I received a number of public and private comments in response to my Wisconsin post about how badly anti-war protestors treated returning Vietnam vets. My first impulse was to compare the activists’ behavior with that of the U.S. government’s refusal to acknowledge the effects of Agent Orange and PTSD therefore denying treatment.
But the issue got me thinking about if an individual soldier has the ethical and moral responsibility to lay down arms when he/she realizes the war they are fighting is unjust, irresponsible, or flat-out wrong. How much information does an individual soldier need to realize that napalm incinerated more than enemy soldiers? That the killing of civilians in Panama was simply to rid the country of a leader we no longer needed? That “shock and awe” was slaughtering noncombatant Iraqis by the tens of thousands?
In an award-winning documentary about Robert McNamara called The Fog of War, he talks about his part in the military planning of destroying Dresden and later Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost offhandedly McN comments (and I paraphrase): Had the “other” side won, he and the rest of the Brass would have been tried as war criminals.
To the victor go the spoils and the opportunity. In this case to convict upper echelon Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials. But what about the soldiers who herded people into trains they knew were bound for extermination camps? Is “just following orders” really enough of a justification for sending innocent people to certain death? Of course, that Nazi soldier would be trading his life in protest for boxcars of lives. Is it even imaginable to ask anyone to make that choice?
One glance at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict raises the same sad question. A suicide bomber kills ten Israelis (which I don’t in any way condone) and Israel responds by bombing hundreds of Palestinians. When did “collateral damage” become something to simply ignore? I suppose it happens during any war, every war. But it sure don’t make it right.
And so we have modern precedent for trying leadership for “giving orders” but nowhere do we grapple with the responsibility of those who carry them out. In our culture, one that prides itself on touting “individual responsibility,” there’s something wrong with this picture.
Of course the notion of individual soldiers laying down their weapons is a daunting thought. But is it any more daunting than those who burned their draft cards during the Vietnam era, or for those who refused to serve? Or the memories I have of visiting friends in prison because they wouldn’t step forward when ordered to board the Army bus. Or other friends who were forced to expatriate because of their beliefs?
I understand the military is based upon an individual relinquishing his or her self to a chain of command. But perhaps it’s time for those individuals to hold onto their selves and decide if those commands are, in fact, ethical, moral, or not. And then decide whether to “just follow orders.”
Could be the world might have fewer wars and, more significantly, a much lower body count.