A Command Is a Command

32 - Salute (iStock_000005426456XSmall)Captain George Little served with distinction in the United States Navy.  So, after obeying the order of his Commander-in-Chief, he never expected to find himself on the wrong end of a lawsuit, liable for damages in the commission of his duty.

In 1799, war between the United States and France appeared inevitable. In preparation, Congress passed a law allowing President John Adams to seize any vessels bound for French ports. However, Adams took this power a step further, ordering the seizure of vessels heading to and from France. Captain Little, commanding the USS Boston, captured the “Flying Fish,” a Danish ship, as it arrived in St. Thomas from France. And he carried out his orders to the letter. After all, refusing to do so would certainly have him court-martialed, perhaps even executed.

So how could he have been liable for civil damages for carrying out a clear order from the President? The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that “instructions cannot change the nature of the transaction, or legalize an act which, without those instructions, would have been a plain trespass.”[1] In other words, orders from a superior officer—even the Commander-in-Chief—do not release a person from his responsibility to do what is right.

Chief Justice Marshall admitted his personal conflict with this decision. He sympathized with Captain Little, who merely acted in good faith, and he worried that the ruling might undermine the integrity of the military, which depends upon the implicit obedience of its members. But, in the final analysis, much more would have been lost if he ruled in favor of the hapless skipper.

God created us to be responsible moral agents, complete with a working conscience, reasoning faculties, and the expectation of doing what is right. He gave us the freedom to make choices and the privilege of living by the consequences of those choices. So, to remove accountability would be to strip the soldier of his or her humanity. Take that away, and the depths to which a man or woman in uniform can sink are truly horrifying.

Marshall’s ruling proved wiser than anyone could have imagined. In 1945, twenty-four former Nazi soldiers stood before a war crimes tribunal in Nürnberg, Germany. They mounted the defense, Befehl ist befehl, “A command is a command,” or “I was only following orders,” which the tribunal summarily rejected as indefensible.

“Good,” you say. “How could anyone participate in something as inhuman as the Holocaust?” Let me challenge your ethics with a test. What if you were a clerk in the German army, busily typing out orders, and the command to round up Jews and dissenters crossed your desk? In a totalitarian régime, disobedience will almost certainly result in severe punishment, if not death. And for what? You will not likely be remembered for your stand. Another nameless, faceless clerk will be pressed into service after your removal anyway. What would be gained? Certainly the satisfaction that you did what was right. But that will likely come at the expense of great suffering.

How about a situation not so clear-cut. You have been asked by the highest ranking member of your employer’s office—the person with the most power and least accountability—to do something your conscience clearly tells you is wrong. What do you do? No lives are at stake. It’s unlikely anything tragically negative will result. Besides, what would be gained if you reject the immoral order? When you are fired, would the satisfaction of doing what is right ease the pain of suffering? Or will you shrug off your responsibility with the words, “A command is a command; I’m only following orders”?

How much is your integrity worth? What are you willing to suffer for doing what is right? And how big must the issue become before you take a stand?


[1] Chief Justice John Marshall, LITTLE v. BARREME, 6 U.S. 170 (1804).

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