Few in the West believe “following orders” is a defense against criminal behavior. Germany still arrests and prosecutes elderly former Auschwitz guards to hold them accountable for crimes committed during The Third Reich, so important is that notion. Likewise, in the United States Army we teach that following orders is not an excuse for criminal behavior. Yet at the same time, as with all military forces, we teach our soldiers to maim, destroy and kill, actions that are criminal under any other circumstances than warfare. And while we are told we can’t follow illegal orders, we must follow ones that nevertheless create hell for our enemies and often result in the loss of innocent life. This is the moral burden of military service; we soldiers endure it.
As I blogged about before, James Mitchell, if we believe his statements, was moved to tears when he was tasked to repeat the torture of KSM, and so we should be careful about how we judge this man. I said that soldiers, and I would add that even sophisticated ones with PhDs in psychology, are not conditioned to have the long-term vision we demand of our political and policy leaders, but to follow and to fight. We may be asked to adhere to the Geneva conventions, but we are tasked to shoot to kill.
I’d like to further this point by noting that Mitchell was a psychologist and SERE trainer, not a professional interrogator or lawman, and was being offered a fortune to do to a cabal of mass-murderers what he was already being paid far less to do to American soldiers. He wasn’t selected for his interrogation skills, but his skills at waterboarding. Should Mitchell have refused? Yes, damn right, and I wish he would have. But that’s a hindsight view; it doesn’t reflect the circumstances and tenor of the time. It’s a testament to Mitchell’s character that he came forward a few years ago to clarify his role in torture. He should follow by donating the excessive money he made to a good cause.
Plainly said, while I do believe the circumstances are mitigating, and that the focus should be on the administration members who concocted the policy, I also think Mr. Mitchell and his partner Bruce Jessen, both being retired Air Force, should have questioned the legality of the program. I think they had that duty, that burden. The money involved (80 million plus, I’ve read) is especially troublesome. Unlike some veterans, they aren’t living hand to mouth, or homeless, but comfortably with Federal Government pensions and the rich financial reward, if the numbers are to be believed, of the enhanced interrogation contract.
Somewhat related to this discussion, an article below from NYRB warns us that psychology is not a discipline that expects its experts to be supreme moralists. The article mentions Mitchell and Jessen as examples. I would add that the case is also the same for soldiers.
I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes from Roman Emperor, warrior, and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, as it illustrates the way I believe our leaders should approach this difficult subject:
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change,
for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues
in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
It is only recently that the claims of psychologists to moral expertise have come to be taken seriously. Contributing to their new aura of authority has been their association with neuroscience, with its claims to illuminate the distinct neural pathways taken by our thoughts and judgments.