In the business of war, dictating action without explanation often is the only way to fight, survive, and win. When bullets are flying and ships are sinking, the situation does not permit debate or explanation. You get an order and you execute. “Take the hill.” “Fire on that target.” “Shut up and row.”
When time is available and lives are not immediately at risk, however, good leaders endeavor to explain the rationale behind a decision. Consultation and collaboration are equally valuable, as leaders consider perspectives outside their own experience to reach a more fully informed decision.1 There is ample evidence to suggest that this will engender greater buy-in and generate improved results.2
Too many leaders, however, miss the fact that demanding blind obedience creates blind spots.3 Being professionally raised in a culture where obedience trumps all, senior leaders are surprised when investigations into lost wars, crashed ships, and fatal aviation mishaps reveal systemic problems of which leaders at multiple echelons were aware.4 I learned this myself while leading Marines in Afghanistan.
Rowing In the Dark
“Not another word, captain. I need you to do one thing for me on this: Shut up and row.”
The colonel’s arms were crossed, his face resolute. It was settled.
I opened my mouth anyway. This was my last chance to change the commanding officer’s (CO’s) mind.
“Sir, when we sit behind our walls, attacks on our COP [combat outpost] increase. When we get out there and patrol, the insurgents leave us alone. This shows support to the local police chief, and he gets his guys on the road, too. We can make the district safer, and have less disruption to our advising mission, if we keep up presence patrols.”
The CO smirked, shaking his head. “This is NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan [NTM-A]. Your primary mission is to train and advise. I don’t need you all going out there half-cocked and getting yourselves shot at. That’s not your job. No more patrolling.”
The decision was made. Everything I had been taught said this was the point to back off and support the commander. But when he flew back to Bagram, my Marines would still be here on the Afghanistan–Pakistan border, living with the risk he was assuming. I spoke up once more.
“Sir, it’s simple. When we expand, they contract. When we contract, they expand. If we sit on our hands behind our walls, it’s actually more dangerous, and the harassing attacks disrupt the Afghan training schedule. We’ll get more done and be at less risk if we keep patrolling.”
The colonel sighed, rubbing his temples. “Yes, it really is simple. If you keep patrolling, I’ll fly you to Bagram and replace you with one of my staff officers. I’ve got three captains who are dying for command downrange. They’d trade places with you in a heartbeat. No more backtalk. Stay on the COP and train these Afghans. Shut up and row.”
So I did. Time went by, and the insurgents noticed we were not leaving our walls. Their movements went unhindered as they smuggled more weapons into the district and increased their harassing attacks on us.
Thankfully, the attacks did little physical harm, but that was incidental to the purposes they achieved. The Afghans we were there to support lost faith in the coalition. The district sub-governor and local police chief began to cooperate with the Taliban, and fewer and fewer recruits for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) showed up to train at our COP.
My gunnery sergeant, frustrated after another nightly barrage of rocket propelled grenades, muttered, “This is how we lose wars—by sitting on our ass.” Equally irate at the situation, I aired my own grievance. “We’re not sitting down, Gunny—we’re rowing. This is what rowing looks like.”
Learning to Row
“Shut up and row” describes the obligation of subordinates to support their commander after a decision has been made. A commander’s staff is composed of subject matter experts with knowledge and experience the commander will never have the time to develop, and the commander relies on their input to help inform decision-making. But once the commander slaps the table, subordinate leaders fall in line and support the decision. “I appreciate your input, but this is my call.” Often unsaid, but always heard, is, “Shut up and row.”
Whether used amid the fog and friction of war, or employed to get a staff in line, leaders leverage their subordinates’ instincts to obey commands. This instinct is developed through nature and nurture.5 Humans are primed to obey authority figures, while the response of “immediate, willing obedience to orders” is reinforced in every recruit and officer candidate from the first day of entry-level training.
Over time, subordinate leaders learn to appreciate the value of individual leaders’ judgment, obeying even when they disagree. The boss often does know better. The boss has insight the subordinate has not had the chance to gain. The boss has been doing this a lot longer, right?
So, ignore that voice inside your head telling you you are about to run off a cliff. Shut up and row.
Grabbing Your Oars
The NTM-A commanding general (CG), Army Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger, escorted by my CO, visited our COP on battlefield circulation. My Marines and I escorted the CG and CO from the helicopter pad to our tactical operations center, where we briefed them on the status of the site’s training mission and the district’s deteriorating security situation. This culminated with a walk up the sentry tower with a commanding view of the valley, the Tora Bora mountain range, and the Afghan village nestled between us and the border.
From here, I pointed out key buildings and terrain features to the CG and the CO, noting the location of the local police station, about two kilometers away.
The general nodded. “What does he think about the security situation here?”
“I’m sorry, sir. What does who think?”
“The local police chief.”
I glanced from the general to the colonel. The colonel quickly looked away. I turned back to the general.
“Sir, we haven’t been able to see the police chief in months. I was under the impression NTM-A teams were restricted from conducting patrols because that is the responsibility of the battlespace owner. I’m told my job is to train and advise only.”
The general shook his head. “Out here, you are the coalition. I need your Marines out there, skipper. We can train the Afghans all we want, but if we aren’t putting skin in the game, they won’t follow.”
I nodded. “Consider it done, sir. We’ll start patrols back up immediately.”
After the general boarded his helicopter and was on his way back to Kabul, the colonel cornered me. “I don’t want to hear a word about any patrols outside the wire. I don’t need any unnecessary casualties.”
“Sir, the general’s exact words were—”
He threw up his hands and cut me off. “Not another word. I know what the general meant. Train and advise, nothing else.”
