Orders and Disorder
By Des Fitzgerald
‘Never give orders to your NCOs!’ was the advice a former CO of mine received from his father as he was commissioned. His father had served as a wartime infantry officer, fighting in such delightful battles as El Alamein and Anzio.
Now at face value that appears a ridiculous statement. If an officer does not issue orders to his NCOs, how on earth will they know what to do? Now part of me suspects that, a bit like his son, the father was a contrarian and would often say something to get a rise.
However, there is perhaps something in this statement. At that time of the Second World War the British Army was a conscript force, which had had its far share of ups and downs, but had worked out an effective way to defeat the Wehrmacht. Those civilians in uniform perhaps reflected society more widely and are certainly not the all-volunteer professional force that most of us are familiar with today. Maybe the father was concerned that if you issued orders, and the NCOs decided not to follow them, then that would leave your credibility undermined? Who knows the next time they would decide to ignore or overrule you.
My mind is drawn back to the Fast Show sketch called ‘The Valiant Breed’. An officer tries to get his soldiers to attack a pillbox. They, in turn, tell him where to get off. I suspect I know what my friend’s father was actually suggesting. That at the lower level, it is leadership and example that are the best way to get your platoon or company to follow you; not by the authority of your command or orders.
As a small diversion, consider the titles we give our junior leadership positions. In the infantry we have the section commander, platoon commander and company commander. Most of the other arms following suit. A troop commander in the Royal Engineers and Royal Logistics Corps. A battery commander in the gunners. Interestingly the RAC talk of troop leaders and squadron leaders. Similarly, our American allies have squad and platoon leaders. Despite a slightly-more-than-cursory search, I can find no logical reason why we have this command focused terminology, less perhaps our history. At Sandhurst and Brecon we all take turns to fulfil command appointments. Not leadership appointments.
Do words matter? They probably do. I am not advocating wholesale replacement of commander with leader (yet). But I do wonder if this focus on command has perhaps overshadowed the leadership aspect. Maybe we should pause to reflect on this? So what is so bad about giving orders?
What is so bad about an order?
Let us start with what an order is. Let me use the NATO definition: A communication, written, oral or by signal, which conveys instructions from a superior to a subordinate. This is good enough for our purposes. In Von Spohn’s ‘Art of Command’ (which I recommend everyone reads) he reminds us that,
‘Every order places the subordinate to whom it is given in a position of constraint…’
Von Spohn also wrote that giving too many orders will simply crush the spirit of the soldier and may even cause him to be insubordinate. Therefore, if we agree that an order is a constraint, and we seek to give our subordinates as much freedom as we can, we probably should not issue many of them. Perhaps now we can add to our opening statement. If you do not issue orders you will not be forcing your subordinates to disobey you, nor constraining them in achieving their mission or the intent.
At some time in your career you will probably think that your superior headquarters is unreasonable, incompetent, certainly in too much comfort and most likely staffed with fools. I recall an order being issued whilst I was in Bosnia to reduce our Road Traffic Accidents (RTAs) to zero. This was, in part, because the British led the table for RTAs. For the British an RTA could be as simple as a Warrior reversing into another and damaging the paintwork; for other nations this would not even register as an event. For the British form filling would ensue. I told the CO that if he issued me that order that was fine, but all my patrols would be conducted on foot only, which meant that we could not patrol most of our Area of Operations. He said that was not what he meant – rather, we should just drive more carefully. I replied that we always drove carefully, but that driving a Warrior with additional armour, on sub-standard roads and with sub-standard local driving was a challenge.
This is what I would call an idiot order. The intention of the originator was probably to reduce the British RTA rate. Sadly, it was given without understanding the relevant metrics and without thinking about the effect of the order if it was followed literally. I was disappointed that my CO had not filtered it out and that he had just passed it on in the way he did. The order was a constraint, which would have prevented me achieving the higher commander’s intent. I chose to be insubordinate and ignored it.
