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Thread: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

  1. #1

    Default Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    I know retreating from the battlefield without permission could be punished with death in practically all armies in the world. But what if you retreated because your platoon leader or the company's commander ordered the retreat but however, that superior that ordered you that wasn't ordered to do that by another higher rank officer?
    Maybe during the Romans times some legionaries were undeservedly executed during the decimatus actions: because perhaps some of them didn't retreat without an order ( maybe they were ordered by a low rank officer. But that lower rank officer wasn't authorized by another superior or by the General of the whole army.

  2. #2

    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    If this thread becomes something of a serious discussion about morals within the military structure, it should probably be moved to Ethos, Mores, et Monastica.

    Having some experience as a military officer, I would say that if you follow a legal* order issued by someone higher up than you in the chain of command, you are by default not responsible for the consequences of carrying out that order. The officer or team leader takes full responsibility for the commands that he or she issues. That is paramount for the functioning of any unit. A military unit is not able to function if every single soldier must always personally consider whether some other officer would disagree with the decisions made by his personal superior.

    In the heat of the battle, you are supposed to follow orders by your immediate superior (or any other superiors issuing commands) quickly and without questioning. If that person says retreat, you retreat. There is no question about it. If you follow orders and retreat and some other person later on says that you should not have retreated and wants to punish you instead of the person issuing the retreat command, by that time the latest you know that you are not in a serious disciplined military force but in a group of bandits. And in one that is likely to lose the war in case the opposition is a principled and disciplined force. That kind of culture quickly erodes any morale of the troops.

    *Orders that are obviously illegal are not to be complied with. Such as "kill that civilian woman's child". It puts the person receiving the order in a very difficult position and, unfortunately, both complying and not complying could result in that soldier risking their life or freedom. But successful military institutions take great care to choose and train their leaders in a way that such things cannot happen, and they will always primarily prosecute the person giving the illegal order rather than the person carrying it out.
    Last edited by Septentrionalis; May 12, 2021 at 12:34 PM.
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  3. #3

    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    I won't give a broad and complete answer, but your best case study for draconian laws likes this --in the ancient era-- is obviously Sparta. Otherwise, Septentrionalis gives a very good overview of the professionalism of military orders today.

    Cowardice of course, was extraordinarily frown upon in Sparta (perhaps without equal), and retreat, as we all know, often goes hand and hand with cowardice. If you were deemed a coward in the Spartan Army, you could be put to death, or worse, shamed into suicide. But the question asks about uniformed retreat ordered by a superior, not the cowardly desertion of individual soldiers.

    In this case, Sparta's "win or die / no retreat " mentality was a guideline, not an all-encompassing requirement. When ordered to retreat back to Sparta from Thermopylae, Aristodemus became known as Aristodemus the Coward, but he was not put to death. When Argis II (a Spartan king) withdrew a whole Spartan army from Argolis, he was publicly shamed, but neither he nor the other Spartans were put to death or imprisoned.

    The real consequences of ordering a cowardly retreat then, in a society obsessed with Homer and glorious death on the battlefield, was not then legal punishment or execution to those who obeyed, but the sick and ugly expectation that you, without any honor left, would either kill yourself or die a thousand deaths.
    Last edited by Dick Cheney.; May 13, 2021 at 08:33 AM.
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    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Quote Originally Posted by Dick Cheney. View Post
    I won't give a broad and complete answer, but your best case study for draconian laws likes this --in the ancient era-- is obviously Sparta. Otherwise, Septentrionalis gives a very good overview of the professionalism of military orders today.

    Cowardice of course, was extraordinarily frown upon in Sparta (perhaps without equal), and retreat, as we all know, often goes hand and hand with cowardice. If you were deemed a coward in the Spartan Army, you could be put to death, or worse, shamed into suicide. But the question asks about uniformed retreat ordered by a superior, not the cowardly desertion of individual soldiers.

    In this case, Sparta's "win or die / no retreat " mentality was a guideline, not an all-encompassing requirement. When ordered to retreat back to Sparta from Thermopylae, Aristodemus became known as Aristodemus the Coward, but he was not put to death. When Argis II (a Spartan king) withdrew a whole Spartan army from Argolis, he was publicly shamed, but neither he nor the other Spartans were put to death or imprisoned.

    The real consequences of ordering a cowardly retreat then, in a society obsessed with Homer and glorious death on the battlefield, was not then legal punishment or execution to those who obeyed, but the sick and ugly expectation that you then, without any honor left, would kill yourself or die a thousand deaths.
    Don't forget the 292 Spartans forced to surrender at Sphacteria. Not only did the Spartans not punish them, the Athenians blackmailed them very successfully by threatening their execution.
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    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Good points, guys. Please keep in mind though that an order to retreat is a legit tactical command just as an order to advance is, albeit the former is often (but not always) given at a time of distress. The shameful act that militaries such as the Roman one frowned upon is abandoning your orders or your own unit because of cowardice.
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    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Quote Originally Posted by Dick Cheney. View Post
    blah blah blah blah
    Are we really to take the word of Dick Cheney on war crimes?

