There’s a good reason why the chain of command is a hierarchical structure of accountability that goes both ways.  From the top strategic decisions are made that are converted into the tactical decisions to achieve those strategic aims. Orders go down and compliance with those orders from lower commands flows back up the chain. For this reason, a great deal of initial military training is devoted to ensuring that orders that come down from above are carried out faithfully and completely by those below. This simple concept of following orders is the stuff that wins battles and wars and marks a disciplined military organization. However, military history is also speckled with men and women who disobeyed orders, be it due to their personal beliefs, outright cowardice, or maybe they wanted to do so for their own selfish reasons. While some did not have much impact, other than getting themselved court-martialed for disobeying orders, there were several instances where disobeying orders changed the course of history.

Fleet Commander Refusing To Launch the Missile

For thirteen days starting in October 1962, the world waited as President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khruschev talked long and difficult meetings about what could result in a nuclear war known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. This came after an American U-2 spy plane photographed a nuclear missile being installed by Russia on the island of Cuba, just 90 miles from the US mainland. Following escalations, a naval blockade of the island and back channel negotiations successful negotiations between the USSR and the US,  war almost broke out anyway because of a Soviet submarine captain.

Vasili Arkhipov
Vasili Arkhipov. (Olga ArkhipovaCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Soviet submarine B-59 was sent to Caribbean sea along with three others, all equipped with a nuclear torpedo almost as devastating as the one dropped on Hiroshima. They had been given orders that allowed them to fire on American forces if attacked without needing further approval from Moscow. The submarine managed to slip the blockade and approach the island.  It was detected by the carrier USS Randolph which had 11 destroyers in company with her.  Attempting to force the submarine to surface for positive identification, the Randolph task force began dropping training depth charges near the sub and attempted to reach her by radio.  These depth charges had weak explosive charges that could not damage the sub and were meant to convey the message that the US Navy was there and wanted the unidentified submarine inside the blockade line to show itself.  Crazy as it sounds, this was common practice at the time.

To Commander Valentin Savitski of B-59, it looked like the war had begun, his ship was being attacked and he immediately ordered preparations to fire the nuclear torpedo.

Normally the use of a nuclear weapon would require the agreement of the captain and the ship’s Political Officer, but in the case of the B-59 another officer was aboard,  Commander Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. Arkhipov was the B-59’s executive officer but he was also the Chief of Staff for the entire submarine flotilla as well.  In that position, he actually outranked the captain of the vessel, so rather than the decision to fire the torpedo resting on just the captain and political officer, the chain of command also extended to Arkhipov himself giving his assent, and he refused to authorize the launch.

Captain Savitski had been twisting and turning to avoid the low powered depth charges,(which were missing on purpose) and had run his batteries dangerously low.  If he surfaced and the war had truly started, they would be instantly destroyed, if he fired the nuclear torpedo in self-defense, he would be starting a war that might incinerate both the US and the USSR together.

An argument ensued about what the proper course of action should be and finally, Arkhipov was able to persuade Savitski to surface and await further orders from Moscow. Good thing they did, because when those orders came, they were orders to standdown.


It Was Just the Sun

Twenty years after officer Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov disobeyed standing orders that might have started a world war, Russian Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov again saved the world from being burnt to a cinder.

It was September 26, 1983, and Petrov was stationed at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow, a part Soviet Air Defense Forces. That day, their missile attack early warning system displayed in large red letters: LAUNCH. Their computer system displayed with “high reliability” that a United States’ intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) had been launched and was headed toward Russia. This would surely pulverize the Soviet Union, and Petrov had to act fast, especially when the number of reported missiles increased, from one to two, to a total of five ICBMs. It appeared to be limited first strike by the United States had begun.  There were probably more missiles coming that their radars had not yet detected.  The limited number launched in the initial salvo may have been a US tactic used to confuse and confound Russia’s own air defense system into not launching a retaliatory strike thinking just five missiles was a computer glitch of some kind.

Stanislav Petrov
Stanislav Petrov in the kitchen of his apartment. (Queery-54CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Petrov’s standing orders were to report the incoming strike immediately to allow Russia to prepare her own missile for launch. Every secnd wasted could mean American missiles could hit before Russia could retaliate. Petrov decided to disobey these orders and wait as he was convinced the attack was a phantom, a sensor error of some kind.

He was right. As it turned out the infrared detection systems picked up the sun’s reflection off the clouds and read them as the heat blooms from incoming missiles. Had Petrov’s team chosen to blindly follow orders he might have triggered World War III and cost the lives of millions, even billions of people. At that time, the Soviets had 35,804 nuclear warheads while the United Stated had 23,305.

The Kremlin found itself in an awkward position.  A Lt Col had disobeyed orders, but in doing so probably saved the world from a nuclear conflagration.  Had he reported the launch to Moscow, the leadership charged with launching a retaliation would have only had minutes to decide on very limited information, and probably would have launched their missiles.  Clearly, Soviet air defense systems had some serious technical problems and rewarding Petrov would be akin to admitting that problem.  Petrov was not punished, but he was reprimanded for not filling out his paperwork properly in reporting the launch warning.  He was reassigned to a lower position.

Defying Orders to Withdraw

It was April 22, 1951, when the Chinese Army launched the Spring Offensive against the US troops amidst the Korean War by sending some 300,000 of their soldiers to attack NATO positions. After two days, the American forces were overwhelmed by the Chinese Army, and the 8th Ranger Company found itself on a hill nearly surrounded by a sea of Chinese troops. E.C. River, the company’s commander, radioed for help, but the units in his vicinity had been given orders to withdraw to regroup and consolidate their lines against the crushing onslaught.

Lt. Dave Teich. (Kris Connor / for NBC News)

To River and his 65 men, this meant death or capture by the Chinese Communists. Lt David Teich of Third Platoon, Charlie Company, Sixth Medium Tank Battalion, 24th Infantry Division could hear their calls for assistance on the radio in his M-46 Patton tank. The tanks of his battalion were painted in yellow, white, and black stripes like tigers.  1952 was the Year of the Tiger on the Chinese calendar and the PysOps people at division thought the paint job would intimidate the Chinese(as if being a tank wasn’t intimidating enough?).

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Teich went to his company commander asking to take his four tanks up to rescue the trapped Rangers on the nearly 700-foot high hill. Incredibly, he was told the unit had orders to pull back, saying, “Screw them. Let them fight their own battles.”

Teich decided he couldn’t live with himself by leaving those men behind. When the tanks of Charlie company pulled out as ordered, Lt Teich disobeyed and stayed in place. He then charged his tanks towards the hill to link up with the 65 Rangers who saw the arriving tanks as a miracle. Under fire, the Rangers made it down the hill to Teich’s four tanks and loaded everyone on them.  Teich then turned them about and beat it back to friendly lines.