Military Disobedience in the Ranks

Military disobedience is not about partisan politics or paranoia. It’s about defending our nation’s republican principles and shared social covenant.

| November/December 2012

  • The Whiskey Rebellion
    The Whiskey Rebellion
    Photo By Unknown, Attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer
  • Military
    Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines stand at attention during the U.S. Pacific Command change of command ceremony at Camp Smith, Hawaii, March 26, 2007.
    Photo Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

  • The Whiskey Rebellion
  • Military

On a September afternoon in the peacetime year of 1821, a regiment of the Rhode Island militia completed its annual review and prepared to go home. Suddenly the regiment’s parade field in Providence became the scene of a spontaneous military riot.

In a confrontation that exploded over the space of a few minutes, the regimental commander was arrested and men in the ranks shouted for fellow militiamen to “fix bayonets” and resist orders by force. Ordered to take command in place of his arrested colonel, the senior battalion commander instead marched his men off the field, breaking the regiment apart to prevent the possibility of its obedience. Finally, as men in the ranks lashed out to strike a brigadier general’s horse with the butts of their weapons, a staff officer grabbed the general and dragged him away to safety.

A single disputed order had set off this conflagration: Brig. Gen. Joseph Hawes had ordered Col. Leonard Blodget to dismiss his men from their place on the field, an order that Blodget refused to pass down. By long-established custom, the regiment had always been dismissed from its annual review at a bridge linking the communities that formed the force. Blodget could not give an order that violated regimental custom, he told Hawes on the field, because his men would not agree to obey.

He was right. Blodget’s subordinates defended the social practice they had established in the community of their regiment. Militiamen declined to subordinate their permanent identity as citizens to their momentary identity as soldiers. Joining together to defend their communities as the free citizens of a republic, they would shape the terms of their service. They would make and enforce a set of local rules that originated from their consent and their shared purpose.

The court martial that followed became a forum for competing arguments about the nature of authority in the young republic. In Blodget’s view, which was shared throughout his regiment, officers were bound by their social covenant with the free men they led. Military institutions were rooted in civil society, even as they were instruments of the state.

Responding to this view, a flabbergasted Hawes pointed to the statutory language that created military ranks. Colonels, he told the court, are supposed to obey brigadier generals. Legislated structure made command, unconstrained by social agreement.

8/25/2018 4:09:15 AM

Namaste. As always your articles instigate good thinking. I thank you for that. In regards to this article's subject I wish to contribute a different point of view. Military troops are indeed pawns in the commanders bag of tools for victory. To that end they have to "completely" commit and swear their obedience to the commander's orders. This is in place because the soldier does not have the training and preparation to evaluate the battle and all the tactical moves necessary to lead to victory. That is the job of the commander. On the other end we can't just "strip away from soldiers their soul". Soldiers are human beings, no matter their ranks, with emotions and a brain, hence they have motives and opinions. the issue here, in my modest opinion, is the lack of a proper forum for soldiers to communicate their views. This is important because if soldiers lose their trust in their commander, they will not be ready to take even the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. In support of this I suggest a little historical review of the times of Gladiators in ancient Rome. Russel Crowe reminds us of the charisma and emotional power a gladiator had over his companions, particularly in battle. The commander has a great total view of the battle from the hill, but the soldier has the knowledge of the ground. Both can contribute powerful, valuable information for strategic purposes. They just need an appropriate forum to do so. Thank you for reading, Bodhivata Brooklyn, NY

Bob Phelps
11/15/2012 11:59:43 AM

Free Bradley Manning and stop threatening Julian Assange, head of Wikileaks, for revealing the loathsome truth of US military behaviour In Afghanistan. The Soviets could not subjugate Afghanistan and neither will the USA, as both act without the slightest regard for the rights and welfare of Afghan citizens. Obama, be a real peace-maker and end all US wars of aggression against the world's people.

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