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The Conscience of the Soldier

July 8, 2012 James Riley

Not Every Order Should be Obeyed
The Brittany Rebellion of 1771

Penetrated Only by ConscienceMost enlisted soldiers cringe at the very thought of disobeying a superior officer.   As Washington wrote, “the soul of the army is discipline,” and the very enterprise of war can’t move forward if every battle strategy required a vote.   Certainly, even rogue drill sergeants need to be obeyed, on most every routine occasion.

Having had a few friends, however, who graduated from West Point, and another who served as a combat Marine officer in Vietnam, I can tell you that the more educated the soldier, and the more familiar he is with western history, the more likely he is to debate which orders need to be obeyed, which need to be ignored, and which need to be openly and publicly defied.

This debate raged hotly in the years before the American Revolution, when friends of liberty knew, in reality, there was only so much you could do against 25,000 royal troops and their mercenary allies.   At some point, you have to appeal to the conscience of your enemy.    If 500 troops surround your home, point a cannon at your children, you just have to hope the officer in charge was raised by a Christian mother who instilled a sense of right and wrong.

This sentiment was reflected in this August 1, 1771 report of the Brittany rebellion, taking place far across the Atlantic and reported in the New Hampshire Gazette:

N E W  Y O R K,    August 1

We hear that the late advices from France are, that the parliament of the province of Brittany, being greatly dissatisfied at the measures of the French Court, particularly that the Duke of Aiguillon, who for many attrocious Crimes proved against him, had been legally condemned to lose his head, was not only screened from punishment but favoured by the King, and supposed to be the secret director of his councils; and that the King, persisted in refusing to permit the sentence to be executed; wherefore the parliament had published an order, that all their members, (especially the Rohan Family, and the Nobility, of which the prince Soubize, a great favourite of the King, was the chief) should immediately leave their employments at Court, and return home, under penalty of the forfeiture of their estates.  That in order to counteract these proceedings, the king had sent a new governor, properly instructed to Runnes, the Capital of the province — That the inhabitants refused to acknowledge or admit him; — that the king to enforce obedience, had sent an army of 20,000 men — that the army were refused admittance into the city, and opposed by the inhabitants — who in the heat of their resentment fired upon the army and killed about 200 men, notwithstanding which, the soldiers, convinced that the cause, they were sent to support was unjust, — declared their readiness to fight against the enemies of their country, but unanimously refused to fire upon their friends and countrymen, and immediately disbanded.

The soldiers “refused to fire upon their friends and countrymen” even after 200 of their own number had been killed.   This contradicts another post-modern cliche — that soldiers only fight for their brothers in arms and not for the cause.

It is quite possible, of course, that the sons of liberty embellished this tale of noble, soldierly resistance to bad orders, but that only speaks to their sense of the ideal — a good warrior has a conscience;  he ponders the cause;  he fights for truth, not just for medals, his friends, or the king’s lucre.

In the years preceding the war for independence, colonial newspapers would reprint these stories of “noble disobedience,” from wherever they came on the globe and in history.   One story told of a soldier, who being unjustly forced to shoot his own brother in a firing squad, turned the gun on his commanding officer and killed him.  Another told of Lord Effingham, who refused the king’s order to fight in the Americas, on the grounds that he would not unsheath his sword against his brothers.

Stories of this sort had several effects.  They cast the struggle in a moral light.  It was either right or wrong to enslave British subjects by taxing them without their consent.   They declared that a moral cause is embraced by those with character and ignored by those without it.   Perhaps most importantly, they did more than just lament an injustice;  they declared that throughout history great men and women do more than just grieve wickedness.  They fight it.

It remains a question to the present day, for the soldier and the civil magistrate:  is your paycheck, or your pension worth your soul?




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