Insubordination In The Military: A Helpful Guide

As the first line of defense in the country, the United States military is expected to be organized and ready to answer the call of duty. That is why maintaining order is vital in military operations. Respecting the chain of command is primarily how the military performs its tasks as efficiently as possible.

But what if a service member behaves in a way that disrupts the lawful order in the Armed Forces? This is called insubordination. Insubordination in the military can have severe consequences that alter military personnel’s career trajectory. But how significant can its effects be?

This article will explore the meaning of insubordination in the military context, the possible penalties one might receive, and how to mount a vigorous defense in case one is accused of insubordination. You’ll have a better understanding of dealing with this issue if you or another service member you know is charged with insubordination.

article 91 ucmj

What Is Insubordination in the Military?

You’ve probably heard of the term insubordination before, but what exactly does it mean? This term is a charge fundamentally used to punish personnel who display behavior that is unacceptable in the military. Article 91 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice details the crime of insubordination according to military standards.

In general, a service member can be accused of insubordination if they assault, disobey, or disrespectfully treat a superior officer. This is regardless of whether the officer comes from the same military branch or within that member’s direct chain of command. The officer involved in this incident could be commissioned, warrant, or non-commissioned.

According to Article 91, there are three specific types of insubordination: assaulting an officer, intentionally disobeying an order, and disrespecting a superior officer.

Assaulting an Officer

While Article 90 prohibits military members from ‘offering violence’ to a superior officer, Article 91 takes this rule one step further by including noncommissioned officers, warrant officers, and petty officers. The military defines ‘offering violence’ similarly to civilian crimes of battery and assault. Article 91 also stipulates that offering violence also includes any threatening gestures or words.

Striking a superior officer is also not allowed. The term ‘striking’ means any intentional offensive touching. This is regardless of whether the officer suffered an actual injury.

However, to be found guilty of violating Article 90, it must be proven that the service member is aware that the person they assaulted was a superior officer. If the accused wasn’t aware of that person’s rank, they might still be charged with assault, as detailed in Article 128. However, this incident wouldn’t be considered insubordinate.

Moreover, the superior officer must be proven to have acted in executing their duty at the time of the assault to be considered insubordinate by military standards. It should be highlighted that a unit commander in the field or on a ship at sea is deemed to be acting ‘in the execution of their duty’ at all times. However, a unit commander in the United States during peacetime may not.

Intentional Disobeying of an Order

Being obedient is a vital character trait among soldiers because maintaining order is a crucial aspect of the US military. Thus, a service member must not disobey a lawful order given by a superior officer. This includes orders from their direct superior officer and general regulations or orders that govern that service member’s unit.

A superior officer’s instruction is deemed an ‘order’ that must be obeyed when it:

  • contains a command to refrain from or take a specific action;
  • is directed towards an individual;
  • pertains to that individual’s military duty;
  • is proven that the person knows that order and
  • the order is considered lawful.

By definition, ‘lawfulness’ means the order doesn’t conflict with the US Constitution or its laws, other military or admiralty laws, or international treaties covered in the US. A lawful order must also not interfere with a person’s constitutional rights. All orders are presumed lawful, except patently unlawful orders and any service member that refuses to obey an order may be subject to a court-martial.

However, in case of an unlawful order, the service member who receives that order is obligated to seek clarification of the order and, if it’s still unlawful, disobey it. Why? A commander who gives an unlawful order would make that person commit a crime, and the subordinate who executes an unlawful order is considered just as guilty as the commander. This is why the defense ‘were just following orders’ when convicted of war crimes almost always fails.

On the other hand, this can be an ambiguous area for service members because the judge will ultimately decide if the order is unlawful or not. Moreover, a service member isn’t considered to disobey an order by simply indicating their intention. An order is violated only if that subordinate fails to act in the order.

Disrespect of Superior Officer

Years of army service earn military officers certain privileges. In line with this, service members are prohibited from treating their superiors with disrespect. Disrespecting superior officers may include instances like failing to properly salute or describing that officer using obscene language to mock that officer openly.

