I Was Just Following Orders

By | November 16, 2018

[November 16, 2018]  A senior U.S. Navy admiral once told me that he wished for a penny for every time sailors told him that they were ‘just following orders.’  Usually, it was after some major blunder where things had gone terribly wrong and they were trying to make-up an excuse for their failure.

I was just following orders is the classic line heard at the NürnbergTrails where senior Nazi soldiers were on trial for atrocities committed during World War II.  I’ve also heard the excuse uttered during a military courts martial when an accused soldier is trying to find a way out of taking bthe lame for a violation of military regulations.

Unknown to most civilians is that U.S. military personnel are not just trained to follow orders but are educated in following only lawful orders.  For example, if an Army officer tells a sergeant to prepare his soldiers to clean the barracks for an upcoming inspection, there is the belief the order will be followed.  But if that same officer tells the sergeant to steal books from the post library, which would be an unlawful order and should expect that it will not be obeyed.

“If a superior give any order to one who is under him which is against that man’s conscience, although he do not obey it yet he shall not be dismissed.” – Francis of Assisi, Italian Catholic friar, deacon, and preacher

The U.S. military has relatively high education standards and expects all troops to exercise a degree of critical thinking.  This has always been the case.  As a boy, I often heard the story about German Generals during WWII who failed to appreciate American soldiers who questioned the orders of their officers.  The idea was that a U.S. soldier wanted to know “why” an order was given and also that the order was “lawful.”

To follow lawful orders requires self-discipline and sacrifice.  To disobey an unlawful or illegal order requires courage and strength of personality.  But both require a level of intellect which each person must develop during their lifetime to think about each order as given and to determine whether it is the right thing to do.

It is a leader responsibility to teach and educate those under their authority to distinguish between the two and to find the moral courage required to stand up to wrong doing, to bullies, and to those who would do others wrong.  The difficult challenge for leaders is ensuring that they have the fundamental traits of a good citizen first.


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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

19 thoughts on “I Was Just Following Orders

  1. Tracey Brockman

    The Nuremburg Trials after the defeat of Nazi Germany at the end of WWII was done right (my opinion anyway). Too bad such trials had not taken place in the Soviet Union; then we would have an idea how worse the USSR was than Germany.

    1. Bill Sanders, Jr.

      China and the Soviet Union have been responsible for the deaths of 10s of millions and the privation of many more. “Intellectual” professors today teaching young snowflakes about their socialist/communist ideology failed to grasp the magnitude of the failure of the historically documented ideology.

    2. Gil Johnson

      Excellent ideas here. That is why, I think, we still see socialism around the world despite its great failures. First, it’s attractive to the undereducated and lazy. Second, it creates a situation that only through force can it really work. And third, when it works it destroys.

  2. Willie Shrumburger

    🙂 Excellent points here. Thank you.
    Shoutout to all the readers of General Satterfield’s blog.

  3. Nick Lighthouse

    Another good blog post. Thanks Gen. Satterfield. Perhaps you could an article related to this on some of the things soldiers did that were morally wrong when they were following orders.

  4. Kenny Foster

    Gets back to the idea that people must be balanced. They cannot be robotic and just follow orders and they cannot resist every order on the assumption it’s evil. That is why we teach people to think for themselves and not get caught up into a political ideology that distorts their thoughts.

  5. Drew Dill

    “I was just following orders” is one of the first things I was told in the US Army would not cut it as an excuse for not doing our jobs. Too bad it’s no longer taught in either the military or in civilian life. I know how disappointed I was when I got out of the army and became a citizen. Seemed to me that civilians are always making excuses for not doing their job.

  6. Mark Evans

    Good article today and something for me to think about as we approach the weekend. yesterday someone recommended the book by Gen. Stan McChrystal. These ideas have a confluence in ideas. Thanks for those who comment here.

  7. Maureen S. Sullivan

    Not that long ago, the USA was a beacon of free and innovative thought. Today it is leading the world in rigid, ideological thinking. Well almost. Soon Americans will have to make a decision.

  8. Max Foster

    Learning how to think critically (not being critical) was the hallmark of Western civilization. That is no longer true, sadly.

    1. Martin Shiell

      Max, how true your comment is. Just look at our colleges today. They are more interested in teaching a certain restrictive (read that as socialist) ideology than how to think for yourself. That explains all the stupidity coming out of college today. Oh, explains all except the lack of moral courage among the administrations.

    2. Kenny Foster

      Yes, well said Max. We need more to point out the direction Western Civ is going and things are not going well.

  9. Army Captain

    Same here. I here the excuse over and over. I say to them, ‘but weren’t you thinking?’ Of course that doesn’t do any good but I’m hoping that it makes them start to think.

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