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The Tragedy of “Just Following Orders”

Posted by Gail Barth on

I guess it hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that an awful lot of evil throughout history has been perpetrated by people claiming they were “just following orders.” If you’ve ever read anything about the infamous Nuremberg Trials where the Nazis were tried for their horrific crimes against humanity during World War II, then you’re probably familiar with what became known as the Nuremberg defense, which invoked the claim that they were bound to obey ‘superior orders.’ These military tribunals established that this defense didn’t absolve war criminals of their guilt; at most, it merely mitigated it.

During the Nuremberg Trials, Nazis brought up on charges contended that “while they knew Adolf Hitler’s orders were unlawful, or at least had reason to believe they were unlawful, their place was not to question, but to obey. They claimed they were compelled to do so by the Führerprinzip (leader principle) that governed the Nazi regime, as well as their own oath of allegiance to Hitler. In most cases, the tribunal found that the defendants’ offenses were so egregious that obedience to superior orders could not be considered a mitigating factor” (Wikipedia).

But the aftermath of World War II wasn’t the first time the ‘just following orders’ defense was used, nor was it the last. In the 1400s a Knight was put on trial by the Holy Roman Empire for atrocities committed by his men. He claimed he was following the Duke of Burgandy’s orders and therefore not responsible, but because the buck stopped with him (yes, I know that expression came later), the court found him responsible due to what was probably the first use of the doctrine of command responsibility. He was found guilty of war crimes he could have prevented, and was ultimately beheaded.

Flash forward to more recent history: the My Lai massacre in 1968, for example, and—oh, yes—the Trump administration. Former ICE director Thomas Homan told a Fox reporter back in June that his agency has been erroneously and unfairly compared to Nazi war criminals because—and how’s this for irony—ICE agents were all just following orders. And I guess we are to believe that everyone involved in separating thousands of children, including infants and toddlers, from their parents are also just following orders. The courts try to undo the damage, Trump ignores them, no one steps in to enforce the will of the court, and children remain incarcerated like the tiny criminals that they aren’t. The sheer number of people who need to be held accountable for this horror is staggering. We’re talking about the agents who round them up to the workers in the detention centers who give “care” that is, from all reports, devoid of any affection and compassion. So many criminals operating under the ‘just following orders’ defense who could make such a difference if they followed both the law and what’s left of their withering consciences.

The list of Trump flunkies who are hurting humanity, the environment, international relations, the US Constitution and our democracy is exhaustive. And incredibly frightening. But what’s even more frightening is the number of lawmakers who, much like the Nazi officers under Hitler’s command, carry out their orange fuhrer’s twisted orders and/or turn a blind eye to his whims and his agenda of hate that ramps up another notch every time he sees a picture of Obama. Even if some of what Trump orders inches just this side of lawful, the moral outrage should be deafening. And if lawmakers can’t manage to squeeze that out, then they should be able to identify the ultimate and continuous crazy when they see it. But they obviously aren’t inclined to call Trump out on any of his criminal disregard for anyone and anything that doesn’t benefit him. And they clearly don’t plan to call a halt to any of it. After all, they’re just following orders.

Trump’s ego-stroking grandiose military parade, which mimics other such dictatorial displays in history, has been postponed, but not shut down. Meanwhile, we have exploding national debt, too many countrymen living in poverty, veterans in desperate need of help, and so many other real and worthy uses for the projected 92 million this spectacle will cost. And where were those people with the power and courage to override Trump’s inaction and complete lack of compassion as thousands died in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria? And the national bloviator’s wall? His congressional backups and rubber stampers deal with this as they deal with all of his insane ideas and proposals: by standing off to the side in a quietly self-congratulatory and satisfying circle jerk, fiddling away (in a manner of speaking) while Rome burns. There is so much more I could add to the list of stupidities, oddities, and atrocities that Trump has perpetrated and, by inaction, his lawmakers have allowed, and this presidential term is still an eternity away from ending (unless, of course, it doesn’t end, a slight change to the Constitution for which Trump is angling and could very well get).

I guess I’m maybe being a little unfair to the Nazis in comparing them to Trump. In one important way, those who follow Trump’s orders may be worse. Press coverage wasn’t then what it is now, of course, but what we see today is a horde of Trump followers and flunkies who not only follow his orders, but also put as positive a spin on them as possible and make excuses for behavior that cannot be excused. That goes beyond frustrating all the way to horrifying. The list of Trump zombies gets longer every day, it seems, and among those no longer in possession of their souls (or at least their self respect) are Sarah Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, most of the Fox News staff, Mike Pence, and so many others, including the thousands of unnamed individuals who do his bidding while defending his heinousness around the dinner table or in their Bible study groups. And, of course, most complicit of all: the GOP members of Congress who goose-step as they fall in line behind him.

Think of the difference Nazis with any power at all could have made if they had refused, even some of them, to obey Hitler’s orders. Six million Jews died, many of them children, because the Germans with the power to stop him, instead helped man the Nazi killing machine because they were ‘just following orders.’ And think what a difference Trump’s followers could make if they would only step up and refuse to do his bidding. Occasionally, a Trump official will resign in disgust, but there are always others ready and willing to fill the vacancy. In 1998, the International Criminal Court declared that “orders to commit genocide or crimes against humanity are manifestly unlawful.” Trump and, by extension, his spineless minions at all levels, continue to hurt people, especially the most vulnerable, while they decimate the environment. But rest assured their consciences are clear. They are, after all, just following orders.

Other commentaries by Gail Barth: 

Review: Dark Money
Extinction of All the Right Species
Shitler’s Irony
Trump-Putin Loyalty Program
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Real Fake News
Donald Trump: Clueless Idiot or Amoral Serial Killer? 

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