • To do so, he would implement traditions that would become the backbone of Russian military

  • discipline for years to come.

  • For offenses as minor as losing one's flint for a musket, beatings and whippings were

  • authorized.

  • It was also up to the most senior officer closest to the soldier to order the punishment

  • so there would be a wide variety in punishments and there was no uniformity.

  • As a last resort, Russian officers could even condemn a man to exile in Siberia, being forced

  • out of the army with only the clothes on his back.

  • This kind of crude treatment was also seen in both the British and later American militaries

  • of the time.

  • Starting in the British army and then being used by colonial troops in America, a common

  • method of military punishment was called riding the mule.

  • The mule in this case was not your favorite farm animal but rather a wooden device shaped

  • to look like a mule that a man was forced to sit on.

  • Upon the conclusion of a court-martial, a man could be forced to sit on the mule for

  • hours or even days at a time.

  • To make the suffering even worse, weights or sometimes muskets were tied to the feet

  • of the prisoner to keep him squarely on the mule.

  • Though the tip was usually rounded or blunted off, the prisoner would still face a considerable

  • amount of pain.

  • Another common method in the British and American militaries to punish those who disobeyed orders

  • was to have their wrist tied to a high pole and then be allowed to support themselves

  • with just one foot on a sharpened stake.

  • What makes this punishment so brutal was the fact that in order to prevent the spike from

  • cutting into their foot, the condemned would have to support all their weight on their

  • wrist which would cause them immense pain.

  • Because of the great amount of pain this would cause and the potential for permanent bodily

  • injury, this punishment, unlike riding the mule, would only be carried out in fifteen

  • minute increments.

  • Despite these two methods being primarily army methods of punishment, that does not

  • mean the British and American navies did not have their own means of punishing those who

  • disobeyed orders.

  • From the beginning of the Continental Navy until the mid-1850s, flogging was the most

  • common way sailors were disciplined when underway.

  • Once the accused was whipped, he would then be sent back to work with no period of confinement.

  • Navy commanders did not like the idea of confinement underway since it would only make the workload

  • on those who followed the rules greater and corporal punishment was seen as a way to hold

  • people accountable without making those who followed the rules suffered.

  • It was during this time that the Navy decided to use a more progressive form of punishments

  • for Sailors by incorporating fines, confinement, reduction in rank, and dishonorable discharges

  • as a way to retain only professional Sailors.

  • Though the days of corporal punishment are long over, some hold outs from this period

  • continued in US Navy tradition until as recently as 2018, such as the punishment of only eating

  • bread and water for minor offenses for three days at a time.

  • Additionally, in the Navy going to non-judicial punishment is still called Captain's Mast

  • in reference to the days of sail where Sailors were tied to a mast and whipped.

  • The legacy of more progressive punishments beyond corporal punishment and execution continued

  • into the American Civil War.

  • Especially during the early months of the war, desertion was common and practically

  • unpunished.

  • It was not until August of 1862 that the first deserters would be executed, but this punishment

  • would only be carried out sparingly by both sides throughout the war with death sentences

  • usually only carried out against serial offenders.

  • Rather, both North and South adopted alternative punishments to death sentences, especially

  • as the war dragged on and they needed all the manpower they could get.

  • For disobeying orders, soldiers could have brands put on their bodies like D for deserter,

  • be forced to sit on the mule, be confined in prison, forfeit their pay, and lose leave.

  • Though losing leave might not seem like a big deal to someone who had been through countless

  • battles and possibly been away from home for years, not having time to spend with loved

  • ones would have been quite a blow.

  • After the Civil War, Western militaries kept death sentences on the books for crimes like

  • treason, cowardice, and desertion, but these were rarely, if ever, carried out.

  • Rather, the British military created a new, codified military justice regulation manual

  • in the 1880s that gave legal definitions of military crimes and the recommended punishments

  • for commanders to follow.

  • Among the most famous of these was Field Punishment Number One and it would be carried out over

  • sixty thousand times during the First World War.

  • Field Punishment Number One was seen as the worst punishment a man could get besides being

  • executed.

  • Meted out for a variety of infractions like refusing to advance, unauthorized retreating,

  • and cowardice before the enemy, it was a frightening experience.

  • Depending on the circumstances of the case, a man could be strapped to a pole in the open

  • for days, weeks, or even months, as in the case of some conscientious objectors who refused

  • to fight.

  • During this time, the men would be exposed to enemy fire and the elements all while in

  • a stress position that would not allow them to rest comfortably while on the pole.

