There are just 4 Types of Orders
The 4 Types of Military Orders are – good, bad, ugly, and WTAF?
This article originally ran waaaay back in May of 2014
Among people who have never served, the military often seems to be a place where mindless drones follow any and all orders without question. But we veterans know how untrue that is, and how difficult it can be to make troops do what they’re told. But more importantly, those of us who’ve had long careers in the military have learned which orders can be dodged, and how to do it.
Yes, nonveterans, you heard that right. Soldiers don’t always follow orders. Because sometimes they shouldn’t.
No, military guys, I’m not advocating insubordination or suggesting service members should ignore their chains of command. But I’m all for dealing with realities. For example, let’s say you’re deployed to Afghanistan, chronically short of sleep, responsible for twenty soldiers’ lives and under constant threat of death. In that situation, it might be understandable for you to respond to a constant deluge of emailed orders like “Brigade needs to know everyone’s boot sizes by tomorrow or we’re all going to die!” by clicking “delete, delete, delete”.
In my 25 years of military service, I’ve received many orders that made perfect sense. I’ve received others that didn’t. And without consciously realizing it, I’ve been classifying those orders, breaking them into types. After I came home from my second deployment, it suddenly hit me: every order can be placed into one of four categories, and treated accordingly.
For the benefit of almost everyone in the military, I’m going to explain those four categories. Please keep the information at the utmost, MK Ultra-Secret level; this might not be the kind of thing E-9s and O-6s should hear. Or maybe it’s exactly what they should hear. I’m really not sure. Anyway, here goes.
TYPE 1: THE ORDER YOU IMMEDIATELY FOLLOW BECAUSE IT ACTUALLY MAKES SENSE.
As you might have guessed, this is a rare breed of order and is most common in combat. If you’re on patrol and someone shoots at you, you don’t argue when your fire team leader yells, “Shoot back!” In garrison you don’t argue against additional first aid training, call-for-fire training, even extra PT or vehicle maintenance (even though it sucks and you don’t want to do it). You’re a soldier and those are things you should do. E-4 Mafia members might whine and make smartass comments when you make them ruck up at 5 am, but they still do it because it makes sense. Any reasonable, logical order, even if it sucks, is a Type 1.
When we join the military, we think all orders are going to be Type 1s. But alas, there is also,
TYPE 2: THE ORDER THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE, BUT IF YOU DON’T DO IT, YOU’LL IMMEDIATELY GET IN TROUBLE.
We’re all intimately familiar with this type of order. My first experience with one was even before I joined the military, when I was a 14-year-old at ROTC summer camp on an Army base. A few of us were detailed to unload hundreds of pounds of frozen meat from a delivery truck at the chow hall. Two Army privates supervised us. It was typical south Texas summer, 100 degrees and humid. The packages of meat were heavy and we cadets were all 98-pound weaklings (I was actually more like 80). After we unloaded half the truck, one of the privates got a sudden look of despair and stopped us.
“Wait…uh…the food inspector is supposed to be here watching us unload the meat.”
“Okay,” I said. “So we’ll stop and wait for him.”
“No,” he mumbled. “He’s supposed to watch us unload all of it. So we have to load the meat back in the truck, then unload it again when he gets here.”
Meat was stacked all over the loading dock. Our skinny little arms were sore, ill-fitting uniforms drenched in sweat from the manual labor. So we had unloaded the meat, just to put it back in, just to bring it back out? This is freaking stupid, I thought. But what choice did I have? If I refused to do it, I’d get a C-minus or demerit or something.
The other ROTC cadets and I looked at each other. Then we shrugged, made a chain and started loading the meat back into the truck. As I handed over the heavy packages, I thought, “This crap must only happen to ROTC cadets. I can hardly wait until I’m in the real military, where there’s no stupid stuff like this.”
Of course, once I was in the real military, I learned the painful truth. Stupid, nonsensical orders are everywhere. I remember a sergeant rushing into my room, early in my first enlistment, to order me and my roommate to put our mattress covers on for room inspection, then rushing back in a few minutes later to order us to tear them off, then coming back, throwing the covers at us and blurting “Put them on, quick! Get creative!” before sprinting to the next room. One morning a Sergeant Major at my old unit yelled at us to roll our sleeves down, then as soon as he left the room a different Sergeant Major walked in and yelled at us to roll them up. In Iraq, I was sternly ordered to mount a weapon on my Humvee that neither I nor my crew knew how to operate, and then told I couldn’t fire it to make sure it worked.
All of those were stupid orders, but if I hadn’t followed them, on-the-spot punishment would have followed. Type 2 orders are killers; they make you hate both the military and your decision to join it. A stupid, nonsensical order you’re forced to follow is by far the worst kind, much worse than order Type 3.
TYPE 3: THE ORDER YOU CAN PRETEND TO FOLLOW UNTIL THE PERSON WHO GAVE IT GETS DISTRACTED BY SOMETHING ELSE, AND FORGETS ABOUT IT.
In our modern “good idea fairy” military, I think most orders fall into this category. And that’s a good thing because these easy to duck without getting in trouble or starting a fight. If you work on a staff, probably 70% of your orders are Type 3s, and at least 20% Type 2s. Most staff-related Type 3s can be dodged by throwing out phrases like “We’re nearing full implementation of the synergistic integration phasedown timeline,” then leaving the room while your boss marvels at your amazing skills.
But if you’re not on a staff, you have to approach Type 3s differently. Hypothetical situation: you’re in Iraq, on a convoy escort team. You’ve never really trained for this mission, and neither have your men. Your team is a hodgepodge mix of soldiers from different units who don’t know each other well. Your command doesn’t know any more about running convoys or countering IEDs than you do. You and your fellow NCOs are justifiably worried about making a mistake and getting soldiers killed. Midway through your deployment, after soldiers in your unit have been ambushed, you’ve barely missed being blown up and a few guys on other teams have been wounded, your First Sergeant calls you into the TOC. When you get there, he has an important order to issue.
