We commonly think of military forces as being rigidly hierarchical, and committed to following orders to a suicidal extreme for individual soldiers. But, are there examples of military forces organized in a less hierarchical and less authoritarian manner?

For example, I've heard that historically, in the U.S. military, in some cases officers were democratically elected by their men.

Put another way, is the authoritarian organization of the military actually necessary, or just a deeply ingrained tradition that could even be obsolete?

  • 2
    Hmm... That last part really seems like an entirely different question. Also, how strict do you want to be about what qualifies as a 'military force?' Regular armies only? Militias? Guerrilla warfare by irregulars or even armed civilians?
    – reirab
    Apr 14, 2018 at 9:54
  • DIdn't they elect some officers in English Civil War?
    – user4012
    Apr 14, 2018 at 12:56
  • @reirab I'm assuming a fairly broad definition - large groups of coordinated people under arms who fight or are prepared to fight military engagements.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 14, 2018 at 13:05
  • @ohwilleke - are you including ancient armies? They had little discipline, especially Celts etc...
    – user4012
    Apr 14, 2018 at 13:13
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    @JonathanReez You seriously underestimate the nature of the fighting in Afghanistan, Yemen or the Levant for example. Some of the belligerents might be compared to guerilla forces but they do have a high level of organisation and military discipline.
    – Relaxed
    Jul 29, 2018 at 9:34

3 Answers 3

  • The Albanian army had elected officers and was less authoritarian in general. Source: "Pickaxe and Rifle" by William Ash

  • I don't have a cite at the moment, but IIRC some pirates in the Caribbean elected their officers.

  • Again, no cites at the moment but Anarchist forces in Spanish Civil War not only elected officers but were somewhat less authoritarian.

  • Finnish Red Guards elected their officers.

  • I vaguely remember some mention of officer election in Russia post-October-revolution

  • At some points, Generals were elected in Athens.

  • Not sure if it fits, but from what I read, there was VERY little discipline in practice in many contractor military units during 30 Years War.

  • A useful list IMO (+1). Can't help noticing that quite a few of the examples in your list are, for lack of a better word, pop-up armed forces rather than armies (organized by a state). Building up the kind of hierarchy established armies have takes quite a bit of time. Apr 15, 2018 at 5:02
  • Some leaders elected by their men were definitely very authoritarian and operated within a very hierarchical organisation. In any of these examples, did the leader have a limited term or face formal requirements to accept dissent or get their decisions approved by some other body?
    – Relaxed
    Jul 29, 2018 at 9:37

In times of warfare, you don't want to discuss when one needs to act. At that moment, speed of acting is important.

Therefore, a clear chain of command is critical in some circumstances, and every regular army will have one. The fastest way to get a decision is to empower a single person to make that decision.

However, how this chain of command is established, might differ. user4012's answer list examples of elections. Promotions based on merit are common nowadays, but promotions based on class or whom you know are not uncommon throughout history.

Before and after the actual fighting, there is less requirements for blindly following orders. Some armies are still very authoritarian at all times; Other armies are less authoritarian when there is no need.

I think even among the NATO armies, there will be differences in culture on this front. I expect the Dutch forces to be less authoritarian than e.g. the USA forces, but can't quote any sources to support this.


The German army tolerates unions and I remember that the representative of the fighter pilots' union went on TV once to publicly call on members to disobey an order to down a civilian plane suspected of having been hijacked in a 9/11 style plot, should such an order ever be given. On the other hand, this is an army that hasn't been seriously involved in combat operations for a long time.

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