Just Following Orders

A man is ordered to do a heinous act. Then when caught, he blames others. It is an old saga, and as I heard the defense on the Abu Ghraib Torture Case, it sent shivers down my spine. Spc. Charles Graner, who bears no regrets over the matter it appears, did the bidding of his superior officers.

How can anyone with a conscience or knowledge of right and wrong have such a defense? There are times when a person must act with his conscience, and if he knows something to be wrong, he must refuse to participate. Yes, he may pay a penalty, but the penalty is often minimal.

There was a study done by Christopher Browning, author of Ordinary men, and other historians about the killing squads of the Nazis. The infamous Eisatzgruppen that slaughtered men, women and children across Eastern Europe. Many of the men claimed that they were forced to do the work.

In a study of German documents, they found that any soldier that had refused to take part in the killing was transferred. They were not ordered on penalty of death to carry out their operations. On the contrary, those that couldn’t stomach the slaughter were placed in new companies and given more mundane work. The Nazis didn’t want moral folks on the front lines of the killing machine. They needed those who were just going to carry out the work. And of course, they catalogued their horrific crimes in documents, film, and photographs. Making the case against them easy to prosecute.

There is the famous Israeli army code called the Purity Of Arms, where a soldier has the right to refuse to carry out an order, even in war, without penalty of death. He may be imprisoned for refusing an order, but each episode will get a fair hearing. If the soldier was found to be disobeying an immoral and wrong order, they are released.

Once upon a time, if a soldier refused an order in warfare they would be summarily shot, and this holds true today in some armies. But there in Iraq, behind the walls of he prison, there was no such pressure on these soldiers. There was no ax held over their heads. The worst that could happen is they will go to jail for not listening. The penalty for this is much less that the 17 years that Graner should get for his crimes.

Now I am not advocating that we treat terrorists with five star accommodations. However, the abuse of the prisoners had nothing to do with getting them to reveal ticking-bomb type information. It was pure and sickening sadism, in the spirit of the worst offenders of modern times.

Graner, his friends, and his defense lawyers, after they loose this case, should have to sit through the hearings of the Nuremburg trial, where humanity, without hesitation, vetoed the notion that “a good soldier does the bidding of his officers.? If the order is evil, a soldier must refuse. Graner is not a Nazi. He tortured, performed sadistic acts, humiliated, and enjoyed his work— but did not murder them afterwards. However his defence teams’ plea leaves such a bad taste, and Graner appears so glib, saying “I feel fantastic,” to the press, that one cannot help but feel that his penalty should be so severe so as to send a clear message to the world: Graner was wrong and will pay the price.

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Posted on January 14, 2005, in Judaism. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. It’s time to read Hannah Arendt again, and meditate on the banality of evil.

    Spc. Graner is demonstrating what she was talking about: he’s not actually maliciously evil… he just had no moral compass to tell him that what he was doing was horribly, horribly wrong.

  2. David, you are so right.
    When he was convicted today, he claimed no regret. He knew that he may be doing wrong, but he didn’t flinch. It was the banality of evil.

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