  • The punishment would usually be carried out for only a certain number of hours each day

  • so as to allow the men time to eat, rest, use the bathroom, and then go at it again

  • the next day.

  • Though this was incredibly cruel, it paled in comparison to the most extreme punishments

  • given by some of the other warring nations.

  • Italy and Austro-Hungary were two of the major powers in the First World War though they

  • get little mention in Western memory.

  • That might be for good reason since there are some facts that the leadership of these

  • countries might want to forget.

  • Harkening back to the days of Imperial Rome, Supreme Italian Commander Luigi Cardona brought

  • back the Roman use of decimation starting in 1916.

  • During his many fruitless assaults on the Isonzo Front (pronounced I-SAWN-ZO), troop

  • morale was low due to high casualties and nothing to show for it.

  • One unit of the Italian army, the 141st Catanzaro Infantry Brigade, refused to participate anymore

  • in the senseless slaughter and had to be forced at gunpoint to go to the front.

  • Cardona was so infuriated at the incident that he ordered a decimation of the most guilty

  • company and ten men were selected at random and shot.

  • Though Italy was not the only country to carry out a decimation, since France did so in 1914

  • of a company that had retreated in battle, it was most notable due to the fact that Cardona

  • wanted this to be a mainstream policy since he viewed the average Italian soldier as just

  • a brute that could only be dealt with by force.

  • Austro-Hungary was also a very guilty party for carrying out death sentences.

  • Though outranked by Italy, Britain, and France as far as number of death sentences issued,

  • Austro-Hungary executed 98% of those condemned.

  • This appalling figure is in spite of the countless extrajudicial executions for offenses like

  • cowardice that occurred in the field without official records.

  • Despite the horrors of World War One, some militaries would continue and even expand

  • punishments for those who could not follow orders, with the new Red Army being the most

  • notable example.

  • Though the committee that formed after the February 1917 revolution outlawed flogging

  • of troops, as was common during the war, in the ensuing Civil War and years after the

  • Red Army adopted even more draconian tactics.

  • Harkening back to the days of the tsars, generals and admirals in the Soviet military relied

  • upon a secret police force to infiltrate the ranks and report any behavior not conforming

  • to military discipline or communist ideals.

  • Those unlucky enough to be reported by the police would often be interrogated under torture

  • to admit their crimes.

  • These coerced confessions could then be used against them to send them to labor camps in

  • Siberia if they were lucky, or to their deaths if not.

  • These punishments were routinely carried out throughout the Russian Civil War and reached

  • a crescendo during the Great Purges of the 1930s.

  • Once World War Two started, only those troops serving the Soviet Union and Germany faced

  • the most severe punishments for disobeying orders.

  • Both countries had what were called penal battalions.

  • These were organizations of men who had either been convicted for any number of crimes in

  • military court or who might have been civilian prisoners.

  • Either way, both sides used these units as a deterrent against disorder in the ranks

  • since they were often given the most dangerous and least survivable missions.

  • Even if one was lucky enough to survive the hell that was the Eastern Front, if you were

  • a Russian soldier, that did not mean you were out of the woods yet.

  • Issued in the summer of 1942, Stalin's famous General Order No. 227 became a show of just

  • how desperate the situation had become.

  • The order created blocking detachments of troops that were ordered to shoot down all

  • those withdrawing without orders.

  • It also made surrendering to the enemy a crime and for many Soviet prisoners of war their

  • liberation from the hands of the Germans were not joyous.

  • Because this order made it a crime to surrender to the Germans, hundreds of thousands of ex-Soviet

  • POWs found themselves transferred from a concentration camp to a GULAG after being liberated for

  • betraying their Motherland.

  • From Roman times through the end of the Second World War, professional militaries sought

  • a variety of cruel and inhumane means of disciplining those who could not conform.

  • From corporal punishment through the liberal use of the death penalty, the punishments

  • for disobedience in the military varied wildly depending on the country and the conflict.

  • Despite this wide disparity in punishments, the one commonality is that at least today

  • those in professional militaries across the world who are accused of crimes against military

  • rules and regulations are afforded due process of law and appropriate punishments.

  • Though units will never be decimated anymore, militaries do desire to hold people who disobey

  • accountable and to avoid having to resort to the methods of the past; those who show

  • a track record of rule breaking are simply kicked out.

Orders and the ability of people to follow them is what distinguishes professional militaries

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What if Soldier Disobeys an Order?

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    Summer posted on 2021/08/18
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