    I think not, sir.

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    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Cowardice was hardly a crime in more humane regimes where soldiers were far more valued than the result of a single battle - Abbasid for example, where sub commanders defending against Crusaders just went home when things started to look bad and left the leading idiot on his own. Seleucid too.

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    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    This is entirely dependent on the terms of engagement and the era.

    From a legal perspective...

    If a soldier is conscripted or coerced to fight, then they probably don't have any ability to choose or interact with their command structure beyond their immediate squad or team, or at most company, and certainly couldn't leapfrog the command chain to confirm or deny orders. On the other hand, soldiers who are professionals may have more leeway to challenge orders - or a more comprehensive accountability structure outlined in the terms of their contract - but again, this would depend entirely on their individual circumstances.

    Accountability for an ignored order or instruction could stop with the officer who made/ignored the order, or it could flow on to those who followed the order. Again, this depends on the era, the terms of engagement, and in less formal military structures, the mood or personality of the officer/leader judging them.

    From a moral perspective, I think that anyone who voluntarily joins a fighting force is accountable for anything they do while in that fighting force. Those who are coerced or conscripted have less culpability, depending on the terms of their engagement.

    I don't think it would be possible to answer simply yes or no.
    Last edited by antaeus; May 16, 2021 at 07:25 PM.
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  9. #9

    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Why would he be held responsible for obeying a direct order by his superior?
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    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Why would he be held responsible for obeying a direct order by his superior?
    Most modern militaries allow, or even require, their soldiers to disobey unlawful orders from a superior. "I was just following orders" is NOT an excuse

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  11. #11

    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Quote Originally Posted by antaeus View Post
    From a legal perspective...

    If a soldier is conscripted or coerced to fight, then they probably don't have any ability to choose or interact with their command structure beyond their immediate squad or team, or at most company, and certainly couldn't leapfrog the command chain to confirm or deny orders. On the other hand, soldiers who are professionals may have more leeway to challenge orders - or a more comprehensive accountability structure outlined in the terms of their contract - but again, this would depend entirely on their individual circumstances.
    I do not mean to be confrontational, but that speculation tells me that you are not familiar with military life or institutions.

    Quote Originally Posted by Akar View Post
    Most modern militaries allow, or even require, their soldiers to disobey unlawful orders from a superior. "I was just following orders" is NOT an excuse
    I can confirm that and on the level of requirement. That is what I have been taught and what I have taught to recruits as an instructor. I checked my soldier's handbook and the very first sentence concerning a soldier's rights and responsibilities states that (my translation) "a soldier must display unconditional obedience to their superiors and carry out any lawful commands and directives issued by them". Then it goes on about adhering to internationally recognized rules of engagement and laws of warfare. The philosopher/nitpick within me does not like the wording "unconditional obedience" if that obedience is not really meant to be unconditional but subjected to legislation, but I guess it is beside the point.

    The unfortunate problem of course is that sometimes the entire state or military organization issuing commands does not adhere to the same principles as the one eventually prosecuting for war crimes. In the aftermath of WW2, for instance, many were tried for crimes that were not crimes within their own military structure.

    But creating a healthy military culture is something that mankind has improved on tremendously and should continue to improve on. An additional quote from the handbook:

    Breaking the laws of warfare soils the reputation of your country, your unit, and yourself, and unnecessarily increases suffering. Wanton cruelty does not weaken your enemy's morale but strengthens it.
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    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Quote Originally Posted by Septentrionalis View Post
    I do not mean to be confrontational, but that speculation tells me that you are not familiar with military life or institutions.
    What military life or institutions do you mean? Australian Army Reserve? Icelandic Coast Guard? Napoleonic Grande Armée? Byzantine Tagmata?

    I mean, I'm offering a vague opinion on how things could be, and you're offering a criticism with no critique? I'm happy to wear what ever criticism you might offer, as I have no military experience, and consider joining military to be a weakness of character. I'm offering a very general response to a very vague question.

    But if you're going to offer critique, then let's hear some actual structured argument? I think you can be a little better than that.
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    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    @Septentrionalis

    But creating a healthy military culture is something that mankind has improved on tremendously and should continue to improve on. An additional quote from the handbook:

    But I think the sad ugly stain that is My Lia shows just how difficult that - following all the rules on unlawful orders -can be in the breech.

