The Problem with Discipline

Discipline breeds monsters. That is the general rule. And like all generalizations, there are plenty of exceptions to it. But as a rule, discipline turns people into machines. And machines are not human, by definition.

Case in pointThe Dirty Dozen (1967)

You see the guy who is looking at the camera. That guy is the alterego of one of our acquaintances, a Romanian psychologist, whose mannerisms and look and feel mimic some of those of the character above. Funny thing, eh!

The Dirty Dozen is perhaps one of the best indictments of war that ever came out of the 60s. It is the tragic story of a band of criminal misfits, soldiers who don’t recognize authority, and who are condemned to hang or to long years of hard labour for their reluctance to bow to the Man.

Sure thing, among them were clean cut psychopaths and maybe one or two sociopaths as well, but the one trait shared by all twelve WW2 military prisoners was their hatred for authority. I won’t divulge the storyline because there might be some who would like to discover it on their own but suffice to say that a major comes along, whose mission is to offer these misfits a chance at redemption.

The thing is that they need to become soldiers again, if they want to have a chance to survive their drop behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France. His mission is difficult because the men are individualists and they don’t play well together. So the major needs to shape them into an effective military unit. He needs to break them. He needs to discipline them.

My point is that discipline is the one determining factor that separates moral people from machines. When people say that someone is undisciplined they make it sound like it’s a moral failure or something bad or wrong. But is it now?

I mean look at all the great armies that ever were, the Roman legions, the Swiss Reislaufers, Frederick the Great’s Prussian Army, Napoleon’s Old Guard Grenadiers, the Imperial German Army, and especially the Wehrmacht, they all were disciplined fighting forces. To the point that other military forces around the world, like the Soviet, Chinese, Chilean, Argentinian, or Paraguayan, have found it expedient to maintain parts of the Wehrmacht military ethos and training well into the 20th and even 21st centuries.

Think the Goose Step. Think the way they all march in unison, mindlessly obeying an order.

The more I think of it, if the Earth ever comes under attack by aliens, we’d do well to put the Germans in charge of the military training and overall warfare, if we ever want to emerge victorious from the contest. Because if we put the French, well let’s just say that with their best years well into the past, our collective Goose would be quite cooked.

Pictured: cooked goose. Speaking of which, oh boy, I need to get my migratory birds permit and hit the marshes…

Discipline is a two-edged sword. It can be useful for those peoples who want to keep their independence and neutrality, like the Swiss, the Swedes, the Austrians, or any other nation who wants nothing else than to be left to their own devices. Discipline and sacrifice can achieve wonders in the right hands.

Yet discipline can also destroy a nation’s soul. Look what it did to the Germans, Russians, Americans, or Japanese. It has removed that thin veneer of humanity, making them into monsters.

Consider my personal case. All my life I have detested mornings. I could never bring myself to wake up before 7, or God forbid, 6 a.m. At least not joyfully like some other people I know. So unless I had some urgent business to attend to at those unholy matinal hours, I was never one to meet the new day and kiss the sun on its face. No way, Jose!

My dear wife, whom I love, and who is a morning person, has always considered this as a personal failure of mine. She actually told me a few times how much I could have benefited from mandatory military service. By the way, my generation was the first to transition from mandatory military training to a voluntary system of recruits.

I always resented her words and characterization, which implied that my not waking up in the morning was akin to a moral failure stemming from my not serving in the military. And I told her as much. I explained to her many times that serving in the military is a waste of time outside the armed forces of the Swiss Confederation, whose only raison d’être is the defence of Switzerland’d territorial integrity and neutrality. Serving in the military of any state whose military doctrine calls for anything outside defending its neutrality would be an idiotic thing to do.

But in spite of my best efforts, she remains convinced to this day, that my moral character would have been better served by a stint in the Romanian armed forces in my early 20s. Funny thing is that I could have had the ‘honour’ to serve, and not just as a mere recruit, but as an Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO). You see, back in the early 2000s, when service was still mandatory, the Army had this rule that if you got into college, once you got out, you could serve as an NCO and not a mere soldier. Luckily for me, even back then I had begun to harbour a robust suspicion that the Army was the last place I wanted to be.

Back in those days, when the Army was mandatory, it was still a post-Soviet military force. And that translated into basket cases being called to serve every year. And each year, a tragedy or two would occur. You see, when you take people from all social strata and you put them in a barrack full of strangers, where the sergeant is a career bastard whose only aim is to make and break the men, you end up with the recipe of a disaster.