I was not about to lose my Marines or lose my command. I did the thing I knew to do best—I grabbed my oars and rowed.
Just Keep Rowing
Years later, Lieutenant General Bolger went on to write Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). Like all great leaders, he insisted the buck stopped with him, writing, “I am a United States Army general, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism.”6 His central thesis is that the generals who knew the United States should have gotten out of Iraq and Afghanistan immediately following regime change failed to argue for this position. Rather than encouraging civilian policy makers to execute an exit strategy, successive generals took their turns with their hands on the oars and just kept rowing.
Looking back on my time as a site commander, and reflecting on my experience of being caught between the competing visions of the CG and the CO, I believe the general places too much of the blame at his own feet. How many other teams or units were given guidance that contradicted their CG? Could stability have been achieved and strategic momentum built district by district, province by province, if other leaders had nested their own guidance in that of the CG’s? How much did personal agendas and contradictory orders get in the way of a unifying vision? And how many small-unit leaders, myself included, blindly obeyed their immediate commanders and failed to make the CG aware that their intent was being undermined?
Absent a clear-sighted, unifying vision being executed across an organization as a team of teams, success in war becomes impossible. Whether a commander is directing a tactical engagement or a protracted war, it is the special trust and confidence in subordinate leaders to carry out the commander’s intent that allows one belligerent to outmaneuver another.
But this confidence is premised on the trust that subordinate leaders will follow their commander’s vision, reinforced by the immediate and willing obedience to lawful orders in both letter and spirit. Unfortunately, this instinct can be exploited by subordinate commanders who have agendas that run contrary to that of their own leaders, or who are pressured by an organizational culture that demands mission accomplishment at any cost. The cultural attitude to find a way to say yes, a way to get the job done no matter what, and the refusal to fail reinforces a culture of overlooking, ignoring, and even covering up shortfalls.7
“I could submit that downed piece of gear on a casualty report, but my division’s readiness will look bad. . . . I’ll let that slide for now.”
“My watch standers don’t have the qualifications to fight the ship . . . but my department won’t be the reason we can’t get under way. I can pencil-whip those qualifications now, we’ll just train the sailors later.”
“My department heads are telling me the sailors and the ship are running on fumes, but a safety stand-down means this mission will go to someone else. . . . We’ll find a way to make it work, we always do!”
“The commanders of my ships are reporting dangerous readiness shortfalls, but if my fleet doesn’t deliver, I might not get that next star. . . . They’re just being cautious, I’m sure the skippers will figure it out.”
The dilemma experienced by Lieutenant General Bolger is no different than that of fleet commanders who see their ships crash when under way, or of aviation commanders who see undertrained pilots crash inadequately maintained aircraft.8
Blind obedience and the resulting blind spots leave the nation paying the costs with the lives of sailors and Marines.9 It leads to endless wars we cannot fight to a close, with damaged U.S. prestige and influence and the lost confidence of our allies and partners. Yet, we just keep rowing.
Speak Up and Hold
Strengthening the naval services’ culture can overcome blind obedience while preserving the indomitable will to accomplish the mission and win wars. It must start by breaking the assumption that charging forward come hell or high water will yield the outcomes we want. This might be beneficial to individuals in the short term, but it is caustic to the organization in the long term. The rot in the foundation eventually will be discovered, but by then the cost of repair will have increased exponentially.
Leaders also must be encouraged and incentivized to be candid about reporting shortfalls. If one leader is reporting more challenges than his peer, this does not mean the second leader is producing better results. It may mean that the second leader is worse at inspecting his section or is hiding poor performance. Senior leaders must create a culture of openness and transparency and rate their subordinates accordingly.
Finally, this culture of transparency must be cultivated from the top down, and across the careers of naval officers. In training and education at every rank, in the way evaluations are conducted, and in selection for promotion and command, the services must reinforce and reward leaders who demonstrate the character, moral courage, and professional competence to identify and act on deadly shortfalls. A CO who is willing to report that his ship cannot get under way or that his battalion is not deployable should be commended, not relieved. This message must be reinforced, from the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps down to the newest division officers and platoon commanders.
By fostering a culture of long-term thinking, incentivizing openness and transparency, and reinforcing this united vision across the force from top to bottom, the naval services can overcome the blind obedience that creates fatal blind spots. The security of the nation depends on naval services that develop leaders with the judgment to know when to shut up and row and when to speak up and hold the line.
More on Obedience:
More from Major Brian Kerg:
1. Deborah Dalton and Philip Harter, “Better Decisions through Consultation and Collaboration,” Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center (November 2019).
2. Kristi Hedges, “How to Get Real Buy-In for Your Idea,” Forbes, 16 March 2015.
3. Michael Hess, “Think for Yourself: The Danger of Blind Obedience,” CBS News, 6 March 2013.
4. Robert Faturechi, Megan Rose, and T. Christian Miller, “Years of Warnings, then Death and Disaster: How the Navy Failed its Sailors,” ProPublica, 17 February 2019.
5. Thomas Blass, “A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Studies of Obedience Using the Milgram Paradigm,” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6, no. 2 (February 2012):196–205.
6. NPR Staff, “A 3-Star General Explains ‘Why We Lost’ in Iraq, Afghanistan,” National Public Radio, 9 November 2014.
7. David Barno and Nora Bensahel, “Lying to Ourselves: The Demise of Military Integrity,” War on the Rocks, 10 March 2015.
8. Tara Copp, “Marine Corps Aviation Mishaps on the Rise, Up 80 Percent,” Military Times, 8 April 2018.
9. Hess, “Think for Yourself.