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.