The career field in which I served for twenty years was a small one, and one with some inherent peculiarities, one of which was possession at radio detachments of a library of pop music intended for broadcast on AFRTS channels. One of those things which was instilled in broadcast field recruits early on in our training was that no one of any higher rank (or degree of inebriation, often the case) was permitted to remove recordings from our library for personal amusement. Many were the tales of duty E-2s or E-3s refusing such orders from senior officers, who were operating under the (often alcohol-inspired) delusion that the AFRS library operated on the same basis as the local base library. This often happened late at night when the most junior staffers were on duty. That was an order that we had to and would refuse, no matter the rank, and degree of inebriation of the commander demanding it. In that, we could count on the complete backing of our broadcast command, especially when they were informed of it, sometime the following morning. No one, not even (according to some legends, the base or wing commander) was allowed access to the AFRTS library, much less to remove elements of it from the custody of the AFRTS outlet, even if that only custodian was a lowly first-hitch enlisted.
The end result, especially in my own case, was the awareness that one could and did have a clear duty and obligation to refuse certain direct orders from a senior ranking officer, and often that it was best to do so, with varying degrees of tact as the occasion called for it. That there was such a thing as an illegitimate order – and how to cope with such a scenario was one that I gave some thought to, over and above the AFRTS library situation. It’s a species of Gretchen-frage: that is – where do you stand, what will you do, if you know that what you are being ordered to do is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrongedy-wrong. If a senior officer or NCO gives you the order to do something wrong, contrary to your moral principles, contrary to military doctrine and practice … and you are on the spot … what do you do? It’s a test of character and a deucedly slippery one; a lot depends on the circumstances, the order itself, the intent and purpose of the authority issuing that order, the determination of the person giving that order, the fragility of the situation itself. In my day, the example of doing the right thing under trying and tragic circumstances was that of helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who with his crew was given credit for stopping the My Lai massacre cold.
What can you do, if given an order you believe to be illegitimate? Outside of a combat situation, like the one in which WO Thompson found himself, there is one option – a demand that the officer issuing such an order put it in writing. About the only other defense is a long-term, career project; that of being such a by-the-book, ethical straight-arrow that no superior would even dream of ordering you to do something suspect, skeevy, illegitimate and morally-suspect.
The last and final nuclear option upon being given an order which one believes to be illegitimate was to resign the officer commission on the spot, rather than obey it. Or even as one of my favorite military Vietnam era cartoonists had it: “I don’t suppose as a non-commissioned officer, I can resign my non-commission!?”
The debacle in Afghanistan is so complete, so total – that I honestly can’t believe that the abandonment of Bagram AFB, the withdrawal from Kabul – is due to incompetence. Sorry, the military that I knew and remember just did not swing that way. Orders to destroy or remove essential gear, orders to set up a system to evacuate American, Allied and Afghan employees – should have been given, should have been given weeks or months ago. Anyone of any degree of authority ought to have seen the hazards in the road to an orderly, efficient, and complete withdrawal – and so the logical mind has to fall back upon calculated malice. Which is it, people? Did the Biden administration calculate to give in to the Taliban for purposes of their own, and at the bidding of whoever has bought them? And why have not any of the military officers involved not resigned their commissions over receiving orders to kark up the withdrawal from Afghanistan? Have they all been bought and paid for with comfortable sinecures at various corporate and media establishments? Discuss as you wish and can bear it.