That little phrase was brought to infamy during war crimes trials at the end of WWII. Now there's word the defence will be revived in the trials of 8 US marines charged with murdering 24 Iraqis including children and the elderly in the town of Haditha in November last year. From The Independent:
"'We're going to drag every single, two-star and full-bird colonel and general into this thing,' said Kevin McDermott, a California-based lawyer representing Captain Lucas McConnell, the commander of Kilo Company, which carried out the Haditha killings. The defence lawyers say their clients were following official policy on the rules of engagement.
"In all, 24 Iraqis, including six children, several women and an old man in a wheelchair, were killed in Haditha as the Marines responded to the death of a colleague in a roadside bombing in November 2005. Only five of the dead Iraqis have been identified as militants, while the rest appear to have been innocent civilians.
"Many critics have argued that the Haditha incident might have been written off as business as usual, were it not for graphic Iraqi documentation of the massacre that made its way into Time magazine last spring. The military initially claimed, erroneously, that the roadside bomb killed 15 of the Iraqis, and nominated Staff Sgt Wuterich for a medal for bravery.
"Responding to the charges against his client, Mr McDermott said the top brass was well aware of what had happened, but condemned it only after it became glaringly public. 'A lot of lieutenant colonels and colonels and generals knew what happened that day, and nobody said, 'let's do a thorough investigation of what happened', he said. 'By the end of the day, [my client's] superiors recognised the situation was so significant that they brought in air support.
'There were Harriers dropping 500lb bombs on buildings. If they're dropping 500lb bombs without knocking on the door first, how can you argue the troops on the ground did anything wrong?'"
It's an almost inevitable recipe for disaster: conventional armies fighting insurgencies often in the midst of residential areas full of civilians. It's a lot like using a sledgehammer to drive a picture hook into a wall and then wondering why the broken plaster is all over the floor. the worst part is this reality isn't new, we've seen this before. We know this stuff happens and we know the many reasons why.
Were these marines only following orders? Does it even matter?