Another example from my service included when a UK 1* had a Negligent Discharge with his pistol. All troops in theatre, most of whom did not have pistols, had to retake their Weapon Handling Test. Another time, the Brigade Headquarters that insisted it was not acceptable for an infantry battalion to provide a Nil Return for a trawl for an Ammunition Technical Officer. Although we clearly had no one qualified, we had to provide two nominations with penalty statements. I submitted penalty statements for myself and the CO.
I am sure we all have our own favourite examples of this kind of thing. The point is that idiot orders are just that, idiotic. They should not be issued, they undermine the credibility of the issuer and if not filtered out by intermediate headquarters, the credibility of these intermediate headquarters as well. They force subordinates to be disobedient. We only have to look at the vexed subject of dress regulations. Shirts in or out, sleeves up or down, and the liberal interpretation, normally concealed by ‘Regimental Custom’, to see that perhaps insubordination is a normal state of affairs. Haddon-Cave QC, in his report on Nimrod XV230 calls this behaviour, ‘normalisation of deviance’. I have heard others call it ‘consent and evade’. If you are not going to enforce an order, why issue it?
Equally, even the best thought out and most concise orders can have unintended consequences. On my first tour in Northern Ireland the loss of a single round of ammunition was punished by a prohibitive fine. I am, of course, entirely comfortable that we always look after all the kit and equipment that we are issued. But the result of this fine was that some soldiers taped the top of their magazines so that no rounds could be lost. Nor, equally, would it permit the magazine to be fitted to be the rifle. Thankfully the batch numbers of the training ammunition eventually matched that of the operational ammunition, allowing Platoon Sergeants to cover any discrepancies.
On the All Arms Commando Course the focus on field cleanliness, while admirable, led to people carrying two sets of wash and shave kit; one for the inspection and one for use. As part of our frequent drives to save money, the direction came out that all air flights would have to be signed off by a 2*. The process was either so tortuous as to deter applications, or word got back that none would be signed. People found a work around. Typically, they would get a hire car, book a ferry, probably book a night or two in a hotel, and travel anyway. The net result was that any saving in airfares was wiped out several times over by the expense of the alternative travel arrangements – not to mention the cost of lost time.
I have been just as guilty myself. As an OC I was concerned that the NCOs were not taking responsibility for the soldiers in their sections or fire teams. In order to encourage NCOs to ensure that battle preparation was correctly followed any item or article of equipment that the soldier was missing was taken to be the NCOs responsibility. The NCOs and I decided that press-ups would be a fair punishment. After a couple of weeks most of the issues had been resolved. Then the soldiers starting deliberately forgetting items. They were ‘gaming the system’ to get their NCO in trouble. I recognised the perverse incentives I’d created so rapidly switched to back personal responsibility.
My point is that over zealotry in one area can cause behaviours that probably undermine the original intent. Any order may have unintended consequences. You need to watch out for them and then take appropriate counter measures.
The Art of Orders and Disorder
I am not going to give you a this is the best way to do things. I think von Spohn has it right when he says it is an ‘art’, you will need to work it out yourself depending on your situation, experience and environment. I do think that it is more about leadership at the lower levels, than command. Orders are a constraint, so we should consider carefully before we issue them. Watch out for idiot orders – your own and others’. Consider and beware of unintended consequences. And if you issue an order, ensure it is complied with.
A final thought: When I was an Instructor at the NCOs Tactics Wing at Brecon, I had a conversation with one of my Colour Sergeants. As an 18-year-old straight out of the Guards Depot he had fought up Mount Tumbledown with the Scots Guards. ‘Sir, I honestly don’t remember ever receiving a set of orders. We just got issued more ammo and I knew we had to get to the top of that hill.’
So perhaps it is all just about knowing the commander’s intent.
One of the British Army’s most inspiring Regimental Sergeant Majors had a view on following orders. He explained it when he was the first soldier to lecture at the Army Staff College. You can read his advice in On Discipline: A Speech By RSM JC Lord MVO MBE.