“Nothing can be more hurtful to the service than the neglect of discipline; for that discipline, more than numbers, gives one army the superiority over another.”1 Today, the need for discipline in The British Army is of paramount importance. Without discipline, it becomes just another armed body in the world; it maintains its capability as one of the world’s most influential and powerful forces. Unfortunately, the average recruit going into the Army often misunderstands the meaning of the words military discipline. He thinks of them as being connected with punishments or reprimands that may result from violating some military law or regulation. Actually, discipline should not be something new, for most everyone has been disciplined throughout their lives.
One such example is being disciplined at home and in school when taught obedience to parents and teachers and to respect the rights of others. On a football or other sports, team one has disciplined themselves when turning down the chance to be a star performer to win. Discipline may have been acquired in the workforce when loyalty to an employer and fellow employees was greater than one’s personal desires to secure their own advancement. All of this is merely the spirit of team play, that is, putting the team’s interests above one’s own for the greater good of the team. The word ‘company,’ ‘troop,’ or ‘unit’ is merely the name for a team, and military discipline is nothing more than this same spirit of team play. It is the most important aspect of the Army. In civilian life, lack of discipline in a young man may result in his getting into trouble which will cause his parents and teachers regret or sorrow.
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It may cause a sports team member to be ‘sent off’ or cause an employee to lose his job. In the Army, it is far more serious. Here a lack of discipline in a soldier may not only cost him his life and the life of his comrades but cause a military undertaking to fail and his team to be defeated. On the other hand, a team of a few well-disciplined soldiers is worth many times a much larger number of undisciplined individuals who are nothing more than an armed mob. History repeatedly shows that nobody of troops can hold their own against a well-disciplined and well-directed enemy without discipline. For example, while far smaller than the armies of many other European powers, by the turn of the century, the British Army, through its tight discipline, sound command, and shrewd tactics, was still a force to be reckoned with.
Despite being inferior in numbers, the British Army was far superior in expertise and tactics, facilitating the seemingly incomprehensible victories over large French forces in the Peninsula, such as Busaco in 1810, where a modest British force held off an attack from forty-five French battalions. Throughout centuries of warfare, the military hierarchy has always been to maintain the cohesion and fighting efficiency of the armed forces. Towards this end, it combined close surveillance of all military personnel with a complex system of rewards and punishments. But inevitably, problems arose. Disciplinary measures that may, on one occasion, secure compliance on another could arouse rebellion. Moreover, there remained the question of the impact of punishment on the morale of those not directly affected.
In the First World War, the high command retained the ultimate penalty. At least 254 men faced firing squads, presumably on the principle that it would encourage the others. Yet, the opposite seems sometimes to have been true. When news filtered through to the Western Front that the British military authorities had begun to execute those who participated in mutiny, troops’ fighting spirit immediately plummeted. It provided one of the reasons for halting the executions after many soldiers had paid the ultimate penalty. These cases have affected Military Law in the UK (The Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000) a great deal. They together go a long way to ensuring that Military proceedings have come more in line with the proceedings in civilian life, where there are much more stringent rules that protect people’s human rights but still ensure that anyone who has broken the law or rules are dealt with fairly and are given the appropriate sentences.
However, no-holds-barred discipline did not always succeed. The desertion rate rose due to many tougher sanctions and had a destabilizing effect in the army ranks and sometimes in the wider community. Moreover, this approach contained an inherent danger: an individual might re-offend since the punishment was so mild for those sentenced again. Undoubtedly, some servicemen just deserted, lived off their wits or from stealing, and on recapture had another short period in a glasshouse. A BBC television programme on the Second World War, screened in 1994, interviewed a man known as Spud Murphy who fell into this category: already with a criminal record, he repeatedly deserted the army as he did not fear imprisonment to which, during his criminal life, he had grown habituated. The overstretched police force and the failure of many householders to lock their homes, especially when scurrying off to the shelters during an air raid, meant he had easy pickings, an easy life.