Recipe of a disaster – the Romanian version of the Dedovshchina

The Russian coined this system – dedovshchina, i.e., “rule of the grandfathers.” The Romanians used to have it too. The system is quite simple. You take a hundred fresh recruits aged 18-24 years of age. You put them in an overcrowded military barracks. You abuse them. You sometimes beat the living snot out of them. You spit in their food, and do unspeakable things to them. And then, you give them automatic weapons. And when they turn their weapons against their ‘superiors’, their tormentors, or against themselves, you stand in wonder. Yeah, I know. The Army is not a place for geniuses, but come on!

So, yeah, you can say I had my reasons for not wanting to be a part of this stupidly insane system. Even though I was guaranteed a nice cushy place as an NCO, I wanted to have nothing with it. So, when the military shrink attempted to profile me, my answers convinced the Romanian Armed Forces Draft Commission that they were better off without me. So, I got my exemption. As did my buddies, all of them. We all said, let some other schmuck chance it in the barracks.

Not two weeks after being summoned by the Draft Commission, a young peasant recruit stole an AK-47 and 240 rounds of ammunition and killed two sergeants before being chased by 500 soldiers for three days in the Carpathians. Turned out that he had been abused and beaten by the sergeants, and that he was mentally deficient. So that was the Romanian Army for you. Things have changed of course but every time my wife tells me I should have served and learned to wake up in the morning like a man, I think about that poor guy who was forced to serve, in spite of his condition, brutalized, and disciplined.

Discipline is the Enemy

Because in the end, it all comes down to discipline. Discipline is not always a good thing. Discipline is what made the German Army commit atrocities in WW2. Discipline is what made most armies, most of the time, to follow suit. You see, as a soldier you are not allowed to refuse to execute an order. Whenever such a refusal occurs, it is deemed insubordination, and depending on the country, state of war or peace, and circumstances, may lead to severe punishment, including the death penalty.

The German Imperial Army executed 48 soldiers for insubordination in WW1. In WW2, the Wehrmacht executed 15,000 soldiers for the same crime. That shows at least two things. One: not all Germans are order-taking mindless automatons. Two: those who say that all Germans are guilty of war crimes never looked at the historical record. Grosso modo, the infamous Wehrmacht comprised of at least 15,000 people who refused to obey orders willy nilly. So, remember this next time you feel the urge to say something bad about Germans.

August Landmesser (1910 – 1944) was a worker at the Blohm+Voss shipyard in HamburgGermany. He is known as the possible identity of a man appearing in a 1936 photograph, conspicuously refusing to perform the Nazi salute with the other workers. Landmesser had run afoul of the Nazi Party over his unlawful relationship with Irma Eckler, a Jewish woman. Later, he was imprisoned and eventually, he was drafted into penal military service, sent to Croatia, where he was killed in action.

I don’t know about you but on one hand, soldiers are taught to execute orders without thinking. But when they do, if they so happen to be on the losing side, they are considered war criminals. This is exactly what happened to the German Army during WW2. This is also why the Bundeswehr or Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Germany, has changed the rules, and quite radically.

American military code states that an order can only be disobeyed if it is unlawful. However, the German military manual states that a military order is not binding if it is not “of any use for service,” or cannot reasonably be executed. In fact, if the order denies human dignity to the armed forces member or the order’s target, it must not be obeyed. It also means that a soldier can ignore a superior officer’s order—even if it’s in the midst of combat or is given by a high-ranking official.

As a result, many German soldiers refuse combat assignments or disobey orders—with no consequence. In 2007, the German federal government even went so far as to state that German law means unconditional authority or loyalty to superiors can’t exist. Soldiers must not obey unconditionally, the government wrote, but carry out “an obedience which is thinking.” However, the policy statement added, soldiers can’t disobey an order merely because their personal views conflict with those of their superior.

The Germans are learning from their mistakes. The best evidence for this new smart military ethos, let’s call it conscientious military service, is that all new German soldiers are sworn in in the Benderblock, a Berlin building where participants of a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler were executed in 1944. The idea is to remind them of their duty towards their inner conscience or Innere Führung. The new Germany is basing its military defence on its traditions of military resistance to tyranny, by wilfully choosing to ignore the demons of military obedience.

The Holocaust explains Germany’s reticence to make its soldiers obey orders no matter what.

So, next time you think that we need more discipline in our lives, think of the tragic example of the German people.

This is what happens to disciplined people.

Always question everything. Never do what they tell you to do. Always think for yourself. Be a moral person. Imagine the consequences of your actions. Be mindful of others but always be true to self. And never follow others. Set your own path and walk it, slowly, carefully, if you must, but walk it proudly for it’s yours and yours alone. You are the only one responsible for your outcome in life.

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