    Lt Calley was clearly following unlawful orders or had issued unlawful orders himself to preside of over the deaths of civilians he enacting. Warrant officer Thompson was correct to confront him. But Lt Calley was the senior officer and indicated he was following orders and both men ultimately served in the same division so have the same chain of higher command. Thus a whole group of American soldiers came to diametrically opposed conclusion even though thay had the same training. Calley and his men where prepared to do what should have been clearly understood as a unlawful order. Thompson and his crew equally clearly saw an unlawful order and acted according both by ignoring a senior officer's command and by being willing to threaten to shoot fellow American soldiers if they tried stop them from saving civilians. Had somebody twitched that day Thompson was taking a huge risk. With just two men and scary fragile looking observation helicopter (no Huey with MGs or such) he was running on bravado alone to do the right thing. No reason Calley could not just have reported a observation chopper downed by VC fire...
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  14. #14

    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Quote Originally Posted by antaeus View Post
    I mean, I'm offering a vague opinion on how things could be, and you're offering a criticism with no critique? I'm happy to wear what ever criticism you might offer, as I have no military experience, and consider joining military to be a weakness of character. I'm offering a very general response to a very vague question.

    But if you're going to offer critique, then let's hear some actual structured argument? I think you can be a little better than that.
    You are right that I was unfair to you. Also, that sorry excuse for a disclaimer probably only made you more upset. I was just astonished to see such claims "from a legal perspective", because so much of it was downright wrong. Of course, I should have paid more attention to your use of conditional verb forms and expressions like "probably" that rightly signalled that you were not making claims in fact.

    To briefly address the problems in your post, there is no leapfrogging the command chain in any military that I have heard of, and conscription vs professional service to my knowledge makes no difference. Conscription also compares poorly to what I imagine you mean by coercion; some of the most advanced and robust military forces are based on consription, starting from republican Roman army and continuing to modern times and including NATO countries. Perhaps how conscription or draft is understood in the US affects how that term is received, though.

    A typical conscription-based military is built around the idea that defense is a duty for (mostly male) citizens; some of those military structures are quite humane towards their personnel because of the shared sense of obligation that transcends rank. As for the historical forced drafts to fight wars of conquest primarily in the post-classical era, I do not know much of them or how they were able to keep up morale. Perhaps they were not. But the modern trend of discontinuing conscription is not because conscription is somehow ineffective, but because many countries do not feel that they are under threat. Most notably, Sweden reinstituted a form of conscription in 2018 because they felt that the professional model is not good enough for defense.

    If you feel that voluntarily joining military is a sign of weakness of character, I don't think we have much common ground in this conversation. But hear me out on this one. I personally joined after first declining the opportunity, although the alternative would have eventually been unpaid labor (in very humane conditions) or prison time. I matured in my thinking and came to a realization that I would best serve my own pacifist calling within the military. I no longer believed that refusing to bear arms is the best way to ensure peace, because the warlike people are not going to do the same.

    Now, some twenty years after, I still hold that the most effective way to promote peace in the world is that those who have the least willingness to do violence to other people have the most competence to do so. To anchor that in real-world events, I have great respect for those who sacrificed their life or health in fighting against Nazis and Soviets and ensuring that much of the world today is free from oppressive dictatorships.

    Sorry that it took me a while to get back to you on this.
    Last edited by Septentrionalis; May 24, 2021 at 10:17 AM. Reason: grammar
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  15. #15

    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Quote Originally Posted by Akar View Post
    Most modern militaries allow, or even require, their soldiers to disobey unlawful orders from a superior. "I was just following orders" is NOT an excuse
    How would a soldier know that the order to retreat is unlawful?
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  16. #16

    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Quote Originally Posted by Gromovnik View Post
    How would a soldier know that the order to retreat is unlawful?
    An order to retreat is not unlawful.
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    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    How would a soldier know that the order to retreat is unlawful?
    Its not a war crime or criminal act. The soldier does not need to know if say a Second lieutenant is disobeying a direct order from a senior officer in issuing the retreat. He or She (the Second lieutenant) will face disciple for that but without some contradictory order from above the solder would be doing their proper job in following an order that as far as they knew was valid.
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    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Quote Originally Posted by Septentrionalis View Post
    You are right that I was unfair to you. Also, that sorry excuse for a disclaimer probably only made you more upset. I was just astonished to see such claims "from a legal perspective", because so much of it was downright wrong. Of course, I should have paid more attention to your use of conditional verb forms and expressions like "probably" that rightly signalled that you were not making claims in fact.

    To briefly address the problems in your post, there is no leapfrogging the command chain in any military that I have heard of, and conscription vs professional service to my knowledge makes no difference. Conscription also compares poorly to what I imagine you mean by coercion; some of the most advanced and robust military forces are based on consription, starting from republican Roman army and continuing to modern times and including NATO countries. Perhaps how conscription or draft is understood in the US affects how that term is received, though.