The aim of the military officers remains to preserve discipline at the minimum cost, that is to say, with the least possible disruption. ‘Better to have infractions of discipline punished by fines or confining a man to barracks than to send him to the “glasshouse,” 2 (a military detention centre). This attitude represents a double defeat for the authorities: not only does it mean that such a soldier was no longer performing his military duties, but another had to be detailed to supervise his imprisonment. On top of this, the expenditure of resources, both men and materials, on building and maintenance of the glasshouses, all regarded by the top brass as an unproductive use of scarce military resources. A regular soldier in The British Army may wonder why the officers and non-commissioned officers insist on perfection in what appears to be minor details.
Why do rifles have to be carried at just the same angle; why do you have to keep accurately in line; why must your bed be made in a certain way; why must your uniform and equipment be in a prescribed order at all times; why must all officers be saluted with snap and precision? These things are a part of their disciplinary training. Their purpose is to teach obedience, loyalty, team play, personal pride, pride in the unit, respect for the rights of others and the will to win. Being disciplined does not necessarily mean that one is being punished. On the contrary, it is to teach to place the task of a unit, or team, above one’s personal welfare; that one is learning to obey promptly and cheerfully the orders of their officers and NCOs so that even when they are not present, orders will be carried out to the very best of their abilities.
Upon learning these rigmaroles and prompt and cheerful obedience has become second nature, a soldier is then deemed to have acquired military discipline, the kind of discipline which will save lives and win battles. As outlined in The Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000, the impact of disciplinary military sanctions may sometimes conflict with international humanitarian law. This depends on: ‘the extent to which the principles governing that law have been integrated into the disciplinary rules of the armed forces and the range of responsibility of the commanding officer giving an order that breaches international humanitarian law or does not ensure respect for it.’3 Whereas the armed forces rely on a strong principle of obedience, respect for international humanitarian law depends essentially on the superior officer ‘whose responsibility is subject to sanctions imposed by international criminal judges within a judicial system that aims to make sanctions an effective means of ensuring respect for international humanitarian law.’4
Disciplinary law applies sanctions to those members of a specific body within a society who have acted in a manner contrary to the collective interests of the body to which they belong. Like doctors and judges, whose professional activity has important consequences for society, military personnel are subject to disciplinary and criminal law. This is probably even more valid for military personnel, whose role is ultimately to use force or threaten to use force to protect the state’s interests. Rigorous supervision of the armed forces and strict internal discipline is required to ensure that military personnel obey orders when in danger and do not abuse their power. The main aim of disciplinary law is to give the hierarchical principle its effectiveness by making it possible to punish behaviour that impedes the smooth running of the service. ‘It is primarily a means of ensuring obedience to superiors and executing the task assigned by the political authorities.’5 Such sanctions are in place to reinforce a soldier’s principal duty; that of obedience.
Sanctions have a dual aim: education and dissuasion. The educative side encourages the soldier to discharge his responsibilities better and respect the rules inherent in being a member of the armed forces. This being so, the sanction is generally limited to what is necessary to ensure that the soldier understands that he has done something wrong and modifies his behaviour. The sanction is also a call to order for the soldier concerned. Although it concerns one particular soldier, it can serve as a warning to all personnel under the orders of the authority imposing it. To achieve this aim, the punishment must be just but sufficiently severe. The disciplinary procedure must also be implemented quickly. Furthermore, military disciplinary sanctions are likely to have a greater impact if the person’s rights being punished are respected when disciplinary sanctions are imposed.
It is understood that officers must exercise disciplinary authority to maintain discipline. Moreover, international criminal judges consider that a commander has a duty to exercise this authority; if he does not, he is accountable for any breaches that occur, and disciplinary sanctions lose their educational and dissuasive effect if those in command failed to take action in the event of violations. Thus, ultimately they are necessary for maintaining military discipline and for maintaining the officer’s authority. Plainly stated, lapses in behaviour or performance need a response, and that response must progress in firmness if the individual’s missteps continue. Moreover, some misconduct is so severe it necessitates a stern and lasting reaction from the military leader.