It doesn’t matter if what the service member says is true. Service members are expected to respect superior officers regardless of whether they’re superior in rank or command. However, if that military member is of a higher rank in the chain of command, that person may not be punished for treating an officer with disrespect.

Moreover, the insubordinate service member doesn’t have to be in the presence of their superior officer to disrespect that person. In addition, the service member can’t punished because of the contents of a purely private discussion.

Historical Context of Article 91 or Insubordination

There is no historical record of the first instance of insubordination in the US military. However, it should be highlighted that not all cases of insubordination are considered bad. There are instances wherein insubordination has resulted in positive income. For example, US Navy Admiral Daniel V. Gallery once published articles integral to the public debate during the Revolt of the Admirals in 1949.

In the earlier days, the military was stricter in its rules of respecting the hierarchy within the military. While the military retains a certain standard of discipline, the context of the incident is essential. The service member won’t automatically be punished without being allowed to defend themselves.

Why Insubordination Happens

What prompts an individual to commit insubordination? Different factors may lead a service member to defy orders. One of the most common reasons why a person becomes insubordinate is communication breakdowns. This occurs when there is an interruption or failure to exchange information between the superior officer and their subordinates. There might’ve been a lack of communication involved. It’s also possible that there was some miscommunication or misinterpretation of orders.

Disagreements with orders or policies are another common reason a subordinate might disobey a superior officer. Soldiers don’t always agree with the orders given to them. However, they’re obligated to follow orders as long as they are considered lawful. Service members willingly consent to be given orders by committing to their duty.

Sometimes, soldiers commit insubordination because of personal issues. Military service can be a demanding job and can take its toll on service members’ mental health. The stress of military duty can affect a soldier’s behavior, and this might result in insubordination. Stress or mental health issues may not even stem from their official duties.

Soldiers may have personal problems, like relationship issues, financial dilemmas, or family drama, that may have affected them tremendously.

Again, it should be highlighted that soldiers are human beings with feelings, problems, and issues. While they’re expected to act a certain way, they’re not always perfect.

A recent factor that has prompted insubordination is cultural and generational differences within the military. The US military is a diverse, multicultural institution comprising members of various generations. While differences make people unique, these differences may also result in solid disagreements. Having strikingly different perspectives can cause friction, which might result in insubordination.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice details what counts as insubordination in the military. What is considered assaulting an officer? Verbally threatening an officer is considered insubordination in the military context. That person doesn’t need to execute that threat. That mere intimidation is regarded as an offense in the military.

What may be considered as disobeying a lawful order? Let’s say an officer requires their subordinates to wear a gas mask. The soldier is required to wear the gas mask even if they think that to wear masks is ridiculous. Being part of the professional military force entails following orders you may not always be happy with.

What counts as treating a superior officer with disrespect? Giving officers a proper salute is a big deal in the military because it’s vital to respect one’s superior. Failure to properly execute this sign of respect may prompt a soldier to be charged with insubordinate conduct.

What Are the Penalties According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice?

brown wooden gavel on white surface

What happens when a soldier is confirmed to have behaved insubordinately? The consequences of insubordinate conduct can range from minor to severe. At the end of the day, the penalty you’re given depends on the behavior and the seniority of the officer involved in the incident.

The higher the rank of the officer, the more severe the punishment will be. The court-martial will decide what kind of penalty the accused should receive. Here’s a quick summary of the maximum penalties a service member may receive when proven to have committed insubordinate conduct:

Assaulting an Officer

  1. Provided that the incident involves a warrant officer, penalties could include
    • dishonorable discharge,
    • pay and allowances forfeiture, and/or
    • up to 5 years of confinement.
  2. Provided that the incident involves a superior noncommissioned (NCO) or petty officer (PO), penalties could include:
    • dishonorable discharge,
    • pay and allowances forfeiture, and/or
    • up to 3 years of confinement.
  3. Provided that the incident involves a noncommissioned (NCO) or petty officer (PO) who is not a superior, penalties could include:
    • Dishonorable discharge,
    • pay and allowances forfeiture, and/or
    • up to a year of confinement.

