The Chains of Command
During the last semester of my senior year I took a political science course covering the world wars. One day, to illustrate a point about command structures, my professor asked the class to imagine that we were commanding a nuclear submarine and received an order from the president to launch an unprovoked nuclear strike on Beijing. Were such an attack to be launched, at least 100 million people would die instantly.
Most of the class said, without hesitation, that they would launch the missiles.
I had spent three years at Boston College prior to that day. And though I’d come to expect the cravenness of my peers studying political science, I was still shocked to learn how many of them were (or, at least claimed to be) willing to commit such an atrocity.
Boston College is a highly ranked university with an affluent student population. There is no reason to believe that the students in that class had not been educated on the horrors of nuclear war (we discussed Hiroshima and Nagasaki the week prior), no way to imagine they misunderstood the question, and no way to use classism to dismiss their bloodthirstiness as “ignorance.”
That day in class, enraged and indignant at the attitudes of my classmates, I exclaimed: “There is not an authority on Earth that could compel me to murder a hundred million human beings.”
I said then, and will repeat now, that there is no circumstance in which I would nuke a civilian population. Even if the missiles were retaliatory, what right does any person have to cause such devastation? To end more lives in an instant than any war, genocide, or terror campaign ended in years?
A few weeks later I was retelling this story to a group of friends at a taqueria near campus. Unprompted, a woman behind us in line interjected: “It’s probably because they’re in ROTC.” (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps for the U.S. Military). “They’re just trained to follow orders!”
This woman, clearly intending to defend my classmates, was unknowingly repeating the Nuremberg defense. Following the horrors of WW2, Nazi soldiers and commanders alike attempted to deflect blame for war crimes on the grounds that they were “just following orders.” In WW2 (at least for the Nazis who were actually tried), this defense was insufficient.
However, this was not because some higher law had been realized, nor was it an achievement of legal scholarship. Rather, the Nuremberg defense failed because the Nazis had lost the war.
We can be certain of this fact because the American leaders who ordered the totally unnecessary and utterly devastating fire and nuclear bombings of Japan during the same war faced no justice. Millions of innocent Japanese civilians burned to death. Their lives were sacrificed for American influence over the east Pacific (and to prevent a Soviet invasion of Japan). Not even so much as a hearing on those crimes took place.
Nearly a century later, Americans still repeat as gospel the unquestionably false and deeply racist claim that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “necessary” — that the Japanese people were some kind of indoctrinated mass of animals that would fight an invasion to the death. And never, under any circumstance, does American discourse acknowledge the indisputable fact that no land invasion was ever necessary to end the war.
One student, among those who would end 100,000,000 human lives without question, even insisted: “Japan is better off thanks to the bombs.”
War is an interesting experiment in human nature. Nowhere else is the barrier between the commander and the commanded more clear. And while in ancient times a general would at least share the field with their troops, today, by some alchemy, instructions from men thousands of miles away not only reach the ears of armed soldiers, but are converted into action. A man in DC speaks and a child in Afghanistan dies. A woman in Colorado presses a button and a wedding is bombed.
This chain of command is literally designed to absolve the commanded of their crimes — and yet it utterly fails to do so.
No matter how an order is justified, no matter the circumstances, personalities, or history at play, it is ultimately the soldier holding the knife, gun, or button that has the ability, and the responsibility, to convert an order into an action.
Contrary to the insignias, ceremonies, ranks, titles, and uniforms, it is the lowliest soldiers, those who actually hold the weapons, who have all the power. This is a great and terrible thing.
The Russian Revolution, an event which (very bloodily) ended famine in Russia and brought a country of poor peasants onto the world stage, began when a group of Cossacks refused to fire on a crowd of women marching towards the Winter Palace, and was won by Russian soldiers on the Eastern Front of WW1 who ignored their orders and shot those giving them.
Whether you personally approve of the revolution, the utter collapse of the Russian command structure in the face of organized dissent only proves that hierarchies are fragile, impotent things. There is no war crime that could not have been prevented by conscientious soldiers, and no command which must be followed.
It takes a great deal of courage to break through the psychological conditioning which prompts soldiers to follow orders — but once broken, the entire system of command collapses into dust.
I would like to believe that my classmates were speaking from memorization or bravado rather than predicting their own behavior. I would like to believe that, given the power and order to end millions of innocent lives, most people would refuse. But when I turned back from my chair to see a wave of hands raised in assent to what would be the greatest crime in human history, all I saw were links in a chain of command. A chain forged by centuries of indoctrination, dehumanization, and imperial power. A chain which takes human beings with human morals and human relationships and wrends them into steel.
A chain that must be broken.
A chain that we will break.