The old Latin proverb ‘culpae poenae par esto’ (let the punishment fit the crime) is as relevant today as ever. While technically violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice, most offences in the military are not worthy of severe discipline. Yet, it is precisely because the misdeeds are minor that leaders often have difficulty taking action, whereas murders and rapes are generally straightforward in determining a course of action. It is when someone is late for duty or not following regulations that those in authority may begin to hesitate. Thus, leaders need to establish and publish expected standards of conduct and behaviour for their subordinates. This gives baseline expectations, and then if standards are violated, action is justified and required.
Opinions about the acceptability and tolerance of the misconduct will be instantly formed. Other soldiers in the unit will either be watching or hear about what happens to a transgressor, and without disciplinary sanctions, others could follow the same line of insubordination. Noncompliant soldiers could bring an entire force into disrepute by not having sufficient self-discipline and behaving in a rebellious manner. Such behaviours could have terrible consequences. This does not mean leaders should meet every misdeed or misstep with the maximum disciplinary punishment. In many cases of a first offence, a word in private can serve to correct nonconforming behaviour. It lets the person know their behaviour is unacceptable, it gives a roadmap for correction and explains the consequences of recidivism. It can then progress if the correction is not heeded. But, above all, action must be taken.
A corollary of fairness is speed. As another old saying goes, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’ This is extremely applicable to military discipline. The leader must act when the facts of an incident are apparent or as clear as possible. There can be no hesitation. Determined, swift action is required. Of course, there is always the consideration of the character of the person whose behaviour is being corrected, not to mention the unit’s welfare. Still, the sooner it is dealt with, the sooner it allows everyone to put the event behind and get on with their responsibilities. It also lets everyone know that standards are enforced. Military discipline requires an eye toward the rehabilitation of the transgressor. The hope is to make the person a better soldier. If possible, an officer will always want to reintegrate the person back into the fold. If that does not work and the decline continues, the soldier needs to return to the civilian world. It is that simple.
Every chance should be given to soldiers to rectify most errors and help them achieve success; however, an overabundance of time and effort should not be spent with problem subordinates. It takes time away from valuable members of the unit and their mission. Disciplinary action taken by an officer should be based upon several factors: fairness, speed, and rehabilitation. Each is interconnected, and each is ineffectual if considered alone. Furthermore, soldiers are more accustomed to respect officers who fairly and consistently enforce standards and apply justified discipline. While discipline is never fun to do, its neglect can have disastrous effects on military readiness and effectiveness. Since its beginning, discipline has been part of The British Army fabric, and it truly sets them apart.
- Ann Lyon, ‘After Findlay: a Consideration of Some Aspects of the Mitary Justice System’ (1998) Crim. L.R., Feb, 109-122 cited 09/06/2011
- Geertz, C. (1973)’ ‘Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, Inc., New York. from http://www.wsu.edu:8001/vcwsu/commons/topics/culture/culture-definitions/geertz-text.html cited 09/06/2011
- George Washington per Commentary by Lt. Col. Mark Milam 379 Air Expeditionary Wing legal office from http://www.379aew.afcent.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123254732 cited 09/06/2011
- Hogan, D. (2004), ‘Centuries of Service’, from http://www.army.mil/cmh/reference/CSAList/list1.htm cited 09/06/2011
- Humphries, S. & Pamela Gordon, (1994), ‘Forbidden Britain,’ O.U.P, London pp.41-50.
- Keegan, J. (1987), ‘The Mask of Command,’ Jonathan Cape Ltd., London.
- Lodi, S. (1998), ‘Reflections on Army Culture,’ from http://defencejournal.com/jan99/reflection.htm cited 09/06/2011
- McGovern, J. (1960), ‘Neither Fear Nor Favour,’ O.U.P., London. pp.71-2.
- http://www2.army.mod.uk/apa/mission_statement/raison/index.htm cited 09/06/2011
- George Washington per Commentary by Lt. Col. Mark Milam 379 Air Expeditionary Wing legal office.