"I cannot accept, your canon that we are to judge pope and king unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they do no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way against holders of power....Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." ~ Lord Acton
Just Following Orders
Most of us have heard of the excuse called "The Nuremburg Defense." At the trials of the Nazi war criminals in Nuremburg, many of the accused defended their actions by claiming that they were just following orders. It seems a bit odd that the state revenue agents, known as law enforcement, often use this exact same excuse when citizens complain to them about being shaken down. What is implicit in this arrangement is that armed agents of the state must often abandon their judgment and conscience when they are given orders to follow.
Nothing illustrates this better than war and its aftermath. It is not difficult to know who to shoot at if your enemy has a uniform on. But 20th Century warfare wasn't like that. In the 19th century, officers did their best to avoid battles that would place civilians in the line of fire. Today, civilian deaths are simply written off as collateral damage. World War II is replete with examples of the atrocities that occurred if you happened to be a civilian on the losing side and the soldiers on the winning were just following orders: the fire bombing of Dresden, the siege of Leningrad, and of course, the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There are many lesser known tragedies that are equally as appalling, especially if you consider the fact that the Allied forces handed civilians over to their executors. One case involved 30,000 anti-Tito civilians who were granted asylum in southern Austria . In less than two weeks in May of 1945, all of them were locked into cattle cars by the British soldiers and the trains were turned over to Tito's partisans. These men, women and children were all taken through a pine forest by truck, shot and dumped into a natural chasm. The worst part of all this was the fact that the British soldiers carried this out with full knowledge of the fate that awaited these innocents. Not one of the soldiers disobeyed their orders. Captain Nigel Nicolson, in his daily Situation Report, did express the disdain that the soldiers felt when they followed their orders. He was reprimanded by the General over him and was ordered to "correct" his report.
In 1989, there was a libel trial held concerning this affair. Nigel Nicholson then testified that he should have disobeyed his orders, faced court-martial and possibly a year in prison. He was not the only British officer who felt this way. Anthony Crosland, who went on to become a British Foreign Secretary wrote, "It was the most nauseating and cold-blooded act of war that I have ever taken part in." So why did they do it? Was their will to resist an unconscionable order broken down by their long exposure to all of the misery that war brings with it? Did they just want to get it all over with and go home? Or were they just following orders?