The military lives on rules and regulations. Salute officers. Don’t walk on the grass. Wear reflector belts.
But there’s a time and place to break the rules. Here are five examples of military leaders who broke the rules, got away with it, and most importantly, made the world a better place.
1. Jim Gavin de-segregates the 82nd Airborne Division.
When the 82nd Airborne Division returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, after the Second World War, they met up with the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. The 555th, or “Triple Nickel,” was comprised entirely of African-American paratroopers who had spent much of the war on the homefront battling forest fires.
The 82nd Airborne’s legendary commander, James “Jumpin’ Jim” Gavin, thought the men of the Triple Nickel were in tip-top shape. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for their living conditions: tar-paper shacks and wooden dormitories over a mile from the division area.
Gavin took it upon himself to fully integrate the Triple Nickel into the 82nd Airborne Division, giving the battalion better living quarters and placing the men under the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, his favorite unit within the division.
However, there was one small problem: Integrating African Americans was still against Army regulations.
Nevertheless, Gavin’s gambit paid off, and President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces shortly thereafter. When breaking the rules, it helps to be on the right side of history.
2. John Boyd defeats the F-111 and helps design the F-15.
“Forty Second Boyd” — so-called because he could beat any opponent in mock aerial combat within forty seconds — wrote the definitive book on dogfighting. As a captain.
In 1967, Boyd, then a major, was about to get his dream assignment: A chance to fly F-4 Phantom jets in combat over North Vietnam. However, at the last minute, his orders were changed — the world’s foremost expert on aerial combat was to report to the Pentagon to help save the Air Force’s new fighter jet, dubbed the “F-X.”
Many Air Force leaders of the time were of the “bigger, higher, faster, farther” school of fighter design, preferring long-range, complex speed demons like the F-4 and F-111 fighter jets. Unfortunately, experience in Vietnam revealed these fighters fared poorly against early-generation Soviet MiGs — the American jets were fast, yes, but they were sluggish. They needed to be maneuverable.
Boyd had pioneered the theory of energy-maneuverability, and knew that Air Force leaders were trying to turn the new F-X into a flying turkey, akin to the F-111. According to Robert Corham’s “Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War,” Boyd personally flew from Washington, D.C., to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, threw his wallet across a crowded conference table, and told a group of colonels, “You fuckers are lying,” referring to the performance capabilities of the new fighter jet.
Boyd’s ideas, and boldness, helped turn the F-X into a dogfighter with plenty of power and great maneuverability. The F-X became the Air Force’s F-15 Eagle, one of the most successful fighter aircraft in history.
Boyd may have been known for his famous “To be or to do” speech, where he encouraged his followers to not give in to sycophantism. Nevertheless, Boyd did profit from the patronage of well-placed generals in the Pentagon. Though his immediate superior gave him a mediocre evaluation — potentially crippling his career — superiors farther up the chain of command praised his efforts, overriding his boss’ negative remarks.
The lesson? You can afford to break the rules if you have top cover. And, despite the reputation Boyd tried to cultivate, he had plenty of top cover.
3. T.E. Lawrence goes AWOL and starts a revolution.
Thomas Edward Lawrence — known the world over as “Lawrence of Arabia” — was a bored staff officer serving with the British Army in Cairo during the early half of the First World War. Lawrence was an expert in Middle Eastern affairs, having traveled extensively throughout the region on archaeological expeditions before the war. However, he spent much of his time in Cairo sifting through routine news clippings and filing endless reports.
In other words, he was the PowerPoint Ranger of his day.
According to his memoir, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” Lawrence yearned to be in the desert where the action was. So he set out to be so much of a nuisance around the office that his peers encouraged him to take leave. Among Lawrence’s favorite tactics? Incessantly correcting their grammar.
And take leave Lawrence did — to the Hejaz desert, in what is now western Saudi Arabia. There, Lawrence met with the fledgling Arab army, currently under siege by the Turks. Without consulting British Army headquarters, Lawrence, along with a handful of British advisors, helped push the Arab army north toward the important town of Wejh, capturing a valuable port along the Red Sea. Months later, he would embark on an even more ambitious expedition: crossing the blistering Nefud Desert on camel and capturing the heavily defended city of Aqaba.
Lawrence preferred to beg forgiveness, rather than to ask permission later.Indeed, before setting out for Aqaba, he left a letter asking for just that.
Fortunately, not only was Lawrence successful in his endeavors, but when he returned to British headquarters in Cairo after sacking Aqaba, he found things had changed in the British Army. The previous commander, Sir Archibald Murray, was “kicked upstairs” to a training command in England, to be replaced by the dashing cavalry commander, Edmund Allenby, who was much more forgiving of Lawrence’s Arab escapades.
If you’re going to break the rules, it’s best to succeed in spectacular fashion.
4. Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré threatens pilots and saves New Orleans.
Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, killing over 1,800 people and causing over $100 billion in damage. When the storm finally calmed, however, officials at all levels of government seemed incompetent at best, corrupt at worst.
Amid the chaos and petty finger pointing came an Army officer endeared to the public for his blunt talk: the “Ragin’ Cajun,” Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré.
When Honoré arrived in New Orleans, he was mortified to find civilian helicopter pilots unwilling to evacuate survivors from flooded areas because their names weren’t on a printed manifest. He simply told the pilots, “We got guns, you don’t. Fly the damn planes.”
Honore would later quip, “Rules will stop a recovery in its tracks.” Indeed, Honoré may have bent a few rules, but his military bearing and penchant for the unvarnished truth softened the blow. When breaking the rules, at least look good doing so.
5. Military bloggers ignore DoD policy and launch writing trend.
The U.S. military didn’t always have such a laissez faire attitude towards blogging and social media. In 2009, the Defense Department all but tried to kill the medium, requiring service members to register their blogs with their chain of command.
I remember those days well. I was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and started my own personal military blog. Conveniently, I also served as a company commander when I was deployed. (I’ll let you figure out how I registered my blog with my chain of command.)
But the Pentagon’s policy just wasn’t realistic, given the explosion in blogs and other social media platforms. Not to mention, by banning blogs, the Pentagon inadvertently created a public relations nightmare — troops couldn’t share positive stories with friends and family members back home, a point that had become painfully obvious at the highest levels of government. By 2010, however, the Defense Department had reversed course. Soon, military blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts — both official and unofficial — proliferated through cyberspace.
How did milbloggers get away with it? Simple: It’s easy to break the rules when they’re simply unenforceable to begin with.