Legal Orders

I have previously been told that soldiers do not accrue responsibility for following legal orders, so that they are not culpable for the consequences of those orders. Their commanding officers, the ones that give the orders, are responsible, and as long as the orders fall within pre-established criteria of legality.

Setting aside the point that those criteria are really quite broad and permit all sorts of regrettable and undesirable outcomes, I don’t think most people have considered the implications of this position. If soldiers cannot be held responsible when things go wrong, they can’t be held responsible when things go right instead. Being liberated from culpability is a double-edged sword.

People give up their ability to make most moral or ethical decisions when they become soldiers, becoming instead the means by which others’ decisions are implemented. Rather than moral actors, they’re like guns and tanks: replaceable and interchangeable pieces of equipment, albeit expensive and difficult-to-replace. We don’t hold the gun responsible for killing someone, we blame the person, but if the person is liberated from culpability the gun and the person have equal moral weight.

It seems to me that surrendering the ability to make your own choices to an external agency can only be as virtuous as that external force is; nothing done afterwards can be considered either vice or virtue, wrong or right, because the actions do not originate in the actor. Soldiers are less-than-human.

Why this is considered an honorable and righteous thing-in-itself escapes me.


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