I'm writing a SF military novel and at some point lieutenant takes command of forces because his own captain went crazy. The captain still gives lawful orders but he's only taking things from his own imagination into an account despite the situation in real world indicates none of that is going to happen and requires completely different set of actions and everybody knows that. Can a lieutenant legally override chain of command to save the situation? Or it's always an act of insubordination because captain's orders are still lawful according to military law?

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    $\begingroup$ looks like you really need to be asking someone in the military what the actual procedures are that might be followed in these circumstances .. at a guess chances are a junior officer doing this (and anyone who went along with him) is going to be facing a court martial, if the court agrees with his actions he might get off but there would likely have to be an enquiry of some sort .. but I'd just be guessing as would practically everyone here so you're asking in the wrong place I think. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Aug 28, 2022 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ When you say "command of forces", what do you mean exactly? How many men are those "forces", how many army corps, divisions, brigades, battalions, companies? Or are we speaking of a small commando force, operating more-or-less autonomously on a short-term mission? (And, most importantly, are the captain and lieutenant in the Navy or in the Army? In the Navy, a captain is a senior rank, equivalent to an Army colonel. In the Army, a captain is a subordinate officer rank, with about as much importance as the lowest naval officer rank.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 28, 2022 at 19:03
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    $\begingroup$ If they are unopposed and manage to take command. Then after the situation gets resolved and once the higher ups know about it. Then it's decided if they acted right or not. At that point it's kinda like the law. Was it self defense or not is only a matter decided after investigation or a in front of a court. No military wants their captains to go crazy and their soldiers to follow them and die. Also they don't want disobedience. I'd say they investigate it and decide to reward or punish. $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Aug 28, 2022 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ This is entirely dependent upon the rules of your military organization. You get to create their rules and you can decide what is and isn't considered insubordination. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Aug 28, 2022 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ Military law is as arbitrary as non-military law and differs from nation to nation. Some kind of military court will be involved in the aftermath. But what it will decide depends on the specific laws. It could treat any insubordination as heinous crime (disregarding all circumstances), but it could also punish for following orders when issued by someone "clearly unfit" for command. (1-2) $\endgroup$
    – user91641
    Aug 28, 2022 at 20:41

3 Answers 3


In a perfect world, the lieutenant would inform a major or lieutenant colonel who is the superior of the captain, or possibly a medical officer attached to the unit, that the captain is obviously out of his mind (medically unfit to command). It does not matter so much that the orders would be legal if the situation was as the captain sees it, the problem is that the captain is delusional.

A lieutenant who takes that decision into his or her own hands is risking trouble, both if the diagnosis is correct and if the diagnosis is wrong, because militaries don't want junior officers questioning the sanity and situational awareness of their seniors all the time. Yet if communication is obviously impossible, the subordinate may act. In a science-fictional setting, we might be back to situations where the communications lag is measured in years, not seconds.

See section 1088 of this US Navy Regulation.

  1. It is conceivable that most unusual and extraordinary circumstances may arise in which the relief from duty of a commanding officer by a subordinate becomes necessary, either by placing the commanding officer under arrest or on the sick list. Such action shall never be taken without the approval of the Commandant of the Marine Corps or the Chief of Naval Personnel, as appropriate, or the senior officer present, except when reference to such higher authority is undoubtedly impracticable because of the delay involved or for other clearly obvious reasons. In any event, a complete report of the matter shall be made to the Commandant of the Marine Corps or the Chief of Naval Personnel, as appropriate, and the senior officer present, setting forth all facts in the case and the reasons for the action or recommendation, with particular regard to the degree of urgency involved.

  2. In order that a subordinate officer, acting upon his, or her own initiative, may be vindicated for relieving a commanding officer from duty, the situation must be obvious and clear, and must admit of the single conclusion that the retention of command by such commanding officer will seriously and irretrievably prejudice the public interests. The subordinate officer so acting

    a. Must be next in succession to command.

    b. Must be unable tn refer the matter to a common superior for the reasons set forth in the preceding paragraph.

    c. Must be certain that the prejudicial actions of the commanding officer are not caused by instructions unknown to him or her.

    d. Must have given the matter much careful consideration, and have made such exhaustive investigation of all the circumstances as maybe practicable.

    e. Must be thoroughly convinced that the conclusion to relieve the commanding officer is one which a reasonable, prudent and experienced officer would regard as a necessary consequence from the facts thus determined to exist.

Regarding the comment by Uvphoton, the captain may well be aware of orders or circumstances which the lieutenant has no need to know. Say the company is part of a deception, the troops are supposed to act as if they were the spearhead of a larger force, yet no such force exists. The senior would appear to be acting on a wildly unreal situation assessment.

