Reflections

Respecting Leaders: Is there glory in obedience?

We’re in 2019. Knowledge and information are at our fingertips in ways never before experienced in humanity’s history. But, with this firehose of input, I think as a society we’ve learned to develop a type of guarded cynicism.

There are certainly wolves out there, and we’re wary of them.

I think because of the access to information, it’s also easier to believe that our own opinions are valid and informed. Even if we have not yet researched an issue, there is little stopping us by means of access to data, articles, opinions, etc with which to arm ourselves.

Maybe that’s why the term “obedience” sends chills up the spine. The thought of a grown adult being obedient to anything but the dictates of a well-reasoned conscience (well, that and in most cases a state’s criminal code) is terrifying. Maybe the term obedience has been wrapped up too much in discourse about religious radicalism or cult worship.

And yet, Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem Charge of the Light Brigade still inspires me.

I’m a practical human. I once applied for a job as a teenager and failed the application’s personality quiz. They said my compliance with authority score was shockingly low. Maybe I read too much of Macchiavelli’s The Prince when I was young. I don’t know. But, I believe it is folly to follow orders that lead to negative outcomes.

And yet, I can’t get past this poem. You can read it at the bottom of this post.

The poem is based on actual events. A brigade of 600 light cavalries was ordered to advance on a group of thousands and thousands of Russian soldiers. The order was wrong. It was sheer folly, but the brigade charged. A large percentage of them didn’t make it back.

Tennyson immortalized their charge in poetry, glorifying the soldiers, his thesis clear: their willingness to obey rendered them glorified in purity and goodness.

Is it possible to both believe that charging the Russians was wrong and admire those who obeyed the order anyway?

For what did those soldiers sacrifice their lives? Each other? The standard of military-grade obedience?

I’m not sure how to fit these sentiments into the 2019 world, but I can’t help but feel that the poem still resonates with relevance.

Please, I’d love to hear your thoughts about how to reconcile the value of obedience and the need to stand against policies from superiors that are flawed and erroneous.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Lord Alfred Tennyson

I

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!’ he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

II

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

III

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

IV

Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

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