Twenty-three year old Dakota Meyer is unusual in that he was awarded the Medal of Honor despite having disobeyed orders. Meyer, as most people know by now, is the first living MOH winner since the Vietnam war.
The disobedience came when his team was pinned down in an Afghan valley by a larger enemy force. Having been ordered to remain behind with a Humvee and one other man, he repeatedly requested permission by radio to go to his teammates assistance and was repeatedly told not to, but he did anyway. With requests for fire-support refused, he and Staff Sgt. Rodriguez-Chavez made the decision to take charge of the situation themselves and made repeated trips into the valley under heavy fire from RPG’s and machine guns to rescue the team. There were four dead, but they rescued the others and killed many of the enemy.
Obeying orders is basic in the armed forces, needless to say, and nowhere is this more firmly established, in my experience (even though my service was in the Navy), than in the United States Marine Corps. To fight effectively, any military unit must have full confidence that orders will be obeyed – when shells are exploding, there isn’t time for each to rethink the plan. This tradition is of course firmly embedded in law. Enlisted personnel like Sgt. Meyer take an oath that says (emphasis added),
“I, XXXXXXXXXX, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
Interestingly, the oath for officers (excluding the National Guard) does not contain reference to obedience to orders from superiors, but only to the support and defense of the Constitution.
So, what shall we make of this disobedience issue? First, please consider this excerpt from a handbook (called “Reef Points”) at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1955:
“Orders and commands are not the same. An order may either be a long-standing instruction, rule, or regulation, or a specific one for a certain purpose. But always, in an order, a certain amount of leeway is left to the individual or group charged with executing it. This is not the case with a command. Commands are specific as to time, place, and manner of accomplishment. Examples:
Order: Return to base.
Command: Right 10 degrees rudder.”
What Sgt. Meyer disobeyed was an order, and he took his leeway. That was a risk on his part and he knew it. He could legally have been court-martialed under the U.C.M.J. for his disobedience. Events proved him right and two officers who withheld fire support were disciplined.
Back in the Cold War, of which I was a part, it was well known in the officer corps of the United States that soldiers in the Soviet Union were held to an iron standard of discipline that brooked no question of orders from superiors, and because of this, NCO’s were not expected to show initiative. This stood in stark contrast to United States’ training which emphasizes just the opposite, that members of our armed forces were expected to think on their feet and act accordingly. Sgt. Meyer’s actions upheld this tradition in the finest fashion, in my opinion. From all accounts I read, he is our kind of soldier, and he fully deserves the Medal of Honor. I wish we could clone him.
(Author’s note: this article was submitted for publication on 9/16/2011 to the Joplin Globe.)
- Marine Corporal Dakota Meyer Honored With Medal Of Honor (wncx.radio.com)