Intentional Disobeying of an Order

  1. Provided that the incident involves a warrant officer, penalties could include:
    • Dishonorable discharge,
    • pay and allowances forfeiture, and/or
    • up to 2 years of confinement.
  2. Provided that the incident involves a noncommissioned (NCO) or petty officer (PO), penalties could include:
    • Bad-conduct discharge,
    • pay and allowances forfeiture, and/or
    • up to a year of confinement.

Disrespect of Superior Officer

  1. Provided that the incident involves a warrant officer, penalties could include:
    • Bad-conduct discharge,
    • pay and allowances forfeiture, and/or
    • up to 9 months of confinement.
  2. Provided that the incident involves a superior noncommissioned (NCO) or petty officer (PO), penalties could include:
    • Bad-conduct discharge,
    • pay and allowances forfeiture, and/or
    • up to 6 months of confinement.
  3. If the victim of your insubordination is a noncommissioned (NCO) or petty officer (PO) who is not a superior, penalties could include:
    • Bad-conduct discharge,
    • pay and allowances forfeiture (a portion only), and/or
    • up to 3 months of confinement.

Military Protocols and Strategies In Handling Insubordination

Obedience and order are fundamental foundations of the US military, and once a service member enlists in whichever military branch, they commit to adhere to the standards that the military upholds. So, how does a superior officer typically deal with insubordinate personnel?

First, it should be highlighted that officers are expected to behave according to military protocols and regulations. This may involve addressing the incident directly, documenting the case, and following proper protocol to ensure that military policies are respected.

Regardless of how the incident made the officer feel, they must handle it professionally. This entails following the rules within their unit of command and military branch.

But how does the US military prevent these incidents from happening in the first place? Training is vital for enlisted members to understand the rules of military justice and what counts as a lawful order.

Military branches have their ways to train their soldiers regarding proper protocols and the like. Fortunately, the US military has the resources to properly support all members and prevent instances that may result in insubordinate conduct.

Moreover, insubordinate conduct doesn’t automatically dismiss a service member from active duty service. Proper rehabilitation and reintegration can help prevent these instances from happening again.

How Do You Defend Against Charges of Insubordination?

Insubordinate conduct is considered a severe crime in the military and can result in a dishonorable discharge, confinement, and pay and allowance forfeiture. So, how do you prevent the worst from happening? Here are some defenses the accused may use when charged with insubordination:

  • Claiming that they weren’t aware the person involved in the incident was a superior officer
  • Acting to discharge another lawful duty
  • The superior officer acted in a behavior that lost their right to be respected.

To avoid the worst-case scenario, service members accused of insubordination should confer with experienced military lawyers. You need legal experts familiar with military law who have demonstrated strong defenses in insubordination cases.

Cultural and Ethical Considerations for Article 91

Insubordination can have severe consequences. Why does the military punish offenders who violate the chain of command? As mentioned, the military is founded on principles of respect and order. You need to follow protocols and respect people with higher ranks.

On the other hand, there might be instances wherein a lawful order may conflict with one’s moral standards or convictions. That’s why cases of insubordinate conduct aren’t always black and white. Fortunately, there are resources service members can turn to to mount a strong defense.


US Military Uniform

Insubordinate conduct can have a long-lasting impact on a service member’s life. Thus, if accused of insubordination, that person should mount a proper defense and understand their rights. Understanding military law is integral to preventing the worst from happening. To learn more about military life, explore the Military Verification website further.


What is considered insubordination in the military?

According to Article 91, insubordinate conduct can mean three things. The first involves assaulting an officer. The second is intentionally disobeying an order, and the third is disrespecting an officer.

What is the Army regulation for insubordination?

The Army refers to Article 91 in cases involving insubordination. Like other US military branches, the Army follows the Uniform Conduct of Military Justice.

What happens if you disobey an order in the military?

This would depend on the severity of the behavior and the rank of the officer involved. The higher the rank of an officer involved, the more severe the consequences are.

Can you be discharged from the military for insubordination?

Yes, but not necessarily. This would depend on the offense committed and the rank of the officer in the incident.

What is an example of serious insubordination?

Physically harming an officer resulted in serious injury counts as an example of serious insubordination. This is provided that the officer didn’t act in a way that would prompt the accused to lose respect for that officer.

Similar Posts