Authority maintains discipline, enforces rules and regulations, can come from one person or a group of people and can have different meanings depending on the context in which it is used in. Officers in the British Army have the right to enforce obedience on others and their opinions are accepted not only because of this but because they are expected to have a better knowledge on the subject in question. Authority can, of course, be passed down through the ranks and when an officer in authority passes power onto another, usually a non-commissioned officer (NCO), then soldiers are expected to follow the commands given and to respect the chain of command.
Compliance usually involves a request for a person to behave in a certain way, an act of compliance, although this doesn’t have to be stated. In many occasions these actions are those which are in accordance with laws or rules and regulations. ‘The capacity or ability to make a person perform a task that goes against their interests’1 A good example of such levels of conformity being abandoned could be the incidents that took place in Abu Ghraib. Beginning in 2004, human rights violations in the form of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, including torture, rape, sodomy, and homicide of prisoners held in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (also known as Baghdad Correctional Facility) came to public attention. These acts were committed by military police personnel together with additional governmental agencies.
Many people would never consider that soldiers would carry out such atrocities but some research shows that in fact anyone is capable of such acts if they are in a scenario that would encourage this. Professor Susan Fiske contends that many forms of behaviour, including acts of great evil, are influenced as much by authority figures, peer pressure and other social interactions as by the psychology of the individual. She goes on to explain how factors ranging from the stress of war, to the expectations of superiors can combine to cause ordinary people to commit seemingly inexplicable acts.
People in general are willing to agree to requests from people who are in authority i.e. from a higher rank. Obedience occurs when people obey commands or orders from their superiors to carry out a task. Military leaders give commands that they expect to be followed without question. This is vital as soldiers need to be trained to follow orders absolutely so that if they are ever in a dangerous situation they can do their job effectively without having to stop and evaluate, thus taking up critical time.
Nevertheless there can also be tragic consequences of obedience if it used in the wrong way. People obey and carry out actions that they may think are wrong because People in authority who issue the orders take away the responsibility from those who obey. For example, the person who obeyed would probably say ‘I was only carrying out orders’ or because the people in authority often possess visible badges or signs of their superiority. These consist of special uniforms and titles. Having such obvious reminders of who is in charge, most people find it difficult not to obey.
Of course blind obedience has its down sides, such as the events that occurred in Nazi Germany. If more people had questioned and challenged their policies many lives could have been saved. Of course, there was an elemental fear of the government in Nazi Germany at the time, which is a powerful method of instilling obedience but demanding conformity.
During the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 Adolf Eichmann was a high ranking official in the Nazi Germany and worked for the Waffen SS (Hitler’s political army). He was responsible for the transport and extermination of Jews in the holocaust. Consequential to the fact he played an active role in many of the atrocities committed, he became widely known as the ‘chief executioner’ of the Third Reich. Eichmann did not have any in-built racial hate. He learned to hate and did what his job demanded of him and to the best of his ability. He was later tried in the Nuremberg trials for war crimes. Such extreme incidents of obedience raise serious questions about the use of blind obedience within a military organisation.
It is vitally important for military personnel to recognise authority, however sometimes this authority can be abused or not implemented appropriately which can lead to serious and even dangerous consequences. Soldiers in the British Army are expected to be able to differentiate between the power to give out an order and whether or not such an order has a morally justifiable purpose. The events in Abu Ghraib and Nazi Germany go a long way towards proving that when corrupt human beings get hold of power and mix it with authority disasters can happen.
Soldiers in the British Army need to recognise authority in order to work as effectively and efficiently as possible. Traditionally this is controlled through the rank structure or by following military codes of discipline (Queens Regulations) and the armed forces codes of conduct, many of which are derived from the Armed Forces Discipline Act 2004 and The Army Act 2006. A chain of command is the succession of commanding officers, from a superior to a subordinate, through which authority and obedience is exercised. It is a hierarchical structure that links points of command from the strategic to the tactical levels. Each and every soldier, (bar the British Army’s Field Marshall, General Sir David Richards) is accountable to a superior.
All soldiers are subject to the criminal law of England wherever they are serving, and they have a duty to uphold it. In that respect they are no different from other citizens and all civil offences have been fully embraced within military law. When deployed on operations soldiers are subject to international law, including the laws of armed conflict and the prescribed rules of engagement, and in some cases local civil law. Taken together, such laws establish the baseline for the standards of personal conduct expected of a soldier.
The UK Government primarily uses two legislative frameworks: The Armed Forces Discipline Act 2004, The Army Act 2006. In 1914 the Defence of the Realm Act was passed which allowed the government to suppress published criticism, imprison without trial and commandeer economic resources for the war effort. However, in Peacetime the Army’s role of administration of justice is limited to the prosecution of military personnel in criminal and military cases.
Systems of accountability tell the government and the public when things are going wrong in a public service establishment in order that someone can address it’s shortfalls. One consequence of a lack of authority such as the ill treatment of prisoners of war or a breach of International Human Rights could be the way that the media end up portraying it to the public, thus resulting in the service losing the public’s trust, which can affect recruitment, communication links, fund raising and cooperation with other armed forces. While discipline is never fun to do, its neglect can have disastrous effects on military readiness and effectiveness.
Humphries, S. & Pamela Gordon, (1994), ‘Forbidden Britain’, O.U.P, London. Keegan, J. (1987), ‘The Mask of Command’, Jonathan Cape Ltd., London.