“Every team must appoint a historian. And turn in a paper listing their team motto and team goals.”
What’s the right thing to do? Without question, a historian, motto, and goals are crucial. What team has survived intact without a list of goals? I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard platoon leaders say, “It’s a miracle we survived that ambush. Thank God we had a motto.” So of course, the proper thing to do is say “Roger”, appoint a historian and write up goals and a motto, right?
The soldier in this hypothetical situation listened to this order in amazement. Then he nodded emphatically, answered, “Roger that, I’m on it,” walked away and forgot about it. The soldier knew the First Sergeant would eventually lose interest. And anyway, if anyone ever asked the soldier who the team historian was, he could make it up on the spot. If asked for the team goals and motto, the soldier could say, “Crap, I thought I turned that in. I’ll have it there next week,” and ignore it again. Or he could throw out any motto with “Hooah” in it, and drop a list of generic goals. “Our motto is ‘Team Apache, Hooah!’ Goal one, don’t get killed. Two, don’t get wounded. Three, don’t get herpes…”
With a minimum of effort, the soldier could gaff the order off while still appearing to follow it. And let’s face it, that made everybody happy. The First Sergeant was happy his order was being “followed” (wink wink nudge nudge), the soldier who received the order was happy he could blow it off, and his Joes were happy they didn’t have to deal with it.
When you receive a type 3 order, relax. Don’t fight it, don’t throw down the gauntlet and scream “That’s stupid and I won’t do it!” Hey man, live and let live. When you’re ordered to, for instance, generate an “email tracker spreadsheet” to list every single email your team receives, the time and date it arrived, what it was about, how you responded, and the date and time you responded, just say, “Hey sir, that’s a great idea. I’m all over it.” Then walk away with a smile on your face, and go about your day devoid of any worry about email tracking. On the off chance you’re asked about it later, just say you’re working on it, or you’ve been having technical problems, or a higher priority task got in the way. Eventually the person who gave the order will see something shiny, or get caught up in his favorite episode of Glee, and forget all about it.
We have called the banners.
Type 3 orders are great, but they’re not the best. That honor falls to the elusive,
TYPE 4: THE ORDER THAT’S SO STUPID, YOU CAN IMMEDIATELY IGNORE IT AND NOBODY CARES.
These orders are highly prized.
I met a few in Afghanistan, but my favorite one came from a, uh, “story I heard” during my Iraq deployment. On a nighttime convoy, a Humvee commander ordered his gunner to fire on a suspected car bomb, seconds before it would have rammed them. The gunner hit the car, and it stopped. A few seconds later it started following again, fell back, and eventually disappeared from view. Then something exploded near where the soldiers last saw it. They didn’t know if the explosion was from the possible car bomb or not.
They reported the incident minutes afterward. When they got back to the FOB the vehicle commander briefed an officer on it. He made it clear he didn’t know if his gunner shot the driver, although he thought the gunner had.
The officer said, “If our guys kill someone, we have to wake up the Colonel and tell him. So if this happens again, and you think you killed the driver, you have to go to the car to see if he’s really dead.”
The Humvee commander answered, “No.”
The officer was taken aback. There was a moment of awkward silence. The officer gave the vehicle commander a serious look and said, “You have to. We need to know if we have to wake up the Colonel.”
“Nope,” the Humvee commander said. “If we shoot a car bomb and think we killed the driver, I’d be a total moron to walk up to the car. If the driver’s alive, he’ll blow me up. We have EOD with robots and cameras, I’ll call them to do it.”
The officer tried one more time. “Well, the order is, you have to check.”
“Roger sir. And my answer is, I won’t do it.”
The officer thought about it, then dropped the subject. He wasn’t stupid and wasn’t a bad officer. He followed his first instinct, “Pass on the order from above”, but then realized how stupid it was and let it go. And the Humvee commander didn’t get in the slightest bit of trouble for refusing it.
These are the 4 kinds of military orders we must live with.
There you have it. From now on, every time you receive an order, evaluate it. Find out which type of order it is, and handle it accordingly. If you’re a leader, please, for the love of God, try to only issue Type 1 orders. Type 2s will make your troops hate you, Type 3 will make them dismiss you, and Type 4 will make you a laughing stock.
Trust me on this. My insight has been paid for with painful experience. I like to think I’ve only issued type 1 orders, but the truth is, at times I’ve given 2s, 3s and maybe even 4s.
Before I went to Iraq, I really thought I was supposed to pass along and take responsibility for orders from above even if I disagreed with them. As a Sergeant Major told us, “It doesn’t matter what you think of the order from higher. When you give it to your soldiers, you tell them the order is coming from YOU.” So I tried to follow that wisdom.
Then one day in Iraq a senior NCO gave me an order. He told me to have my crew report to the motor pool to unload CONEX boxes in the pouring rain. I pointed out that we could wait until the rain stopped. He didn’t care; my crew had to be out there, and he promised he’d be right there with us. So I gave the order as if it was my own, and made my soldiers slosh through mud and freezing rain to the CONEX boxes at the appointed time.
Nobody had keys to the CONEXs. And the Senior NCO who gave me the order didn’t bother to show up (I found him in his room later, nice and dry in bed). So I was standing in the rain with pissed-off Joes, looking like a total moron. At that moment, as far as my Joes knew, I had given a type 2 order. They’re probably still mad at me about it. And I don’t blame them.
Never again, guys. Let’s pledge to only issue Type 1s from now on. Because that’s what our soldiers deserve.
Please sound off in the comments with examples of these 4 types of order as you’ve encountered them during your service.
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