Screenshot's from 1:08:19. I transcribe:

2: Order the 58th to withdraw.

1 to 3: Fraser, order the 58th to withdraw.

3: Yes sir.

I don't understand this command hierachy:

Similarly, an officer is usually expected to give orders only to his or her direct subordinate, even if it is just to pass an order down to another service member lower in the chain of command than said subordinate.

Especially in this scene, isn't command hierarchy too unproductive and redundant? Would it happen in real life? I can understand if the Col and Maj weren't standing together side-by-side, but here they are.

I'm uncertain of 1's identity. I'm guessing from IMDB "Col. Stewart" played by Peter Tobin.

enter image description here

  • 19
    Is this a question about history?
    – MCW
    Aug 12, 2019 at 10:22
  • 5
    @MarkC.Wallace If it's a historically accurate portrayal, maybe.
    – Mast
    Aug 13, 2019 at 13:57
  • 7
    @mast. Excellent point. Almost as though I were encouraging including that research in the question.
    – MCW
    Aug 13, 2019 at 14:26

7 Answers 7


Ref. Das Boot showing a similar chain of command (although only with one additional person). The lieutenant commander gives orders to the watch officer, who passes them below deck. The commander could pass them himself, but doesn't, for the same reasons the officers in your movie don't. Hunt for Red October has a similar scene, and they are really on a timer...

There are several factors in play here.

  • General order vs. detailed order. A general order ("Order the 58th to withdraw!" / "Prepare tubes one to four for surface firing!") might require more detailed orders to several people to actually work. Turning the general order into more detailed orders as necessary is the job of the junior officer (relieving the senior officer of having to think about those details). If the senior goes over the junior's head, he would have to make sure his order is detailed enough for the command level he's issuing the order to. (This is played out in great detail later in the "Das Boot" clip, where the commander merely indicates the targets, and gives permission to fire -- all the details are handled by the 1. WO.)

  • Responsibility. If there is something that the senior officer might have overlooked and should be reminded of, or something coming up that makes following that order impossible it's the responsibility of the junior officer to bring it to the senior officer's attention. If the senior goes over the junior's head, whatever the junior knows that the senior doesn't either gets dropped by the wayside, or will result in confusion as the junior tries to intervene. Not a good situation.

    (Also, as mentioned in the comments, it is the junior officer's job to know exactly where his troops are and what orders they are under. If the senior officer bypasses the junior officer in giving commands, the junior officer might end up not being aware of the position and situation of his troops, which would be... unfortunate.)

  • Reporting back. If the senior goes over the junior's head ordering his subordinate directly -- whom should the subordinate report back to? The junior officer, following the chain of command? Or directly to the senior, as he gave the order? Would the report be high-level enough to not bog down the senior officer with too much detail? How would the junior officer be kept in the loop?

  • Respect. Going over the junior officer's head would be an affront to the junior officer, and quite possibly damage his standing with his subordinates, which might make them hesitate to follow the junior officer's orders in the future (possibly looking askance at the senior officer first, after all he went over the junior's head yesterday, didn't he? What's between those two, anyway? Whom can we trust?)

I hope these are enough examples showing why "skipping" chain of command is generally a rather bad thing to do. There are more, but I figured these should be enough to illustrate the point.

If the officers are standing right next to each other like here, the delay is only a few seconds, if even that much, so it doesn't really matter anyway.

  • 17
    Good answer. I would add a fifth point: training - of everyone from the lowliest soldier up. The constant repetition of the correct sequence is drilled into everyone within earshot. Aug 12, 2019 at 18:45
  • 6
    @AllInOne Don't you think TWO submarine references are enough already? :-D
    – DevSolar
    Aug 12, 2019 at 19:29
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    Another factor is that right now they're next to each other, and slightly later in combat they might not be. It's imperative to ensure that the "middle" oficer is explicitly aware of all the commands that have been given to his subordinates; if the superior gives an order that bypasses him, then the middle officer may falsely believe that these troops are available for something else because they're "his" and he didn't order them to move away.
    – Peteris
    Aug 12, 2019 at 22:44
  • 25
    Anecdote: While planning a night exercise in the German army, our regimental commander told me that I were to act as "the casualty" in a first-aid / vehicle recovery drill, and that I were to report to him at so-and-so hours. He didn't go through the chain of command for this. An hour later, our platoon leader gave me another order that would have conflicted with that appointment. I told him I couldn't do that, and things got ugly real quick because I didn't get a chance to explain before he accused me of insubordination... we got it figured out, but it was a tense couple of minutes.
    – DevSolar
    Aug 13, 2019 at 7:52
  • 7
    Another anecdote: When the company commander was giving orders for the day's training, one of my platoon mates spoke up to mention the platoon commander had ordered something else, and got accused of trying to play the two officers against each other.
    – Haem
    Aug 13, 2019 at 11:35
  • Clarity for the soldiers.
    Imagine you are a a rifleman standing or crouching somewhere during the battle. The colonel says in your hearing "hold this position." The captain says "first platoon, face left." The lieutenant says "third section, infantry on the slope, five rounds rapid, then fall back."
    What are you to do? Are you supposed to judge how falling back helps to hold the position? Much clearer if you can simply obey the chain of command, unless the superior officer explicitly relieves the junior officer.
  • Clarity for the officers.
    The commanding officer of an unit is responsible for anything the unit does or fails to do. How can he be held responsible if he gets bypassed by his superiors?

