I'm always amazed and a little disheartened when someone in a military or law enforcement organization whom I know and respect looks me in the eye and says, "I'm a tool," and yet I hear that self-assessment often. If offered in public, the comment is typically followed by snickers from the listeners. That's because in current American slang, the word "tool" refers to someone who is incapable of self-reflection—a factotum who possesses all the capacity for intellectual self-analysis of a pair of pliers.
I understand, however, that these members of the military or law enforcement who call themselves tools are not actually confessing that they're dense as doorknobs. To the contrary, they're saying something quite significant. They're telling me that after self-reflection, they have come to see themselves simply as instruments—the "tools"—of a greater organization, and the means by which some directive or policy or strategy or law will be carried out. I suspect they're also telling me that they see themselves as the tool through which society's will is enacted.
The problem I have with such a self-perception is that it implies an abdication of individual ethical responsibility. It also demands the question, "If that's the case, why should people who act as the tools of state power have to behave in an ethical way at all?" Put another way, if the primary role of such a tool is to obediently execute legal orders and intentions delivered from those higher in authority, why should that tool be bothered with the ethics of such orders? The obvious counters to that question, of course, are "What happens if the order results in something heinous? What if the law reflects the immoral will of a corrupt majority? What if … , what if … ?" While I agree that these are valid concerns, I believe that a much bigger question lies at their heart: should an individual who is personally charged with enforcing a law or following a legal order be held responsible for its unethical consequences? The answer, it strikes me, is complicated.
Let me explain why.
In 1938, following the Austrian Anschluss, Paul Grüninger, a Swiss commander of state police in St. Gallen, near the border between Switzerland and Austria, made a decision. A recent Swiss law had mandated that border police forcibly turn back undocumented Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime in Austria, despite the fact that they would likely face brutal detention and even death. When he was confronted, face-to-face, with the refugees' pleas for compassion, Grüninger did what he thought anyone else would do under such circumstances.1 Rather than abide by the law, Grüninger chose to permit these refugees to remain in Switzerland. He even saw to it that they were issued illegally postdated visas to secure their stay.2 He later observed that, from his perspective, he had no choice but to fulfill his "human duty" to help them.3 For his deeply moral decision and subsequent actions, however, Grüninger lost both his position and his retirement benefits, was fined hundreds of Swiss francs, struggled thereafter to support his family, was falsely accused of scandal, and remained socially ostracized for the rest of his life.4 This was all despite—or because of—the fact that he saved an estimated 3,600 lives.5
It's easy to say that Paul Grüninger made the right decision, regardless of the consequences he later endured. He certainly believed he had. But at the time, the moral clarity of his choice wasn't apparent to others, and frankly, I'm not so sure it would be today. Admittedly, there were powerful political and societal forces at play in Switzerland at the time: Bern was struggling to maintain its neutrality as war spread through Europe; anti-Jewish sentiment was on the rise across the continent; and there were fears that Germany, which had already annexed Austria earlier that year, would turn on Switzerland next. But one simple fact lay at the core of the backlash against Grüninger: a man charged with enforcing the law of the land took it upon himself to abandon that charge, ignore the law, and act according to his individual belief in what was right. At his sentencing, the court noted, "Such underhanded practices threaten the necessary trust and the respectability of authorities and the reliability of subordinates." 6 As a captain of the police, Grüninger wasn't expected to perform an ethical calculus and choose compassion; he was expected to obey the law and enforce it. For failing to do that, he was punished.
A second case from more recent history is similar, but also different. In April 1994, as the Rwandan genocide began, hundreds of Tutsis terrified for their lives sought the shelter and protection of a Belgian UN force under the leadership of Captain Luc Lemaire. The force, which was encamped at a local school, maintained its position during the first days of the killings, while Tutsis from the surrounding area sought the enclosed safety of the school grounds and the protection of Lemaire's armed soldiers. By the end of the first week, the number of villagers seeking protection at the school had swelled to over 2,000, and Hutus armed with machetes began to circle the school in vehicles, taunting and threatening the people inside. It was then that Lemaire's force received orders to pull back to the Kigali airport, because Belgium's leaders had made the decision to evacuate all Belgian nationals, civilian and military, from Rwanda.7
When the Tutsis at the school learned of the soldiers' imminent pullout, some begged Captain Lemaire and his men to shoot them. According to Lemaire, "They would rather be shot down by our machine gun than be murdered by machetes." 8 Lemaire did not, however, order his men to mercy-kill the Tutsis. Instead, he and his force pulled out of the school in their vehicles, while firing a machine gun over the pleading crowd to clear a path. Almost immediately upon their departure, Hutu gangs entered the school grounds and slaughtered the majority of the estimated 2,500 men, women, and children who had sought the protection of Lemaire and his men.
