Professional Disobedience: Loyalty and the Military

“The King gave you a commission because he thought you knew when to disobey an order.”[1]

“On rare occasions in our history, the leader on the ground, at the crux of a fleeting moment on the battlefield, has decided to disobey his instructions for what he judges as the greater good of the unit and the larger task at hand.”[2]

The Virtue of Obedience

In his article “Combat, Orders and Judgment,” Keith Nightingale observes that on D-Day in 1944, “Disobedience that day began to be a shared virtue.”[3] In one example, two junior U.S. naval officers kept their tanks on board their ships after noting the 100% failure of tank launches around them, instead continuing toward shore with their loads while looking for opportunities where the tanks were needed and could be more reliably launched. In this case, there was no communication with superiors on the matter, they just acted. In another case, U.S. Army Rangers disobeyed their given orders and engaged the Germans in a manner that resulted in opportunity for allied forces on the beach to proceed to their objectives. In both of these cases, Nightingale notes that it was decisive disobedience that created success at Normandy.[4]

How is this possible? Even the most casual observer of the military would note that obedience is a central military virtue, indispensable to the good order and discipline that characterizes the military enterprise. Samuel Huntington notes that ”loyalty and obedience are the highest military virtues.”[5] He goes on to cite naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan in the claim that obedience is the military virtue on which all the others depend, arguing a military member is judged by the promptness and efficiency in how they carry out an order, invoking the famous line from Shakespeare’s Henry V:  “For if the king’s cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.”[6]

Huntington reflects what we might think of as the common sense view of obedience, first that it is a virtue, and the virtue from which all others flow. To be a professional member of the military means to be obedient; to be disobedient is, therefore, unprofessional. However, the Nuremberg trials and events of My Lai demonstrate the concept of obedience is not that simple. Military members are expected to disobey manifestly illegal or immoral orders, so obedience cannot be an unconditional virtue. This raises several important questions:  Are illegality and immorality the only circumstances in which disobedience is a demonstration of professionalism? Where is the line between orders that require obedience and those that do not? Under what circumstances is disobedience professional?

Intersectionality of Virtues

While all of these questions are important, I focus only on the last question here, with particular attention to the intersection between the virtues of obedience and loyalty. Let’s start with Huntington’s view, where obedience is the primary virtue and loyalty a secondary one; therefore, if one is obedient, then one is also demonstrating loyalty as well. Does it work the other way around? If one is disobedient, does it also follow that one is being disloyal? Not necessarily. I argue that in some instances, loyalty requires disobedience.[7]

...loyalty is not just a simple habit of attachment, but involves ethical obligations and duties relative to the object of that loyalty...

To start, I define loyalty as “privileging the moral claims of some people, groups or ideas over others on the grounds of relationship, membership or other particularity.”[8] In addition, loyalty is not just a simple habit of attachment, but involves ethical obligations and duties relative to the object of that loyalty. If I am loyal to my sports team, that means I have ethical obligations and duties relative to them, that I put the moral claims of that group over the claims of another team. Due to these obligations, the idea of trust seems important to loyalty; this aspect is reflected in discussions of moral injury involving a sense of betrayal and breaking of trust as a violation of the virtue and the expectation of loyalty.[9]

However loyalty is still not that simple, as we can have conflicting loyalties. In the military, there are obligations of loyalty to peers, to commanders and leaders, to the Constitution, to the institution of the military or the community of practice, to the core values or other normative structures of military professionalism, to friends and family, and to fellow citizens. At My Lai in Vietnam, U.S. Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson had an obligation of loyalty to fellow American soldiers, but also had an obligation to be loyal to the norms of the greater military community, including the protection of non-combatants. Firing on Lt. William Calley’s troops was a violation of the first loyalty in favor of fulfilling the second.[10] Given these complexities, and the desire to avoid blind obedience, we need sort out the relationship between loyalty and obedience.

Front page of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 20 November 1969. (

Can one be obedient without being loyal? This is clearly possible; there is a certain kind of obedience that comes from fear or self-interest. Students obey the commands that the professor gives in class because if they fail to they will receive a bad grade in the course. This is obedience in a transactional sense involving fear, self-interest, or a judgment of costs and benefits. Outside of the class, it is not clear that there is a relationship which would command preferential treatment or prioritizing the moral concerns of the professor above others. This is obedience, but not necessarily loyalty.

Does it work the other way? Can one be loyal without being obedient? This case is less intuitive. At first, it would seem, for instance, if I am loyal to my mother then I would obey her. But on closer examination, I could argue I am disobeying her because she is giving a bad order (to harm my sibling , for the sake of argument), asking me to do something that sacrifices some shared moral commitment. The order may be bad because it is not possible to carry it out and violates the moral commitments of our relationship; or, even more likely, it violates the broader moral commitments of our family and community. Here disobedience will involve making choices among competing loyalties and also using personal judgment and discretion regarding which commitments take priority. This is a case where a person must be disobedient to be loyal.

