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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

I Was Only Following Orders

Fred A Wilcox • 17 June 2004

When I was young, I often encountered strange children on the streets of my city. These boys and girls had huge sad eyes, they never laughed, and they were skin and bones. "Displaced people," said my father, who had seen kids like these in the war-shattered ruins of Europe. Displaced from what? From families that perished in concentration camps. From towns that had been blown to pieces. From mass murderers who, when hauled before a court at Nuremberg, showed no remorse, did not apologize for the atrocities they had committed, and even expressed pride in their contribution to exterminating millions of Jews, Gypsies, Socialists, Communists, and Homosexuals. After all, said these men, "We were only following orders."

As the United States of America continues to deploy more than 100,000 heavily armed troops in Iraq, I ask students in my college seminar on violence/nonviolence to write a paper in which they explore the consequences of following, or not following, orders. We watch a documentary about a small Vietnamese village called My Lai. In this documentary, combat veterans of the Vietnam War attempt to explain why they obeyed orders to kill over 500 innocent men, women, and children.

One of the men interviewed for this film explains that he went on a rampage, killing everything in sight, including a woman who was carrying a baby. "I shot her," says the veteran. "And when I looked the bullet had gone straight through and killed the baby. Why? I was trained to follow orders. They told us to kill everyone that day, and that's exactly what we did." His hands shake, his legs quiver, and his eyes fill with tears. He takes massive amounts of drugs to control his nerves. He has attempted suicide on several occasions.

I talk to my students about Bloody Sunday, and they are invariably shocked to hear that British soldiers opened fire on civil rights demonstrators in Derry, N. Ireland, killing fourteen unarmed people, wounding many more. I tell them that anyone who has spent more than twenty-four hours in the military knows that soldiers do not act on their own. In basic training, recruits are trained to obey their superior’s orders. Failure to do so will result in the trainee being ostracized, ridiculed, verbally and physically attacked, and even drummed out of the service. So yes, on January 30, 1972, British paratroopers fired into the backs of teenage civil rights demonstrators, but the real question is who gave the orders for this massacre? Who wanted those demonstrators dead? Who wanted to terrorize, and to silence, people who were marching for the right to live in decent housing, work at rewarding jobs, and live without fear of being attacked by mercenaries like the B-Specials? It is becoming increasingly clear that while commanders on the ground issued orders to fire on the demonstrators, the plan of attack actually came from a much higher source; perhaps, straight down the chain of command from Downing Street.

I tell my students about Internment in the North of Ireland, and I ask them whether they would be willing to hold prisoners in torture chambers for days, putting hoods over their heads, beating and kicking them unconscious. Well meaning, good hearted young people, my students reply that they would never do such things, they would never follow orders to hurt and possibly kill innocent people. Yes, I say, but don’t we all follow orders? Aren’t we paying for the thousands of innocent people who have been killed, and are dying in Iraq? Doesn’t our tax money pay for every new weapon system the U.S. government develops and deploys in order, we’re told, to protect us from dangerous enemies? Aren’t we following orders when we pay for the crimes the Central Intelligence Agency has committed, and continues to commit, in the name of peace and democracy? If we see a crime in process but do nothing to stop it, are we accomplices to this violence?

The entire world has seen the horrific photographs from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. We’ve seen naked men, their bodies covered with mud or feces. Hooded men, their outstretched arms attached to what appears to be electric wires. Naked prisoners, some suffering from bleeding dog bites, cowering on the floor in front of snarling canines. A female American soldier smiling next to the corpse of an Iraqi, and other women warriors laughing and pointing to the genitals of naked Iraqi prisoners.

According to the men and women in these photographs, they were only following orders. Their job was to secure valuable information from detainees, and they had been led to believe that it was all right to torment, if not torture, prisoners of war. Like My Lai, and Bloody Sunday, the blame for crimes at Abu Ghraib will most likely fall upon ordinary soldiers who were trained to follow orders. Those who occupy, or who once sat in exalted positions of power—Margaret Thatcher, Edward Heath, George W. Bush, the list is long—will never be called before a tribunal to answer for their illegal, homicidal, genocidal orders . Like kings and queens who sent their armies off to burn and pillage, Thatcher, Bush, and company rest easy, far from the cries of the killing fields, far from the screams of the torture chambers, and far from the responsibility of the orders they issue to ordinary men and women.