This is absolutely no different from a modern office environment. The only person I take orders from is my supervisor. Anyone above/outside him will be politely told, "I need to check that with Mr. M." or "Please coordinate that through Mr. M". (In many cases it is illegal for me to take direction from anyone other than Mr. M.; it can result in civil/criminal penalties).

In a high stress environment, you want someone you trust to take care of you. Guns going off, bullets and shells killing people to the left and right of you. You want to listen for and hear one voice. You do not want any confusion. From the point of view of the tip of the spear, there is no chain of command; there is only the guy who you trust to pull your fat out of the fire. Senior officers can jabber all they want and can issue commands to a dozen different units; that's all noise until your guy says the words.

From the top down, you don't want soldiers and sailors listening to and decoding all the orders (not cause you don't trust them, but because you want them focused on the enemy.) If you're going to issue commands to a dozen units, or if you're going to issue commands to only one, you want those commands to be carried out. The guy who is closest to those troops is the best/most capable of ensuring that. Of knowing what words will motivate the appropriate urgency.

When I was military we ran annual exercises, many of which ended in disaster - usually because some mid level officer used a word in a context that made sense to a senior officer, but didn't match the tactical training. The best example I can give is the year that someone issued a report that said that orange forces conducted a strike on position X. Half an hour later the entire exercise was in shambles, because to the operators "strike" was used only for nuclear weapons. Conventional forces "attack" a position, but strategic forces "strike". (not strictly a chain of command example, but I hope it illustrates the importance of knowing how the recipient of the orders uses the words).

The reason you've got those mid level officers is to understand the strategic objective and to deploy the right tactical resources to get it done.

Why are they rigorous about it? Because the military is centuries of tradition, and one of the primary traditions is to avoid progress unless necessary. The machine works because all the participants known and understand their roles.

I acknowledge my own hypocrisy; this is an answer with no resources/citations. I hope it adds something to the other answers

  • Emphatically agree with Mr. Geerkens that training, of all levels of responsibility, is reinforced by this constant repetition. In a stress environment people will fall back on their training. (which is also why the military is centuries of tradition with as little innovation as possible).
  • 5
    This, I believe, also reinforces the point I just made to @DevSolar 's answer: that training, of all levels of responsibility, is reinforced by this constant repetition. Aug 12, 2019 at 18:48
  • 4
    There's a (famous?) example of young officers being taught to delegate/command in the British army. The training sergeant asked - Gentlemen, how do you raise a flagpole?" The cadets came up with many ingenious or ludicrous suggestions, until the sergeant sighed, and said" Gentlemen, you are training to be officers. You say "Sergeant, get that flagpole up!"
    – TheHonRose
    Sep 11, 2021 at 20:33

As stated by this British Army Doctrine Publication, an clear chain of command

strengthens integration between formations and units and enhances unity of effort. Subordinates must be in no doubt as to the command state within which they are operating, to whom they are responsible and for what.

The chain of command in the British army at the turn of the 20th century was far from ideal (on which more below), but first a few other key points on the benefits of an effective chain of command.

US Army Regulation 600–20, Army Command Policy (Headquarters, Dept. of the Army, Washington DC, 7 June 2006), Chapter 2.1 gives the 'official' view on Chain of Command:

Section B

Commanders are responsible for everything their command does or fails to do. However, commanders subdivide responsibility and authority and assign portions of both to various subordinate commanders and staff members. In this way, a proper degree of responsibility becomes inherent in each command echelon.

Section C

Proper use of the chain of command is vital to the overall effectiveness of the Army....Effective communication between senior and subordinate Soldiers within the chain of command is crucial to the proper functioning of all units. Therefore, Soldiers will use the chain of command when communicating issues and problems to their leaders and commanders.

The article The Successful Lieutenant by Captain Christopher J. Courtney in the Military Intelligence Bulletin gives the following advice to Lieutenants, pointing out the need to let those below you in the chain learn how to command. If senior officers are the only ones giving orders, others are being denied the chance to develop as leaders.

Lead Through Your NCOs. You must do everything you can to empower, support, and resource your platoon sergeant and squad leaders. Let them execute your orders without excessive guidance and interference....You should seldom, if ever, give an order directly to an individual soldier. As a rule of thumb, you give orders to the platoon sergeant and squad leaders who execute the mission. In addition, do not let your soldiers jump their chains of command to see you, except in rare cases, such as equal opportunity or sexual harassment. Allowing soldiers to jump the chain of command cheats your NCOs out of the chance to lead and weakens the overall leadership of the platoon.