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    $\begingroup$ A commissioned officer is in a far better position to do this than an NCO. It's also very helpful to have the support of a medical officer, and to have successfully resolved the military situation that led to the need to relieve the commander. There will be an enquiry, but if the junior officer is backed by the enquiry, their character won't be stained. $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2022 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ I think this answer gets at the heart of the problem. Part of the question concerns 'lawful orders'. Before the deployment there is usually a purpose for the mission or objectives. There are also usually rules of engagement. This of course varies with country and the type of military, and type of military unit. In todays world it unusual for for a unit to remain out of contact with a higher command for a long time, or if it is anticipated that they will be out of contact it would usually be a team weighted with some senior enlisted and possibly a higher ranked person than an Army Captain. $\endgroup$
    – UVphoton
    Aug 28, 2022 at 21:37
  • $\begingroup$ @UVphoton This reminds me that it's time to watch the Hunt For Red October again. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 29, 2022 at 5:46
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen I highly recommend reading the Jack Ryan series. Unlike the movie adaptations (of which I think only Red October is good), most of the book series is good. $\endgroup$
    – jaskij
    Aug 29, 2022 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ @jaskij, I'd call the early books great technothrillers/espionage novels, but with The Sum of all Fears the storyline departed too far from reality to work in the old pattern. Since then it is mediocre alternate history. (I've read a couple more, then stopped. Major fictional wars work better as stand-alone.) $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Aug 29, 2022 at 15:00

The second in command needs to have clear and unambiguous evidence.

The second in command can in many military branches remove their superior, but they need to meet several criteria.

  1. Retention of the commander must massively impair public interests. If they're a bit kooky on a routine patrol you can just screen their orders and manage them till you get back in contact with superiors. If they're going insane in a combat zone, then you need to manage them.

  2. You must be unable to contact superior officers. You're supposed to relieve them by contacting senior people. You must have tried and failed to do this.

  3. You must ensure their behaviour is not caused by secret orders. Maybe they are ordering a dangerous plan of action because they have been ordered by the admiralty?

  4. You must exhaustively prove that this matter is well investigated. Can you do a drug test? Can you scan the captain for brain damage? Have they done anything that is wildly inappropriate like pissing themselves on the bridge?

If you can prove all these factors, you can relieve your superior. Initiative is prized in the military, but also they don't want subordinates just taking out superiors because they don't like legal orders. If you get the doctor and other officers to agree this is a necessary and obvious need, you'll probably be ok.


Captain and lieutenant are both Army ranks and Naval ranks, and unfortunately they have vastly different meanings between the Army and the Navy.

  • In the Army, captains and lieutenants are subordinate officers. They are never ever ever supposed to question their orders:

    "Forward, the Light Brigade!" Was there a man dismay'd? Not tho' the soldier knew some one had blunder'd: theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die: into the valley of Death rode the six hundred. ("The Charge of the Light Brigade", by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1854.)

    An Army lieutenant who attempted to take over the command of his superior officer in time of war would be summarily shot for insurbordination in the presence of the enemy, and rightly so. "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die."

    Army lieutenants and captains are not privy to the big picture and cannot judge to reasons why their orders were given. The higher command may even have deliberately given them orders knowing full well that they will die trying to fulfill them; it happens: sometimes the higher command has to sacrifice some low-level units in order to achieve greater goals.

    The only imaginable situation when a lieutenant takes over the command of his immediate superior and doesn't get shot or hanged is if the company (commanded by the captain) was some sort of commando force operating autonomously on short-term mission in enemy territory. But commanders of commando forces are generally very experienced soldiers, fully screened and vetted, and do not tend to go mad overnight.

  • In the Navy, a captain is a senior rank, equivalent to an Army colonel. If the captain's ship was operating autonomously on some sort of long cruise, and if during this cruise the captain become unable to discharge his duties, it may be the case that his second in command (and nobody else) may be justified in taking over the command of the ship. It may even be his duty to do so, if the captains orders put the ship in immediate danger -- navies have this quaint notion that the ship is more important than the crew, and definitely more important than the niceties of protocol.

    When they return home, there will be a Court Martial. The officer who relieved his captain of command will have to explain himself, and bring proof that his actions were justified and necessary. But, at least, the Navy officer has a fair chance to escape unshot and unhanged, unlike the poor Army lieutenant.

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    $\begingroup$ This answer is so wrong it is hard to know where to start. e.g. Please provide evidence (other than a poem) to indicate which militaries have summary execution in their legal frameworks. e.g. "They are never ever ever supposed to question their orders" – it is well established since Nuremberg that military personnel at all levels (commissioned or otherwise), in all countries, have a duty to disobey some orders (i.e. those that are are in themselves illegal). Also in most modern militaries, junior officers are expected to show initiative and are not the uninformed blind followers you describe $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2022 at 2:52
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelMacAskill it was fairly well established before Nuremburg that it was at least optional. It's been clearly mandatory since. $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    Aug 29, 2022 at 22:06

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