Everyone on Sen. John Warner’s Armed Services Committee is worked up
because British Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson didn’t blindly follow the orders
of NATO commander U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark.
Last June, Clark ordered Jackson, then the NATO commander in Kosovo,
to push the Russian troops out of Kosovo’s main airport. Jackson told
Clark, “No, I am not going to do that. It is not worth starting World
Remember, Russia still has thousands of nuclear-tipped ICBMs pointed
at us, and it would make many a hard-liner’s day if the launch order was
given. Jackson — who’s since been promoted to full general, presumably,
in part, for the wisdom of this decision — wisely concluded that the
gain of winning King of the Mountain against the Ruskies wasn’t worth
the possible pain.
Sure, discipline is essential in the military. But soldiers should
not be robots and blindly follow dumb or illegal orders.
Back in 1817, Napoleon said, “Insubordination may only be evidence of
a strong mind.” Of course, look who’s talking. Insubordination came
naturally to me from buck private to full colonel. I found it easy to
find ways around obeying or passing on orders that would cause my guys
unnecessary hassle or blood — or orders that were just flat stupid,
like Gen. Westmoreland’s early Vietnam War,
guaranteed-to-get-troopers-killed rule of engagement order: “Don’t fire
at the enemy until he fires first.”
Maybe I was born with rebellion in my genes. Family legend has it
that in the 1770s, my Revolutionary War ancestor John Hackworth told his
CO, “Captain, yar’ attackin’ the wrong hill. Ain’t goin’ with ya’. But
follow me, I’ll take ya’ up the right ‘un.”
In Korea or Vietnam, if I got an order that was stupid — like
sending my soldiers into minefields to count enemy dead — I’d “Wilco”
(will comply) that order — in this case from Col. Ira Hunt, my
super-ambitious, fruit-case boss at the time — then tell my troops to
ignore same. My loyalty was to my troops and their tender bodies, not
some Perfumed Prince’s career. And I know a lot of limbs and lives were
saved that way.
British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson won the most decisive naval
victory of the 19th century at Trafalgar in 1805 after not “seeing” his
commander’s signal to “discontinue (the) engagement.” He explained
later, “I have only one eye; I have a right to be blind sometimes.”
In 1914 at Tannenberg, German corps commander Gen. Hermann von
Francois repeatedly disobeyed orders. He ended up bagging 90,000
prisoners, destroying a complete Russian army and winning a major
During the Korean War, my patrol captured a squad of Chinese
soldiers. By the time we got back to our front lines, it was dark. It
was a nine-hour hike to the battalion C.P., and since some of the POWs
were wounded, it would have taken more than half of the men in my rifle
platoon to get them back for interrogation. Because my CO needed my
soldiers to defend the front, he ordered me to shoot them. I told him to
If Lt. William Calley’s soldiers had refused to follow his insane
order — which killed between 300 and 400 unarmed Vietnamese women and
children at the village of My Lai — one of our country’s most shameful
acts wouldn’t have happened. And perhaps the Jane Fonda gang’s term
“baby killers” wouldn’t have become part of the cruel legacy of the
During my first four years in the Army, I had total obedience
hammered into me. But 20 years later, I’d learned that the best way to
run an outfit was to drop the Prussian “Yes, sir/No, sir” nonsense. At
the end, I encouraged my soldiers to challenge my orders and sound off.
It worked. Many a time a youngster came up with a far smarter idea than
mine, which made the operation better and saved lives.
Maybe Warner and committee, besides trying to eliminate all the waste
and redundancy in the services, should find out if our all-volunteer
armed forces’ leaders are lap dogs or attack dogs with the chutzpa to
stand up and be counted.
If I were in Warner’s boots, that would be my priority.