The chain of command in the British army up to and including World War I was undermined by social hierarchy, mistrust and a lack of meritocracy, despite the abolition of the Purchase of commissions in the British Army in 1871. On the British military,

For example, during World War I the army chain of command on the western front was accused of being rigid and unresponsive, in part as a result of an overweening deference to authority and hierarchy among army personnel.


The command structure was based on obedience to superiors and suspicion of subordinates. . . . Inhibitions existed at every level. Orders were issued at the top and fed down the line; there was little traffic in the other direction

Citing Niall Ferguson, 'The Pity of War: Explaining World War I'

In an effective chain of command, superiors must demonstrate their trust in subordinates. Breaking that chain by going directly to a subordinate of a subordinate - except in unavoidable circumstances - would be showing a lack of respect and / or confidence.

  • 5
    I recall reading an anecdote about the chain of command in the British army. Supposedly, as part of a candidate officer's oral examination, the candidate was told he had a platoon, a sergeant, certain equipment, and the responsibility to erect a radio antenna. When asked how he would erect the antenna, a failed candidate would describe how to erect the antenna. The successful candidate's answer was expected to be something like, "Sergeant, erect that antenna." Aug 14, 2019 at 13:35
  • 1
    @WayneConrad Yes, I have heard a version of that. Given the problem of raising a flagpole, cadets offered various ingenious solutions. "Gentlemen," the sergeant instructor explained "You are training to be officers. You simly say 'Sergeant, get that flagpole up!'"
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 30, 2022 at 0:23

Hardly an "academic" answer, I'm a middle-aged (alright, elderly) woman with no military experience, though from a family of soldiers - but it seems blindingly obvious to me. Officers have to communicate with each other, and with those under their command, clearly and unambiguously. A non-military analogy (with no inferences re hierarchy to be drawn!) -

Kid: Mum, there's the ice-cream van - can I get one?

Mum: No, I'm just about to dish up dinner.

Kid, going to another room: Dad, can I get an ice-cream?

Dad: Sure, son, here's some money!

Tears before bedtime!

  • 2
    Excellent example - but I think OP is transfixed by the fact that they are standing so close to one another that they could all hug. If Mom & Dad are that close the situation doesn't arise. (Although I am quite amused by the picture of my Division Officer as Mom and my XO as Dad..... )
    – MCW
    Aug 13, 2019 at 21:31
  • @MarkCWallace I now have this lovely picture of your commanders having a group hug! ;-) And yes, it looks redundant when the officers are so close, and in my analogy no, it wouldn't happen if Dad was in the kitchen with Mum. But Dad would know it was dinner time, and should check with Mum - his CO ;-)
    – TheHonRose
    Aug 13, 2019 at 21:49
  • 7
    Navy tradition grants the spouse the title CINCHOUSE; Commander in Charge of the home theatre of operations.
    – MCW
    Aug 13, 2019 at 21:56
  • 3
    @MarkC.Wallace That sounds like a covered cause of loss under a Florida Homeowners policy....
    – C Monsour
    Aug 13, 2019 at 22:21
  • 1
    Yes very good example. Chain of command FAMILY STYLE. Aug 14, 2019 at 5:30

There is also the matter of confusion during times of combat.

What with explosions, fire, casualties, etc... it can be an extremely chaotic and disorienting moment.

Soldiers are trained by repetition to follow the orders of their immediate superior, so that they don't inadvertently take the wrong action when everything else is chaos and confusion.

In the midst of a major attack, with shells exploding, bullets flying, and people screaming, an officer says to a sergeant - go cover that southern approach. You don't want three squads of soldiers to go running to the southern approach, just because they heard that, leaving the other approaches unguarded. They wait until their sergeant gives the actual order.

Same is true if there are two or three sergeants shouting orders over all the noise. Unless a superior officer singles out a subordinate not normally in their chain of command, soldiers do what their immediate supervisor says, to avoid any misunderstanding.

One has to put this in the context of the chaos of actual combat to appreciate the necessity for an absolutely clear chain of command. In that situation, people are reacting on instinct and training, because their rational mind is too overloaded to reach any sort of conclusion.

Imagine the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan...


Duty to Refuse: An additional aspect not yet covered in any answer is that (in an American context), every officer has a duty to refuse unlawful orders (as do the enlisted), and NO duty to "follow the orders of the president and the offiers appointed over me". That quote is only present in the Oath of Enlistment, not in the officer's oath. By following the chain of command even in close proximity, every officer has been given an opportunity to exercise his duties.
Right to Remove: Finally, if the senior officer present wishes to override a subordinate's balkiness, he must remove that officer. This he may do at will, but until he does, the men under the subordinate officer's command remain more tightly bound to the subordinate's orders.

Please consider this answer a supplemental offering to any other answer.

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