To Battle We Go: Chain Of Command

By: Dr. Steve Kellner

Walk into the headquarters of any U.S. military unit, large or small, and you will find the same series of photos on the wall. Beginning with the officer in charge of the unit (or sometimes the senior enlisted leader), the photos work their way up the “chain of command” from the post commander to the commanding general, and eventually to the top officer in the service. The final two photos, no matter the military service, will be the civilian leader of all the services, the Secretary of Defense, and then finally the Commander-in-Chief, the President of The United States.

This required display serves many purposes, all important to the culture and mission of the armed services. The first is to establish the chain of command itself, that is, who is in charge of and who is responsible for the unit. There is no ambiguity about this. Everyone in the unit knows without a doubt who is calling the shots, and who will be held responsible when something goes wrong. In fact, senior leaders will often be held accountable for the actions of subordinates that they knew nothing about. It sounds harsh, but it ties the fate of the leader to that of their troops, and motivates leaders to know what is going on in the units they supervise and to support their troops.

Also implicit in the chain of command is the right of anyone in the unit to “go over the head” of their immediate superior. There are rules about how to do this, of course, but it gives junior members of the unit recourse if they feel they are being unfairly treated or being asked to do something improper. It’s also a powerful motivator for leaders to treat everyone fairly and to do things by the book, the military version of a “government of laws, and not of men.”

Finally, the photos reinforce the concept of civilian control of the military enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. This has helped protect the United States from military takeover of the government, a fate that has befallen many democracies around the world. The precedent was established by George Washington, who, as the commanding general of the victorious Continental Army could have crowned himself king at the end of the Revolutionary War, but instead resigned his officer commission and returned to farming. When King George III heard of this he said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

The Salvation Army, by virtue of its “quasi-military” structure, also has a clear chain of command. This structure may seem old-fashioned in today’s anti-authoritarian culture, but it does make clear who is in charge and who will be held accountable. Other churches and organizations may wait for consensus among all its members before taking action, but that can’t be the structure for an evangelical and social justice strike force like the Army. The Salvation Army will be on the front lines fighting while others are still holding discussions in the rear.

Like any army, there are times in The Salvation Army when soldiers are mistreated by their leaders, or asked to do something that doesn’t fit with the Army’s doctrines or regulations. In those cases, any soldier has the right to take their case to the next highest authority in the chain of command, and we should make sure that every soldier and officer knows who that is, and that superior officers and leaders treat these grievances seriously. A quasi-military system requires good leadership, so we have to correct or remove bad leaders.

Finally, at the top of the Salvation Army’s chain-of command is, not the General, but Jesus Christ, who is the head of the Church Universal. This is an advantage that not even our military services have: A perfect leader at the top. Like George Washington, Jesus gave up his kingship (temporarily) to become one of us, making possible through His death and resurrection our reconciliation with God the Father. Unlike Washington, however, Jesus returned to His throne, where He intercedes constantly with the Father on our behalf. In this capacity, He protects us and our Army from a takeover by Satan and the other “powers” of this world. And when we hear of that, we know that Jesus in not only the greatest man in the history of the world, but the Son of God.