‘But I was only following orders…’

I’ve noticed something striking, and dare I say it, sadly ironic, whilst browsing wikipedia of all places.

1999… Kosovo… British Lieutenant-General Sir Mike Jackson is in command of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, a NATO formation in the process of moving into Kosovo to implement a peace agreement. All is well apart from a Russian armoured column moving towards Pristina Airport from Bosnia. Jackson’s superior, Supreme Allied Commander Wes Clark, orders Jackson to block Pristina Airport to prevent the Russians flying in troops. Jackson considered it a dangerous order, and refused, saying ‘I’m a three star General, you cannot give me orders like that… I will not start World War Three for you’. Jackson phoned the British Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, and stated his objections. Guthrie agreed, and called his counterpart in the US – General Hugh Shelton – who also agreed. Their opinion was passed on to Clark. In the end Jackson flew up to the Airport and met with the Russian General, and over a bottle of Whisky, smoothed things over. Crisis averted.

1946… Nuremberg… Numerous Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg War trials – and indeed, at many other war crimes trails after the defeat of Nazi Germany – claimed that they were innocent, as they were ‘only following orders’. The Nuremberg trials went on to establish the precedent that it is an inadequate defence to claim that you were only following orders, and that the individual has a responsibility, if they feel they are given a dangerous, immoral or criminal order, to not carry it out. The crux is, that military discipline and obedience does not trump all – humanity and reason, however, does. We live in democracies, after all.

But what really distubed me, was to read that shortly after the Kosovo War, a US Senator branded Mike Jackson’s refusal to carry out Clark’s orders as ‘insubordination’. General Hugh Shelton has also called it ‘troubling’ (which is strange, seen as he agreed with it at the time). In effect, US Senators and commanders are advocating an ignorance of the Nuremberg protocol, and suggest that any and every order should be followed without question. The realities of coalition warfare are somewhat different. While serving under NATO command each national contingent commander has a link to his own Government, and has a right of appeal to his national superiors. What makes a good coalition commander – such as Wellington or Marlborough – is to get to know all of the national peculiarities involved, such as who can do what, and work within them. Not to just blindly expect everyone to follow your orders.

I don’t think there will be many historians or military historians who disagree with the fact that setting up a blocking force on Pristina Airport would have been provocative and un-necessary. Of course, there wouldn’t have been an issue if Clark hadn’t given such a ridiculous order in the first place. In Jackson’s memoirs he records that Clark was often jumpy and acted strangely, and that he seemed to have a Cold War mentality, particulary where the Russians were concerned. At one point he ordered the US Admiral commanding naval forces in the region to block the Dardanelles, when right of passage through them is governed by international treaty. He also asked a senior German General, during a video conference, if German soldiers ‘had the spirit of the bayonet’.

Troubling stuff from an alliance commander indeed. But, also, a reminder of why History should never be too far away from the mind of any General…



Filed under Army, debate, defence, politics

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