Captain Poe Dameron (it is Captain now, isn’t it?) has quite a bit going for him: He’s the best pilot in the Resistance, he commands an elite group of starfighters, and he’s recently been nominated for the coveted Most Handsome Rebel Scum in the Galaxy award for the 5th straight year.
Despite Poe’s great accomplishments and skills in the cockpit, we see him truly struggle in The Last Jedi. While the film uses his missteps as a way to evolve his character, Poe manages to commit some serious crimes in the process. In this article we’ll focus on Poe’s decision to disobey Leia’s orders. In the next article, we will break down his *alleged* mutiny.
CHARGE I: WILLFUL DISOBEDIENCE OF A SUPERIOR OFFICER IN VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 90, UNIFORM CODE OF MILITARY JUSTICE
Poe Dameron missed setting the record for fastest crime committed in a Star Wars movie, having been narrowly edged out by Jango Fett and Nute Gunray. With the Resistance in full retreat and the First Order fleet bearing down, Poe is sent to distract General Hux and give the last few transports time to make it off planet. As the evacuation finishes, Poe starts an attack on the First Order dreadnought to clear the way for the Resistance bombers. Realizing the danger of his plan, Leia orders Poe to immediately break off his attack and return to the Raddus. Poe then pays his respects by immediately cutting off his comm unit and continuing his assault.
Poe’s deliberate disobedience would undoubtedly constitute a serious crime under the military’s criminal code, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Article 90 of the UCMJ outlaws willful disobedience of a superior officer’s orders and is perhaps one of the most important crimes in the code.
Obedience to orders is one of the core components of military service. All service members are morally and legally bound to obey the lawful orders of their superiors, regardless of their personal beliefs or opinions. That concept is enshrined in the oath taken by all service members upon donning the uniform:
“I, [state your name], do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
The ability to enforce orders forms the foundation for good order and discipline. Without it, no branch of the military could properly function and lives would be put into jeopardy. Military courts have ruled that just about any type of lawful order, large or small, can be enforced under the UCMJ. These range from a directive to “shut up” to an order for a soldier to “double time” (run) to the barracks to get his equipment, and even an order for HIV-positive Airman to inform partners of his disease and practice safe sex. (United States v. Claytor, 34 M.J. 1030 (N.M.C.M.R. 1992); United States v. Mantilla, 36 M.J. 621 (A.C.M.R. 1992); United States v. Womack, 29 M.J. 88 (C.M.A. 1989)).
This rule is especially important during wartime, when commanders often issue orders that put their subordinates in harm’s way. Simply put, a refusal to follow orders on the battlefield can cost lives. Willful disobedience of orders during wartime is therefore considered a very serious crime. For example, during the Korean War, the Army court-martialed a soldier who refused to join a combat patrol. Even Desmond Doss, the phenomenally courageous medic whose story was portrayed in Hacksaw Ridge, was threatened with a court-martial if he refused to obey his commander’s order to train with a rifle during World War II. To fully drive home the seriousness of the offense, soldiers who willfully disobey a superior officer in a time of war can be sentenced to the death penalty.
The elements of the crime are:
- That the accused received a certain lawful command from a certain commissioned officer;
- That this officer was the superior commissioned officer of the accused;
- That the accused knew that this officer was the accused’s superior commissioned officer; and
- That the accused willfully disobeyed the lawful command.
In Poe’s case, prosecutors would have ample evidence to prove all four of those elements. As Poe gleefully blew up the dreadnought’s cannons, Leia very clearly came over the radio to issue him a command to immediately break off his attack.
As a General, Leia held a military commission that gave her the legal ability to issue Poe orders. As a General, she no doubt outranked Poe, even before he was slap-demoted. There is no question that Poe knew that Leia was his superior officer, as he had served under her for years.
The next question is whether Leia’s order was a lawful one. Under the UCMJ, a lawful order is one that relates to military duty, including all activities reasonably necessary to accomplish a military mission. Orders may not interfere with private rights or personal affairs without some valid military purpose. Here, the Resistance’s sole objective was to safely evacuate its personnel and escape the First Order fleet. Leia’s order to stop attacking went hand-in-hand with that larger mission, as she was desperately trying to get the fleet to hyperspace before the dreadnought fired again.
Poe had no personal or private right to continue fighting as he saw fit. As a military officer, he is duty-bound to obey Leia’s orders, even if he disagreed with her tactics. The fact that the fleet had a shot at destroying the massive ship didn’t make Leia’s order any less lawful, and it wouldn’t constitute a defense against the crime. The fly boy part of Poe may not have agreed with Leia’s order, but the order was nevertheless a lawful one.
An order must also be a clear, narrowly drawn mandate to do or not do a specific act. For example, military courts have found that an order to “shut up” to be a specific mandate to stop speaking, but on the other hand, an order to “settle down and be quiet” was found to be ambiguous.
In the case of Leia, she was crystal clear in her order to Poe. He was to stop attacking the dreadnought and return to the Raddus at once. Poe’s act of abruptly cutting off his comm unit as Leia gave the order shows that he fully understood Leia, but simply wanted to substitute her judgment with his own. Likewise, in the aftermath of the attack, Poe demonstrated his understanding of the order as he tried to justify the attack to Leia.
Finally, Poe’s disobedience was absolutely willful. Under Article 90, “willful disobedience” is an intentional defiance of authority. Failure to follow an order through heedlessness, forgetfulness, or recklessness does not amount to willful disobedience. Poe deliberately defied Leia’s order to stop his attack. When ordered to stop and return to the Raddus, he instead cuts Leia off and continues on, issuing orders to the rest of the squadron that directly contravened Leia’s intent. Poe wasn’t confused or forgetful as he disobeyed Leia; he simply didn’t like her strategy of retreat and got caught up in the tantalizing opportunity to destroy one of the First Order’s largest warships.
The devastating results of the battle above D’Qar show are a stark reminder of this rule is so important. By disobeying Leia’s order, the Resistance lost its entire fleet of bombers and their crews—precious lives and resources that could not be easily replaced. Poe’s shortsightedness not only cost the lives of dozens of Resistance personnel, but he put the entire fleet in jeopardy as they delayed the retreat. Were it not for Paige Tico’s heroics aboard the last remaining bomber, the entire Resistance fleet probably would have been destroyed as a direct result of Poe’s insubordination.
Poe’s actions also had ripple effects beyond those losses. Poe’s open defiance unacceptably undermined the chain of command, eroding General Organa’s command authority and damaging good order and discipline within the fleet. Resistance service members who overheard his defiance on the radio could easily think that if Poe Dameron didn’t have to obey Leia, why should they have to? That kind of dangerous mentality can spread quickly, especially under the sort of dire circumstances the Resistance faced at the time.
In the end, Poe got off pretty easily by being publicly slapped and demoted in humiliating fashion. Under normal circumstances, Poe probably would’ve found himself learning his new job as Resistance janitor from Finn, or worse.