    A typical conscription-based military is built around the idea that defense is a duty for (mostly male) citizens; some of those military structures are quite humane towards their personnel because of the shared sense of obligation that transcends rank. As for the historical forced drafts to fight wars of conquest primarily in the post-classical era, I do not know much of them or how they were able to keep up morale. Perhaps they were not. But the modern trend of discontinuing conscription is not because conscription is somehow ineffective, but because many countries do not feel that they are under threat. Most notably, Sweden reinstituted a form of conscription in 2018 because they felt that the professional model is not good enough for defense.

    If you feel that voluntarily joining military is a sign of weakness of character, I don't think we have much common ground in this conversation. But hear me out on this one. I personally joined after first declining the opportunity, although the alternative would have eventually been unpaid labor (in very humane conditions) or prison time. I matured in my thinking and came to a realization that I would best serve my own pacifist calling within the military. I no longer believed that refusing to bear arms is the best way to ensure peace, because the warlike people are not going to do the same.

    Now, some twenty years after, I still hold that the most effective way to promote peace in the world is that those who have the least willingness to do violence to other people have the most competence to do so. To anchor that in real-world events, I have great respect for those who sacrificed their life or health in fighting against Nazis and Soviets and ensuring that much of the world today is free from oppressive dictatorships.

    Sorry that it took me a while to get back to you on this.
    To a point, I think we're debating past each other. And I don't think you're addressing the point I was making - which was more in line with your post and generalised following of orders in the military (number 2 in this thread), so perhaps I wasn't making it clearly enough.

    To clarify: the point I trying to make was that in different military organisations through history, from slave armies to modern territorial reserve forces and everything in between, there are different relationship structures in place that govern the behaviour of those within those structures. The different natures of those organisations lead to different consequences for questioning or disobeying orders, and those different consequences should be taken into account when we are judging individuals for their actions under orders.

    To expand on this:

    A slave soldier in a medieval Mamluk force in Egypt likely faces death for disobeying an order. Therefor the decision matrix for a slave soldier in those circumstance is complicated: E.g. Will my refusal to carry out this order (and therefore my death) result in an improved outcome for those I am refusing to carry out the order against or if I carry out the order, am I in a position to influence how orders are given in the future to prevent similar situations occurring or if I refuse this order, can I escape the army or will I get caught? - either way my career is toast - complicated. Giving your life up to not change the outcome is not much of an choice.

    Or on the other hand, in many modern western forces, a soldier's obligation is to the law first, and to orders second. Depending on the force, they may even be under a sworn obligation to not carry out an order if it goes against the law. If a soldier refuses to carry out an order, it is unlikely the will be personally injured. Instead they might face a Court-martial or similar procedure during which they will receive a fair hearing - and ultimately a Court-martial could end up in an with justification for the refusal to follow orders, reinstatement to a position, investigation of those issuing the orders, or systemic change for the organisation. Alternatively, the soldier could go outside the chain of command (as has happened in Australia twice in the last few years - regarding sexual harassment of female officers in the field and murder in Afghanistan) and publicise an issue - leading to inquiries and compensation for both the soldiers and the victims, and ultimately again, systemic change. In some of these cases, the soldiers involved kept their positions in the military, or contributed to reviews that fundamentally changed the organisation. In this situation, the decision matrix contains fewer life threatening consequences for the soldier: Do I risk my career in the military to possibly save an innocent person's life? or what's the worst outcome for me if I refuse this order? maybe jail? or maybe I am vindicated and I initiate systemic change

    Therefore when discussing moral culpability for carrying out an order, we should be taking into account the structure in which the order was given and the likely outcomes for that soldier of not following an order.

    I hope this helps you understand where I am coming from.
    Last edited by antaeus; May 26, 2021 at 09:10 PM. Reason: Refocused the post on the OP.
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  19. #19

    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Quote Originally Posted by Septentrionalis View Post
    An order to retreat is not unlawful.
    Exactly. The soldier in question would have no reason to believe that he is somehow responsible for obeying that particular order.
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  20. #20

    Default Re: Would a soldier be held responsible in this case in a war?

    Quote Originally Posted by conon394 View Post
    Its not a war crime or criminal act. The soldier does not need to know if say a Second lieutenant is disobeying a direct order from a senior officer in issuing the retreat. He or She (the Second lieutenant) will face disciple for that but without some contradictory order from above the solder would be doing their proper job in following an order that as far as they knew was valid.
    Yes, absolutely. The soldier in question didn't do anything wrong in this hypothetical scenario.
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