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Cameron on Conflict of Commands – A Guest Post Series

Charles Cameron, my regular guest blogger, is the former Senior Analyst with The Arlington Institute and Principal Researcher with the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. He specializes in forensic theology, with a deep interest in millennial, eschatological and apocalyptic religious sects of all stripes.  Here Charles begins a three part series entitled “CONFLICT OF COMMANDS”.

Conflict of Commands I: Intro

by Charles Cameron

What happens when people in the military find themselves torn between the requirements of two chains of command?

I came to this question because two of the topics I have recently addressed here — that of Major Hasan and the Fort Hood shootings, and that of Major Luckert and his monograph on the risk of millennial beliefs driving US foreign policy — have this much in common: that in both cases the issue of obedience to military orders when they are perceived to be in conflict with divine commands came up.

Having stumbled on this correspondence between two otherwise fairly remote incidents, I began to notice similar elements cropping up elsewhere.

Aha, a pattern worth pursuing! I thought.

I have phrased my inquiry in terms of “two chains of command” without specifying that one of them is military and one divine, though that will be the general rule, because there are also instances where the potentially supervening command comes from international law or individual conscience .

I have decided to approach this issue in a three-post series.  This post introduces the issue, the second post consists of a series of quotes that illustrate it, the third post zeroes in on the issue as it affects Muslims in the US armed forces, and contains a link to a significant MEMRI post on the subject, and the full text of a US Department of State document, both of them dating from shortly after 9-11 — and as far as I can tell, not referenced previously in our post-Fort Hood thinking.

My overall purpose in this sequence of three posts is to show that the dilemma of a double chain-of-command is a prominent feature of a variety of different contemporary situations, some of them religious in nature, some revolving around other moral or legal concerns. 


The second post in the series deserves some commentary, but I wanted to restrict it to the body of the quotes themselves rather than attempting to comment on individual quotes.

I have culled them from a wide variety of sources — friend and foe alike, moderate and extremist, local and far-flung.  I have included sources from Iran, Israel, El Salvador, Pakistan, Burma, and within the United States from an Aryan Nations “archbishop” (in an appendix, see below) to the sitting President — and in some cases I have included quotes from opposite ends of a given political spectrum.  On the whole, I have tried to avoid any explicit patterning and just skip around from one nation, part of the globe or religion to another, although in the case of three different “takes ” on Maj. Stuckert’s monograph, I  have kept the three together for easier comprehension. I do not claim to have been exhaustive, and make no claims of sympathy or disapproval for the individual views expressed.

Indeed, my hope is that as we move through the different examples, many if not most of my readers will find themselves in sympathy with first one side then the other in terms of the need to obey military orders in general, and the need to disobey them in certain situations. 

I imagine, for instance, that the majority of my readers will in general disapprove of inserting a divine obligation between a soldier and his or her plain duty of obedience to orders from a superior officer — but that in the case of the current Iranian government ordering members of its military to attack crowds of protesters, our sympathies are liable to be on the other side of the equation.  In this way, the diversity of the instances may facilitate a deeper understanding of the nuances of the question.

I would also like to state quite categorically that I am not in the business of making “moral equivalences” here. The fact that I juxtapose a variety of quotations in which the issue of divided lines of command comes up in no way means that I equate the principled opposition to state brutality of one quotation with the wilder reaches of conspiracist rhetoric in another.

The final quote in the body of the second post is of particular interest, since it alludes to the theory of Preference Falsification — the only theoretical model for making predictive analysis of this type of conflict that I have seen.

Please note that as an appendix, I have attached two quotes that only indirectly address the issue of conflict of commands — a white nationalist quote, immediately followed by a principled quote about militia movement members “disgust at the genocidal fantasies in white supremacist discourse” — because I believe it is important to be aware just how far the rhetoric of hatred can go, and just how firmly it can be rebutted. 


The double trouble of Sgt. Hasan Akbar and his influence on Major Nidal Hasan is worth exploring in a little more depth, because Sgt Akbar, who tossed grenades into a tent in Kuwait killing two officers, seems to have been something of a research project for Major Hasan, who apparently asked about Sgt Akbar in an intercepted email to Sheikh al-Awlaki in Yemen:

One e-mail in particular is getting attention from investigators now.

In that e-mail – which the Washington FBI office didn’t see – Hasan mentioned the case of Sgt. Hasan Akbar. He is the Muslim soldier who threw grenades at fellow troops in Kuwait at the beginning of the Iraq war. The attack killed two soldiers and wounded 14 others.

In the e-mail to the imam, Hasan asked whether Akbar would have been considered a shaheed – or hero – for his actions. Given what happened later at Fort Hood, investigators say this e-mail now appears suggestive. But at the time it was not conclusive. Investigators in San Diego weren’t alarmed by the query because it appeared to be consistent with research Hasan was doing at Walter Reed. The Akbar case was thought to be at the center of his research.