If this is correct, there is an important distinction between loyalty and obedience. Loyalty is relational and multi-directional, and has to do with the moral world and obligations of the object of loyalty. In addition, the consequences for disloyalty do not seem to be punishment in a conventional way, but lack of trust between people. This lack of trust has other consequences, but they are more indirect. Obedience, on the other hand, is oriented towards either action or a disposition to engage in certain actions; it involves a hierarchy with legal and moral obligations with specific and direct sanctions related to the efficiency and the smooth running of a community of practice. If a soldier disobeys a lawful, valid order there will be direct consequences aimed at maintaining discipline and other norms within the military community of practice.

Professional Judgment and Discretion

Given the importance of both obedience and loyalty in the military, we need to ask which takes priority in a given situation and why. Obedience is an important part of the discipline, respect, and unit cohesion that allows the military to function, particularly under situations of duress where people need to respond almost without thinking. Military commanders need to rely on this kind of obedience. Without this the mission can be endangered and lives needlessly lost. On the other hand, the examples from D-Day also show that the mission can be endangered and lives needlessly lost if the only consideration is obedience and the individuals involved do not exercise judgment. In fact, in the case of the D-Day invasion, judicious judgment and disobedience arguably contributed to the success of the invasion and minimized the loss of life.[11] 

The notion of ‘disciplined disobedience’ is helpful in understanding this concept. In his discussion of the future of the U.S. Army and the wars they will fight, Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley argues that disciplined disobedience will be required sometimes to "achieve the larger purpose of the mission.”[12] But there is a caveat. “[D]isobedience, when done, must be done with trust and integrity, and you must be morally and ethically correct.”[13] Milley’s remarks underline the idea that in order to be loyal or demonstrate other virtues critical to military professionalism (like trust and integrity), you may have to be disobedient.     

However, he is also addressing a critical point about how this ought to be done. It cannot be a matter of personal disagreement or preference, but rather must be done in reference to the larger purpose of the mission and the virtues of military professionalism and the community of practice. While a military person may surrender some of their personal judgment and discretion to the chain-of-command upon joining the military community of practice, he or she also must retain some degree of professional judgment and discretion. Individuals must, as circumstances and the larger mission warrant, be able to exercise this professional judgment and discretion, even if it may mean disciplined disobedience. Milley stresses that this is not to be done casually, and that one has to be right in the judgment.

“[D]isobedience, when done, must be done with trust and integrity, and you must be morally and ethically correct.” (General Mark Milley/Breaking Defense)

The aim is to have soldiers who are not just obedient, but also loyal and demonstrating the other virtues of military professionalism. This will require the exercise of judgment about moral claims and commitments; what ‘moral’ means here is not person’s individual morality but rather ethical norms in the context of military professionalism. Any appeal must be to that standard. This will require more attention to and education in the exercise of professional judgment and discretion within the ethical frame of military professionalism so that, like other skills and habits of mind essential to the profession this is practiced and well developed.  

Historian Elizabeth D. Samet notes that the development of a democratic republic as a result of the American Revolution meant that new forms of obedience and loyalty had to be developed; the military member is a citizen as well as a soldier. One does not shed one’s citizenship or loyalties as a citizen when enlisting or being commissioned: “Used to governing rather than being governed, the enlightened citizen of a republic would no longer surrender to abject obedience.”[14] This idea of dual roles, the two person Janus-like identity of the military member is a critical starting point in this discussion, as it begins with the basic fact of multiple loyalties, multiple moral commitments, and ethical responsibilities.

Pauline Shanks Kaurin is a Featured Contributor on The Bridge. She holds a PhD in Philosophy from Temple University, Philadelphia and is a specialist in military ethics, just war theory, philosophy of law and applied ethics.  She is Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA and teaches courses in military ethics, warfare, business ethics, social and political philosophy and history of philosophy.

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Header Image: Houses burned down by American soldiers during the My Lai massacre. (New York Post/Getty Images)


[1] Attributed to a major in Frederick the Great’s German Army. Cited in Keith Nightingale, “Combat, Orders and Judgment,” Small Wars Journal, May 7, 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Samuel P. Huntington, Soldier and State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1957), p. 73.

[6] Ibid.

[7] A earlier version of some of these arguments can be found at

[8] Pauline Kaurin, The Warrior, Military Ethics and Contemporary Warfare: Achilles Goes Asymmetric (Routledge, 2014) p. 28.

[9] See Nancy Sherman’s work on moral injury, especially The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds and Souls of Our Soldiers (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010).

[10] See Micahel Bilton and Kevin Sim, Four Hours at My Lai (New York: Penguin, 1993).

[11] Keith Nightingale, “Combat, Orders and Judgment.” Small Wars Journal, May 7, 2017.

[12] As quoted in Lt. General David Barno and Dr. Nora Benashel, “Three Things the Army Chief of Staff Wants You to Know,” War on the Rocks, May 23, 2017.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Elizabeth D. Samet, Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776-1898 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), p. 6.