‘I was only following orders.” With these words, that have entered our language as a cliche reeking of bitter irony, SS-Obersturmbannfurer Karl Adolf Eichmann (1906-62) defended his part in the murder of innocent prisoners in Nazi death camps. The court in Jerusalem, where Eichmann was put on trial in 1961, did not accept “only following orders” as a justifiable defense.

On Sept. 27, 2005, U.S. Army Pfc. Lynndie England, was found guilty by a military panel of maltreating detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Photos of England grinning, her finger pointed at naked men, shot around the world in 2004, revealing the physical and psychological torture that the American military practices on people who oppose the occupation of Iraq and its global “war on terror.” Needless to say, England is not Adolf Eichmann. But her comment to the media in May 2004 recalls Eichmann’s famous statement and brings into question the very important issue of responsibility in war.

“I was instructed by people in higher rank to stand there and hold this leash and look at the camera,” England said. “We were doing what we were told.”

Who is ultimately to blame for wartime abuses and crimes? How far down the line does one go to pin down responsibility? In the case of England, is her boyfriend, Pvt. Charles Graner, Jr., the de facto leader of that prison section, to blame for egging her on? What about Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the officer in charge of military prisons in Iraq, who had the chutzpah, putting it mildly, to say that living conditions for detainees at Abu Ghraib “are now better in prison than at home. At one point we were concerned that [the prisoners] wouldn’t want to leave.” On April 8, 2005, Karpinski was formally relieved of her command, and on May 5, President George W. Bush approved her demotion to colonel: a rap on the knuckles and she was sent out to recess by the principal.

And what of the teachers at this “school of torture”? Was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld only following orders when, on Dec. 2, 2002, he approved of a list of inhumane interrogation procedures for use at Guantanamo? (This list includes many of the techniques brought to bear against detainees at Abu Ghraib, such as the use of hoods, stripping, mock attacks by dogs, etc.)

All of this recalls a judgment brought down long ago against Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Gen. Yamashita was in charge of troops in the Philippines during the last months of that horrific theater of war. Despite giving specific orders to his soldiers against committing atrocities, the disintegrating army ravaged Manila in what became one of the most vicious campaigns of a vicious war. At war’s end, Gen. Yamashita was put on trial in Manila. The verdict was “guilty,” and Yamashita was hanged in February 1946, as the person responsible for crimes committed under his command.

Putting aside the question of the legitimacy of this trial of “ritualized revenge,” a precedent was set: that the responsibility for war crimes rests with the commanders as well as with the direct perpetrators.

The Yamashita precedent returned to the news in 1970-71, when U.S. Army Lt. William Calley was charged and convicted of premeditated murder at My Lai village in Vietnam. Brutality, murder and rape were routine practices by U.S. servicemen in Vietnam, and coverups were as common as Coke. Was Gen. William Westmoreland, in charge of troops in Vietnam, legally responsible for the My Lai atrocity? According to the Yamashita precedent, he should have been. There was no way, however, that the United States was about to sacrifice people in power in the name of legal principle.

Let’s return to the present.

Today, abuses of conventions of international and U.S. law are the direct outcome of orders promulgated in the very highest echelons of power in Washington. And yet, the commanders continue to pass responsibility for these outright illegalities onto the weakest links at the bottom of the chain of command.

The reason for this lies in the culture of irresponsibility created and nurtured by the Bush administration. According to this, the buck does not stop on the president’s desk, where it should, but is rather passed on down and dropped in the lap of the weak, the vulnerable and the unwitting. Never has the U.S. ever experienced, in such a comprehensive manner, a ruling clique whose measure of governing is “the rulers can do no wrong” and whose password is “shirk and destroy.”

The Eichmanns, Calleys and Englands of this world must surely take responsibility for their individual actions. “Only following orders” is not an excuse that is acceptable in the courtroom.

But when an entire government, such as the present one in Washington, is permeated by a culture of avoidance of truth and the shifting of blame — be it for abuses in a prison or for crude finger-pointing in the aftermath of natural disasters — and when leaders of a country blatantly flaunt international treaties, universally honored conventions and fair legal practice, we are obliged to ask, “What has happened to justice?”

An administration that can so unashamedly avoid responsibility will try its hand at anything. In a courtroom where the criminals act as judge, even the defense of “I was only giving orders” is bound to prevail.

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