[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.