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.