Gershom gets requests for advice from seekers of Jewish identity, I get them from soldiers. I’ve edited the letter slightly to make it clearer and to avoid giving away the writer’s identity.-hw
You have said something to the effect that soldiers do not have the right to refuse orders to go to war even if they disagree with the war. Morality happens at the trigger level.
I ask this because I have oversight for the pay records of servicemen who sometimes deploy to GITMO, assigned to guard servicemen who may or may not have been waterboarding detainees. If I believe that waterboarding is illegal, do I have a moral responsibility to do something contrary to military orders and the good order and discipline of the unit?
My aunt, uncle, and cousin ended up at Treblinka, sent from Warsaw. That entire system of death was designed so that no one would normally feel any onus of responsibility.
I want to avoid ever being a part of system that is similar to what happened at Treblinka.
Confused personnel officer
You’ve read me correctly. While I believe that soldiers must seek to act legally and morally, and are duty-bound to refuse to carry out manifestly illegal or immoral orders, my own army has experience convinced me that the cases to which this rule applies are rare. In the broad gray area in which a soldier serving in the army of a democratic country is charged with carrying out a policy which he thinks is wrong-headed, or in fighting in a war that he may disagree with profoundly, I believe that his duty to obey orders and to defend his comrades and his country trumps his personal misgivings. In this, I should note, I disagree with many writers about morality in warfare.
The precedent of Nazi Germany is, of course, a frightening one. But, clearly, in many ways the German soldier in World War II faced quite a different set of circumstances. First, the country he served was not a democracy. True, the Nazi regime enjoyed broad popular support, but opponents of the regime had no way of opposing its criminal policies within the system. Furthermore, the Nazi regime embarked on a campaign of conquest and genocide. As reprehensible the U.S. policies represented by Gitmo may be, they do not approach the level of unquestioned criminality reached by the Nazis.
My gut feeling is that, in the big picture, a German soldier who found himself involved even indirectly in the genocide program should have refused orders, while a German soldier at the front wasn’t morally required to do so, although he certainly would have been admirable if he did. But that leaves out a lot of the complications that existed on the ground.
I don’t know all the details of how your system works. Clearly, if you were ordered to torture a prisoner yourself, you should refuse. But that is not the case. Rather, you are charged with doing paperwork for soldiers at Gitmo who provide security for other soldiers, some of whom may be engaged in waterboarding. In this case, you are not morally required to intervene by mishandling the paperwork. Indeed, you should not do so because, as you note, it may have an adverse effect on unit order and discipline, and that may in fact place your soldiers and other soldiers in danger.
Does that make you an accessory to waterboarding? It seems to me that it does not, in any meaningful way. First, Gitmo is a large operation that does many things, waterboarding being only a small part of that. Your soldiers would be deployed there even if the waterboarding was not being done.
Second, the waterboarding policy was decided on through proper channels in a democratic government.
Third, you have other ways of protesting that policy. You can make your voice heard within the ranks, and exercise your rights as a citizen to vote to place opponents of waterboarding in government, write to your representatives in Congress, even leak information to the press if you come into possession of any secrets you think the public needs to know about.
I can understand—and applaud—your revulsion at being even indirectly associated with an inhumane method of torture. But the United States must have an army to defend itself and protect its interests, and an army can work only if its soldiers work in concert to carry out the policies decided on by its legitimately elected civilian government.