The Nuremberg Principles say that you can’t defend yourself from war crimes charges by saying that you were just following orders. Each individual has to make sure that they are not committing war crimes, or they can be held accountable, as the Nazi’s were after WWII and as Slobodan Milosevic and others have been in recent years.
The first four Principles lay this out very clearly:
Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment.
The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.
The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.
The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.
All of this is taught to US soldiers as part of their basic training and is incorporated into military law. Recently some soldiers are taking this seriously. Confronted by a war that certainly appears to violate prohibitions against ill treatment of prisoners, unnecessary killing of civilians and wanton destruction of cities or towns, they are starting to refuse to fight. Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused orders to Iraq, in a speech to the Veterans for Peace Convention in Seattle said, “to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it.” He goes on to say, “The oath we take swears allegiance not to one man but to a document of principles and laws designed to protect the people. Enlisting in the military does not relinquish one's right to seek the truth - neither does it excuse one from rational thought nor the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. "I was only following orders" is never an excuse.”
Kevin Benderman, now serving time in the Fort Lewis brig because his Conscientious Objector claim was refused, wrote ”As I went through the process which led to my decision to refuse deployment to Iraq for the second time, I was torn between thoughts of abandoning the soldiers that I serve with, or following my conscience, which tells me: war is the ultimate in destruction and waste of humanity.”
The military makes provision for soldiers who, like Kevin Benderman, come to the belief that all war is wrong. They can apply for CO status and, if it is approved receive discharges. However, it is a difficult process and, as Sgt. Benderman can attest, the application may be turned down. If that happens, there are few options for someone whose conscience says not to fight. Sgt. Benderman was sentenced to 15 months in prison for his refusal.
Other soldiers, including Lt. Watada, come to the conclusion that the war in Iraq is wrong, even though they cannot in good conscience say that they oppose all wars. For them, the military has no recourse. Soldiers can’t pick and choose which orders to obey. Discipline demands that they be ready to go where they are sent. Lt. Watada, having concluded that the war in Iraq is illegal, expressed his willingness to fight in Afghanistan or anywhere else he was needed. The Army could have chosen a less confrontational course and posted him where he was willing to go, but perhaps they feared having to negotiate with each soldier. They know that, given a choice, there are plenty of GIs who would prefer to stay away from Iraq. They don’t want to make that choice easy.
Thousands have simply walked away. Over 200 are estimated to be in Canada, remembering that during the Vietnam war, thousands of war resisters were given refuge in Canada. Today the situation is not so clear cut. The first applications for refugee status were denied by the current Conservative government, but the appeals process is ongoing, so it is unclear what, ultimately, will be the result. The Canadian War Resisters Support Campaign hopes that ultimately resisters will be allowed to stay.
One of the things that helped end the Vietnam War was a large antiwar movement within the military. The new film, “Sir, No Sir” documents that movement and hopes to encourage antiwar GIs today to take action.
Of course, it is not just up to the soldiers. All Americans are being called to take more vigorous action against the war. For them too, the Nuremberg Principles require action against it. Antinuclear protesters from the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action at the Bangor, WA Trident submarine base carried copies of the Principles as justification for blocking the entrance to the base.
Voters For Peace ask all voters to take the following pledge: "I will not vote for or support any candidate for Congress or President who does not make a speedy end to the war in Iraq, and preventing any future war of aggression, a public position in his or her campaign." And voters are taking this seriously, as Joe Leiberman can attest.
By signing The Declaration of Peace citizens commit themselves to take action to end the war. Some will lobby Congress, some will march and some will commit themselves to nonviolent civil disobedience if Congress does not act by September 21, 2006 to set a timetable for withdrawing the troops. After that date people will take action in their communities and in Washington DC to increase the pressure on Congress to end the war. We have already seen pro-war Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Washington’s Maria Cantwell, who are up for reelection, starting to modify their rhetoric in response to an electoral base that is increasingly critical of the war. If citizens follow up on their frustration with visible actions against the war and a determination to make the war their top issue in the voting booth, then politicians may respond. If not they may find themselves out of office.
Lt. Watada ended his speech with these words, “Many have said this about the World Trade Towers, "Never Again." I agree. Never again will we allow those who threaten our way of life to reign free - be they terrorists or elected officials. The time to fight back is now - the time to stand up and be counted is today.”