At the end of World War II, the United States of America commenced to try Nazi officials for crimes against humanity. Arrogant and defiant, Herman Goering and company informed the tribunal that they were only following orders and, therefore, could not be held accountable for mass murder. The tribunal’s judges disagreed and, moreover, reached the following conclusion:

“Individuals have international duties which transcend the national l obligations of obedience imposed by the individual state. He who violates the laws of war cannot obtain immunity while acting in pursuance of the authority of the state if the sate in authorizing action moves outside its competence under international law.” (Wilcox, Uncommon Martyrs: How the Berrigans and Others are Turning Swords into Plowshares).

According to Richard Falk, Milbank Professor of International Law at Princeton University, the Nuremberg concept was extended to the level of primary leaders. This included doctors, judges, and business executives who were associated with implementing one or another facet of officially sanctioned Nazi (and Japanese imperial) policies. At Nuremberg, the principal was established that anyone with knowledge of crimes of state has a responsibility to act to take action to prevent these crimes. No superior order or sense of nationalistic identity should keep ordinary citizens from taking action to prevent crimes against humanity.
For more than three decades, the British government has stonewalled, obfuscated, and lied about what really happened on Bloody Sunday. The British government has refused to acknowledge its role in the assassinations of Pat Finucane and many other innocent people in N. Ireland. No one wants to concede, to confess, that he or she gave the orders to execute a man in front of his family, to blow a woman’s car to pieces outside of schoolyard, or to murder men and women suspected of belonging to the Irish Republican Army. Some of those who gave orders to torture, maim, and kill Irish Republicans in the North of Ireland have probably died, while others are undoubtedly hoping they will never be held accountable for issuing orders that were clearly violations of international law.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara and other high-ranking American officials who orchestrated the slaughter of millions of Vietnamese people were never tried for war crimes. And I suspect that George W. Bush and friends will write their memoirs, cash in on mass murder, and go gently into that good historical night. Unlike the young men who followed orders to kill civilians at My Lai, or the young men and women who tortured Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and their ilk will sleep soundly in their royal chambers, knowing that working class ground pounders will always pay for the crimes of state.

Where does all this lead? I think it’s time to establish an international movement based upon the refusal to follow illegal, immoral, unethical, orders. We can take inspiration from the approximately1300 courageous Israeli citizen soldiers who refuse to take part in their government’s genocidal campaigns in Palestine. We can take heart from the men who simply walked away from the carnage at My Lai. We can be inspired by American soldiers who tried to blow the whistle on the sadistic circus at Abu Ghraib, and by those men and women who refused to participate in the illegal invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, and after the bombing began, millions of people marched through the streets of London, Dublin, Madrid, Rome, New York City, and other cities. We were refusing to follow orders to support a preemptive strike, based on lies, against a sovereign nation. People stood up to authority, and got beaten, arrested, insulted, jailed. In the United States of America, we who opposed Mr. Bush’s war were called traitors, accused of supporting terrorism, and of insulting the men and women who were being sent off to fight and die.

What might happen if ordinary people throughout the world simply decide to refuse to follow orders? What if we proclaim that never again will we shoot our brothers and sisters down in the streets of Saigon and Derry and Belfast and Baghdad? What if we refuse to spy on, torture, and assassinate those whom our leaders deem enemies of the state? Who will fight wars so that the rich and powerful can get richer and more powerful, if we the people refuse to follow orders? This is not a utopian scheme. It simply takes courage to defy the insanity of those who promise to pin medals on our chests as a reward for fighting in their greed-driven crusades.

Without torturers, there can be no more torture chambers. Without assassins, there can be no more assassinations. Without soldiers, there can be no more wars. It seems to me that it’s just as simple, and complicated, as that. The “refusal to follow orders” group will require no dues. There will be no board of directors, no hierarchal leadership. Together, we will simply revolt against those who never have to see or touch or smell the blood they order ordinary people, like our friends and families, like us, to shed.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

17 June 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

A Day That Comes, Also Goes
Tom Luby

One of the Nine
Anthony McIntyre

IRPWA Delegation Targeted By British Army/RUC
Martin Mulholland

'The Confines of Republicanism'
Liam O Ruairc

I Was Only Following Orders
Fred A. Wilcox

Reagan's Legacy
Sean O Lubaigh

The Humanity in Us All
Dorothy Naor

13 June 2004

An Open Letter to the Leadership of the Irish Republican Army
Paul Fitzsimmons

Fred Wilcox

Something rotten at the core of US body politic
Mick Hall

Father Mc Manus Replies to Mrs. O'Loan, Urges Proof in Abundance
Father Sean Mc Manus

The Armed Peace
Anthony McIntyre

An Irish Wake for Ronnie Reagan
Radio Free Eireann

Gareth McConnell

Venezuela: terrorist snipers, their media allies and defence of democracy
Toni Solo


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