[June 23, 2016] Upon arriving in Baghdad, Iraq in early 2004 with a small team of military engineers I was assigned two additional engineer Captains who were being held over for Courts Martial. Both would be found guilty, stripped of their rank, and discharged from the U.S. Army. They had failed to heed an important military principle: command responsibility.
Their crime? They had discovered that some of their men were illegally shipping banned weapons back to the United States and failed to report it. Not a new concept, Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War that it is a commander’s duty to ensure his subordinates conduct themselves in a civilized manner during armed conflict. Although it appears to originate with the military, the term is used more broadly to supervise subordinates and liability for the failure to do so.1
Legally the concept was codified internationally at The Hague Convention of 1899 and the Geneva Convention in 1907. It also has a track record in Asian, American, and European law and customs. Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita, for example, was prosecuted after the World War II and executed for atrocities committed by troops under his command in the Pacific Theater during the war.
Witness the behavior of many leaders, whether in politics, the military, business, etc, gross abuses of power, failure to hold subordinates accountable, and personal failure to be honest about their associations. Yet, we find that many leaders are not held accountable under the standard of command responsibility.
Referring to the deaths at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “What difference at this point does it make?”2 when asked about it and yet she was never held to account. U.S. President George Bush used many reasons to enter a war in Iraq including Weapons of Mass Destruction which, other than some chemical weapons, certainly did not exist in the quantities justifiable for war.
A serious question that senior leaders must ask themselves is whether command responsibility still matters anymore. For leaders who are not politicians, the doctrine is certainly in force both legally and morally. For politicians the answer is much less clear and is a reflection on our character as a nation.
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