Two years later, in testimony before the International Criminal Trial for Rwanda, Lemaire cited the tactical situation on the ground, the lack of Belgian political will, and the inept United Nations bureaucracy for the fact that he "had no choice" but to abandon the Tutsis at the school.9 He repeated that assertion in an interview for a PBS Frontline episode, "Triumph of Evil." In the episode, Lemaire was asked if he and his platoon had feared for their lives. "Certainly not," he replied, "because as soldiers we have to be ready to die at any moment." 10 The interviewer then asked what Lemaire could say to the family who had entrusted him to protect their young daughter, "only for you to abandon her." 11 Lemaire reiterated, "I cannot say anything because it was so, and we had no choice." 12
The case of Captain Lemaire is now often taught in military ethics courses, and his decision to abandon the 2,500 Tutsis under his protection is frequently denounced by students, as is his contention that he "had no choice."
Taken together, the two cases, I believe, frame a debate. Both involve an individual entrusted with a legal directive: in Grüninger's case a law handed down by society, in Lemaire's case a military order from higher up. Both instances involved the distinct likelihood that innocent lives would be lost if the directive were obeyed, and both men personally faced the pleas of individuals who might be killed. Both men had to make a choice, and in so doing, each believed that he "had no choice." Grüninger and Lemaire were expected by their societies to serve as the instruments of political authority and to enact the will of democratically elected leaders, who presumably enjoyed a far broader perspective on the ramifications of their orders than the two officers. Each man made exactly the opposite choice of the other, and yet both were subsequently condemned for their choices. Why?
One quick explanation for why the men chose differently may be that, at the moment when he had to decide the fate of others, Grüninger saw himself as human first and a tool of the state second, while Lemaire saw himself as an instrument of policy first and a human second. I think that's probably a fair guess, but it's probably also more than a bit facile. As to why they were condemned by their respective societies for their choices, again a quick explanation may be that both violated a prevailing ethos of their time. In Grüninger's case, Swiss society was turned against Jewish refugees, while in Lemaire's case, he violated a prevailing Western ethos that one does not knowingly abandon unarmed innocents to be hacked to death by mobs.
Still, I think there are deeper layers of complexity to consider. If Paul Grüninger had, as the law required, returned the 3,600 Jewish refugees he encountered to Austria, would he have been excoriated, then or later, as having acted unethically? I doubt it. There had to have been many civil officials in Switzerland who, to a greater or lesser extent, did just that, but unlike Grüninger, the names of these obedient individuals have been all but forgotten. By contrast, if Lemaire had refused to abandon the 2,500 lives under his protection, how would we now view his decision? I want to believe that we would nobly hold him up as an ethical exemplar, but realistically, I suspect the answer would depend on subsequent events and their outcome. If, on the one hand, such a decision forced Belgium and the UN to commit more armed troops to Rwanda and somehow precipitated a halt to the genocide, then I think his decision would be hailed as heroic. On the other hand, if he was simply relieved of command and his force pulled out anyway, or if the UN and Europe were dragged into an ongoing civil war in Africa because of him, I suspect the virtue of his decision would be lost in blame.
Who decides when individuals should respond as humans and when they should act as tools, and under what circumstances? Four years ago, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Milburn attempted to answer those questions in an article entitled "Breaking Ranks: Dissent and the Military Professional." 13 Milburn wrote that when confronted with certain moral dilemmas, "a military officer is not only justified but obligated to disobey a legal order," particularly when the ramifications of obedience to such an order would damage either the organization the officer serves or the nation as a whole. He nevertheless limited such an obligation to officers at "the strategic level of decision making." 14 For his suggestion, Milburn was taken to task by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, whose printed riposte lumped Milburn into a cadre of "officers we should truly fear—those who skulk sullenly in corners with like-minded victims of alleged civilian malfeasance, drawing their wages while condemning the society that pays them." 15 At his trial, Paul Grüninger no doubt heard something similar from the civilian lawmakers who were paying him.
For my part, I'd prefer that when confronted with such profound moral dilemmas involving human life, those who serve and protect act first as humans and second as tools. In saying that, I'm reminded of the words of the Portuguese consul-general Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who said, "If I am disobeying orders, I'd rather be with God against men than with men against God." 16 That's an easy thing to remember, but I bear in mind that it's a much harder thing to do.