Voices of war and following orders


The Charge of the Light Brigade. Following orders may lead to triumph or failure, but it remains an inviolable principle of discipline

I was waiting at the arrivals area of Heathrow Terminal 3 this afternoon when I got talking to a man who had served many years in the Royal Navy. He’d been on the nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror back in 1982 during the Falklands War. It was he and his crew that sunk the Argentinian battleship, the General Belgrano, at a cost of some 323 lives.

When I asked him how he felt about that afterwards, he replied that in the forces ‘you don’t question, you just carry out orders.’ What he meant was that the responsibility for what was the deadliest act of that war, and one of the most controversial military actions for many years, was firmly on the shoulders of his superiors.

While he had not been troubled by such a loss of life in the course of war, he said, some of his friends had – for years after the event. They had suffered tremendously from guilt and experienced poor mental health as a result.

Later on, I heard another voice telling of another war. Quite a remarkable voice it was too. It was part of a radio programme in which Andrew Motion, the UK poet laureate, described how he had used his tenure to create a poetry archive, with recordings of British poets of past and present reading their own poems. The poet’s voice which I found so remarkable was that of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

In a crackly recording, perhaps one of the first ever made, Lord Tennyson was reading his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade which described a courageous yet tragic British cavalry charge during the Crimean War in 1854. Like everyone else, Tennyson heard the news three weeks after the event and wrote his enduring poem within a few minutes. What struck me was the fact that his voice had been recorded at all, that he spoke in a broad regional (Lincolnshire) accent, and that here was a voice from another world in another time: before the tragedy of the Boer War, and the two World Wars which would claim millions of lives.

Both voices set me thinking about the nature of discipline. Those who serve their country as fighters are expected to follow orders; there can be no independent thinking on the battlefield. The entire force must move and think as one. That state of responsiveness can only be achieved by a strct adherence to discipline. The order comes down from one’s superior and the order is carried out. It is not a polite request, not a serving suggestion or a departmental recommendation – it’s an order. When the day is won, then that militaristic discipline – not to reason why, just to do and die – is praised as being the secret of success. Yet when the battle has been lost the very same uncritical thinking is often held up as a reason for the failure. Therefore the quality of leadership is all important.

The leader of Hare Krishna movement, His Divine Grace A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, stated that his movement should be run with ‘militaristic discipline’ and for the most part his followers gave him that. The traditional ashram of the guru is run in that way: the guru orders and the disciple carries out the guru’s orders as his life and soul.

Such levels of personal trust in, and dedication to, the order of the guru must, however, be accompanied by an equivalent level of clear-thinking, courageous yet compassionate leadership. Only then will both leader and follower prosper. The rapid success of the Hare Krishna movement under the direct guidance of its founder 1966-1977 is often compared to the mixed fortunes which occurred in 1986-1997 when leadership was not uniformly courageous or compassionate.

Yet a spiritual movement can only really survive and grow if the dynamic of discipline to the order of one’s superior is preserved. Notwithstanding the troubles that the principle may sometimes cause, and the embarrassment and recrimination when faulty decisions are analysed post-mortem, the principle of following orders is as important in a spiritual organisation as it is in the military. Anything less and the spiritual movement becomes somewhat flabby and ineffective.

Srila Prabhupada remarked on the qualities needed for leadership within ISKCON: “The courage of a British army officer and the heart of a Bengali mother.” Rather than being irreconcilable opposites, each of these qualities balance the other, so that a spiritual leader can not only order, but remains always concerned for the ultimate welfare of those in his charge.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Voices of war and following orders

  1. The Nuremberg trials after WWII established that “just following orders” is not an iron-clad defense. There is an element of personal responsibility that can never be abdicated.

    I would argue that the Guru and disciple must both remain clear-headed, courageous, and compassionate.

    • Very good point, thank you, ThomasLB, although most of those trials were concerned not with military operations on the battlefield but mass movements of civilian population by militarised personnel.

  2. How was 1986-1997 different from the rest of the post-1977 ISKCON?

    • Nothing statistical, I’m afraid, just my personal impressions. There were leadership disturbances in ISKCON after 1981 but a visible trend had developed by 1986 when several prominent leaders resigned. These resignations prompted an urgent examination of the theological assumptions that ISKCON had made after Srila Prabhupada’s physical departure. It was thus the beginning of a new chapter.

      1997? Well, I’m not too sure about significant events of that year but I do have a strong impression that we had come into a new phase by that time. Of course, there are many who will say that since the Society has had recurring spiritual leadership problems from 1977 until the present day it has never recovered the glory of its early years under Srila Prabhupada’s direct guidance. I guess I’m an optimist and I think that some important lessons have been learned – practical organisational as well as theological.

  3. Dave

    We must note that during a recent interview with the Welsh army who have upgraded their baracks that the general was asked about training
    He noted that the intelegent person would not only question the orders but also his authority, simply that we train by showing them the reason why so that in battle orders can simply be carried out.
    As also states the militery also are aware that I was following orders is no defence that they have to also adhere to the moral code set by society and the Genever Convention.
    An order is an order when it has meaning and disciplin
    Instruction and training takes time and the answering of questions
    The person being questioned notes that although militery disciplin remains societys rules have changed the way they engage the enemy and also changed the way people are trained
    As Srila prabhupada states so much blood has to be shed so many questions, my mouth hurts so many questions, these weaterners do not take to Krishna Concousness easy. He answered all their questions and when an order was given becouse there was no doubt in there minds they carried it out

  4. sita

    Pranams Guruji,
    I read your post just after talking to my children about the need for ‘Implicit Obedience’..These past few weeks I have been confronting this issue front diverse aspects as an individual, as a mother and as a citizen.I had been reading about other faiths and how they demand this of their followers..I think as with the ‘Surgeon’s Knife’,this too is an instrument that demands judiciousness [if there is such a word] in its application.Both the giver of the command [whether parent,teacher or superior] and the receiver[child,student or sub-ordinate] must be mindful if the task follows the Dharma .Is not this what the Bhagavat Gita is all about?
    I think most of the turmoil that we see around us these days is because people give orders without reference to Righteousness and people ,who take the orders also don’t use Righteousness as a frame of reference to carry them out.
    Hari Om. Sita

  5. Bill Wyland

    Have we taken God out of the “BOX” , where problems are solved ? Are His standards of civility , righteousness , virtue, ethics, and moralty being ignored ? Is He ,who is sovereign, being replaced by the “STATE “,who is ignoring a Constitution written by God fearing men?

    Can the state : lie , cheat ,murder, demonize out of existence the ethics etc ? What occurs when, in a democracy, the people are taken captive by the state Lies and refuse to act to support TRUTHS of a loving, patient, caring, merciful, grace giving God?

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