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"Just Following Orders" is No Excuse

If Bush is a War Criminal, Then What About the Troops

by STEPHEN S. PEARCY

In addition to holding George Bush and U.S. Congress accountable for the illegal occupation of Iraq, American troops must also be prepared to accept responsibility, because we’re all presumed to know the law. If we accept that fundamental legal presumption, then those of us who claim that the war is illegal must also acknowledge that the troops are unexcused aiders and abettors.

Lt. Ehren Watada’s case is a good example. Watada’s position is that he has a duty to refuse orders to deploy to Iraq, because those orders effectively command him to pursue an illegal war. Watada correctly understands that obeying those orders could subject him to war crimes charges under a more just administration (which should try George Bush first).

Publicly available information about the Iraq invasion has become plentiful over the last several years. Reasonable people contemplating service in the U.S. military should know that people throughout the world regard participation in the occupation as tantamount to aiding and abetting in mass murder, fraud, human rights violations, and international war crimes. By now, all of the troops should recognize this, and ignorance is no excuse.

The frequency of U.S.-sponsored war crimes in Iraq is such that it has become the norm rather than the exception. U.S. troops have intentionally and recklessly caused the deaths of so many Iraqi civilians, and continue to do so, that we can now properly regard acts in furtherance of the occupation effort generally to be acts substantially likely to facilitate crimes such as those which have already occurred.

From a legal standpoint, obeying Bush’s orders is just like when Nazi soldiers obeyed Hitler’s orders. And we know from the Nuremberg trials that the "just-following-orders" excuse is invalid. Watada’s case suggests that we should question all troops’ willingness to follow their illegal orders.

Suggesting troop-responsibility for the illegal war is unpopular, but it would also have been unpopular during WWII for a German citizen to suggest that Nazi troops be held accountable for obeying their illegal orders. At the end of the day, it’s really no different.

STEPHEN S. PEARCY is an attorney and peace activist in Berkeley, CA. You can email him at stephen.pearcy@sbcglobal.net.