For an Army psychiatrist counseling soldiers returning from, or about to enter, combat in Iraq and Afghanistan — and perhaps with a heavier than average caseload of Muslims, with whom he would share a common language — researching jurisprudential aspects of the Sgt Akbar case would be natural.

As Juan Zarate, Bush’s deputy National Security Advisor quoted in the article cited above pointed out:

It is very difficult in the moment I think for analysts and agents and his cohorts and coworkers to piece this together and see they had a ticking time bomb on their hands.

In fact, as we’ll see in the third post in this series, Major Hasan needn’t have troubled the Sheikh in Yemen for an opinion.  The State Department had posted a note on this very topic in October 2001.

But he did contact the Sheikh, and the Sheikh presumably eulogized Akbar’s action, as he was later to eulogize that of Maj. Hasan.

And as I suggested recently in a comment on David Ronfeldt’s fine blog, we can see with the 20/20 hindsight that Juan Zarate also mentioned, that whatever was true regarding the double chain of command that Sgt Akbar was under, which Maj. Hasan was on the face of it legitimately studying, might also hold true for Maj. Hasan himself — for whom the issue was both a research topic and a personal dilemma.

So the FBI gives a pass to the research topic — and the personal dilemma gives rise to the tragic shootings at Ft. Hood.


One final point:

The problem of conflict of commands has its origin in religion, so it makes sense to take quick note of the theological basics.

The shema or daily faith statement of the Jewish people states “the Lord our God, the Lord is one”, while the first Commandment in the Jewish scripture, the Torah, declares “You shall have no other gods before Me”.  The central tenet of Islam, similarly, is tawhid, the unicity of God as expressed in the first part of the profession of faith or shahada, “There is no God but God” — while to treat any person or other part of creation with the respect due to that God is shirk, the unforgivable sin.

From a secular perspective, these may seem high-flown philosophical and devotional matters, but for the believer they may also have “real-world” consequences, in a way that is prefigured in Christ’s observation, recorded in Matthew 6.24, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other…”

But here we are entering the terrain of Part II of this essay: the collection of quotes.

8 Responses to “Cameron on Conflict of Commands – A Guest Post Series”

  1. Bryan Alexander Says:

    Fine topic, Charles.I wonder if we could use this concept as a lens through which to peer at the rise of secular societies.  Assuming theocracies have the two-masters situation under control, what does it take for a culture to, well, switch masters?

  2. Fred Leland Says:

    Internal human friction and its effect on command is a great topic to explore. It has a profound affect on decision making during and in the aftermath of conflcit and violence. thanks for taking this topic on. it is well worth discussing. i look forward to your other 2 parts and the dialog here.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Bryan, Fred:.Thanks.  I should probably say that my series of three posts hews pretty closely to the topic of the conflict of commands as it affects the individual.  That’s my own focus here, but I’m happy to see there may be rich and divergent discussions that come out of it..What’s going on in Iran may provide one answer to your question about an entire culture switching masters, Bryan, and the Ayatollah Montazeri’s comment in Part II is to the point here — but I’d note that the switch there, if it happens, may be from clerical dominance to clerical influence, rather than from theocracy to secularity.

  4. Arherring Says:

    I saw the 5GW tag that you put on the post and now I feel compelled to ask what 5GW aspect of this you might have had in mind as I have considered something that may be related.

  5. zen Says:

    I tagged it 5GW, not Charles, due to the juxtapositions/contradictions/synthesis of ideas coming later – sorry for the confusion

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Am I reading you right, then, Zen — is it the style of presentation I’m using in Part II that seems 5GW related?  Perhaps you could say more, either here, or when  Pt II is posted, there.

  7. Arherring Says:

    No confusion, I was just thinking of a sort of 5GW utility coming from the idea of manipulation by evoking a target’s indentification with one role or group over another role or group.
    To use the example contained in the first post, something fundamental made Hasan and Akbar consider their primary identity as Muslim and that required a duty (in their mind) to act in a certain way. These actions were directly opposed to their identity as military service members but they acted against that role anyway.
    Very much looking forward to the rest of the posts.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’d like to add a word of caution here — it’s not Muslim identity in general (and indeed not even Salafist identity) that is opposed to military identity in these cases, but a form of Muslim identity which specifically concludes that jihad against the Americans is an obligation (fard ‘ayn) — that’s what distinguishes the "jihadis" from their "purist" and "politico" brothers, to borrow the terminology Quintan Wiktorowicz developed in his 2006 "Anatomy of the Salafi Movement", in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 29:3, 207 — 239.

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