Saturday, June 16, 2007

Disobeying Unlawful Orders in a War Zone by Louis Evan Palmer

Helmut Oberlander was initially accused of committing war crimes. Now the federal government's case against him rests on false statements on his entry application. This is one proceeding of many which points to the larger issue of following orders and the responsibilities of those issuing and those following any given order.

It is important for society to give direction as to what an individual is to do when faced with orders that are unlawful. It is fine to admonish one to not execute an unlawful order but how exactly is that to be accomplished? Unless there is a straight-forward, somewhat safe, process then it will be difficult for a soldier in the field under duress to resist or to even know how to resist.

There is also the issue of relativity. While we'd like to have constants, it will prove to be impossible to expect any given person to act a certain way under all circumstances. The impact of an order, its force of compulsion, depends on many factors. One factor is who is issuing the order. There is no doubt that an order given by a General carries more weight than an order given by a Lieutenant. We will find it more difficult to disobey a General's order than a Lieutenant. A nineteen-old private will find it more difficult to disobey an order than a thirty-old Sergeant.

The facts will probably confirm that it is easier to disobey an order that involves a petty criminal act such as stealing than an order to fire into a crowd of civilians. The aura of threat and risk protects the soldiers acting in a violent way but those who are stealing have no such cover.

The scope of the apparatus that is issuing unlawful orders is also a factor. If many branches of government are involved, or entire branches including the enforcement units, then it becomes very hard to not comply. This includes a compromise of the news and broadcasting mediums. In effect, entire branches of government and/or society become criminal enterprises.

In a war situation, the way the war is going for a given side affects how they act, what orders are issued and how they are carried out. When the losing side anticipates outside justice, they will either become more vindictive and brutal or more accomodating and dutiful. The victorious side on the other hand is rarely magnanimous, the urge to abuse power is almost overwhelming, the chance of prosecution practically nil.

You're in the field, you reading these words, you're given an order to blow up a farmhouse which you're sure has civilians in it. Your unit is under fire from nearby woods. What do you do?

It is a good bet that you're thinking about your chances of surviving disobedience. You may get shot right away. In the Soviet Army, many were shot for disobeying an order, for not advancing rigourously enough, etc.. Even if you got away somehow, your chances of discovery could be high if there are many other units in the area. If you're lucky and end up in jail, you may not make it back from the front lines. Your reputation with your comrades will be shredded. Maybe not.

Imagine you are Helmut Oberlander. You are seventeen. War has engulfed your country and all the countries around you. At this point, Germany is victorious. You are separated from your family. You are ordered to work as an intepreter. You are taken from your home. You know very little about war. You have not trained as a soldier. According to society and the directive to not obey an unlawful order, what should you have done?

Run away? Can you survive in the woods? How many people can do that before it becomes impractical, before you become too easy to track down?

If you were a soldier, can you deliberately miss the people you're supposed to shoot?

Perhaps, the best you can hope for is little victories here and there. Or, are we asking for suicide? It is hard question as to how many lives are worth you're own. The difference between innocent deaths and justified kills.

Part of the answer must be to avoid war. Another part of the answer is only use non-lethal weapons and to only fight in defense of your country. Because once you've entered the maw of death and destruction that is war, you'll never know what you can do and what you can't.

Disobeying Unlawful Orders in a War Zone, The Way It Can Be, Louis Evan Palmer,
Copyright 2007 Louis Evan Palmer lives in Ontario Canada. His short stories have been published in numerous publications.


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