Making Decisions, Taking Ethical Responsibility, Part 2: Recalibrating the Job, Reconsidering the Tool

By: George Lober , US Naval Postgraduate School


In my previous column, I called into question the self-definition expressed by some military officers, that they are merely "tools." Such a perception, I wrote, implies that these officers see themselves not necessarily as independent ethical agents but rather "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."1 As I stated in that column, such a self-image disturbs me because it suggests the forfeiture of personal moral responsibility. It also raises the question, "Why does a tool need to be bothered about ethics?"

To illustrate my point, I offered two cases. The first was of a patriotic Swiss police captain, Paul Grüninger, who chose to ignore a Swiss law mandating that Jewish refugees attempting to escape the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1939 by crossing illegally into Switzerland be denied entry. Grüninger realized the refugees would likely be killed if they were returned to Austria, and so he not only disobeyed the law but did everything in his power to help the refugees.2 As a result, he is credited with saving an estimated 3,600 lives.

However, once his efforts were discovered, Grüninger was put on trial, convicted, and fined. He lost both his position and his career, and his family suffered penury and ostracism for the rest of his life. Yet until his death, he insisted that he had no choice but to fulfill his "human duty" to help the refugees.3

The second case involved Captain Luc Lemaire, a Belgian military officer who led a contingent of 90 Belgian soldiers in Rwanda at the outbreak of the 1994 genocide. As the killing spread, hundreds of Tutsis and moderate Hutus sought refuge at the school site in Kigali where Lemaire and his men were posted, and within days the number of refugees had swollen to over 2,000. Lemaire and his soldiers maintained their protective guard while members of the murderous Hutu Interahamwe circled the school in vehicles, taunting the Tutsis inside. When Lemaire received an order to pull his men from the school, however, he decided to obey that order and abandoned those under his protection. Approximately 2,000 Tutsis were massacred at the school shortly after the Belgians left. Five years later, in a televised interview, Lemaire, like Grüninger, would claim that he "had no choice." 4

I wrote in my earlier column that, in some ways, the two cases struck me as eerily similar. Both Grüninger and Lemaire were confronted with individuals who came to them seeking shelter and protection from almost certain death. Both men were officers who had the capability to provide that protection. Both men were under orders not to provide protection, but one of them refused to follow that directive, while the other chose to obey. Unlike Grüninger, however, Lemaire suffered no official consequences when he returned home and continued to receive military promotions. A facile analysis of the difference between the two men's responses to their orders might suggest that Grüninger saw himself as a human being first and not as a tool, while Lemaire may have seen himself as a tool of policy first and a human second. Nevertheless, I speculated in my column that the situation was likely far more complicated than that.

In the three months since I wrote that piece, I have researched the Rwandan case further and discussed both cases with various Special Operations personnel. In doing so, I have come to the conclusion that I could not have been both more right and more wrong in my speculation. I was right in that the situation at the Rwandan school was indeed more complicated than it appeared. The Human Rights Watch report Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda details the fact that Lemaire had made the situation at the school perfectly clear to higher-ups in

both the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) and the Belgian military command.5 In the first days of the killings, however, the mandate for UNAMIR troops shifted significantly, from monitoring a peace agreement and supporting a transitional government to securing the safety and immediate evacuation of foreign nationals.6 Sheltering Rwandans such as those at the school became a lesser concern. To his credit, Lemaire even sought the medical aid of Médicins sans Frontières for those under his protection, but the medical teams "could not get through to the post." 7


In testimony three years after the Belgians abandoned the school, Lemaire asserted that "authorities in Belgium were aware that Tutsi at [the school site] were dependent on protection by Belgian UNAMIR troops and that they could have permitted their rescue had they provided for a longer stay by the evacuation forces." 8 Nonetheless, those authorities did not provide that possibility, and Lemaire would subsequently compare the situation at the school to a large fire for which he and his men possessed only a fire extinguisher, when what they required was "a fire engine." 9

I was wrong, however, to imply that Lemaire's choice boiled down to one of merely obeying or disobeying an order. The Human Rights Watch report affirms how, from the early days of the genocide, Lemaire was deeply concerned about the fate of the Tutsis under his protection if and when his soldiers should leave the school, and he expressed that concern directly to those higher in command. Additionally, though, the report highlights an element in his ethical calculus that I neglected: his own sense of loyalty toward his men and his concern for their safety.

Over the past three months, as I have discussed these cases with individuals who faced similar choices during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, two things consistently have been confirmed to me: first, Lemaire's tactical situation was untenable, and second, it is one kind of calculation to choose to imperil one's own life and career for an ethical choice, as in the case of Paul Grüninger; it is a far different calculation to risk the lives and careers of one's subordinates for that same ethical choice. As Human Rights Watch reported,

[Lemaire] had tried to find a solution to the crisis himself. But, he said, escorting all the displaced persons elsewhere at one time would have required more men than the ninety available to him. If he had tried to move them in several smaller groups, the first group might have passed without difficulty, but later groups would probably have been attacked, and he did not have enough ammunition to defend them.10

As a consequence, when the security situation deteriorated and Lemaire became increasingly concerned with "the more and more serious pressure from the armed bands around the school,"11 he requested permission to remove his men from the school. In essence, when it became clear that no additional help was forthcoming and that the lives of his own men were increasingly threatened, he chose as a leader to protect his subordinates and support the mission with which he was legally charged, rather than to protect those innocents neither under his command nor part of his mission. And no matter how you cut it, that's a lose-lose choice.

Seen in that light, I think I understand Lemaire's decision a little better. I understand that he couldn't legally or ethically order his men to risk their lives for a cause unrelated to their mission, and he couldn't order them to engage in a rescue strategy in which they would be unable to adequately defend themselves. If, as a leader, he cared about the men under his charge—their lives, their families, their demonstrated loyalty to him, the unit, and their country—then, I submit, he had an obligation to respect their lives enough not to endanger them for a moral cause of his personal choosing. That danger was all too real, given that 10 Belgian soldiers had recently been brutally murdered by the Interahamwe, while sentiment across Belgium for the withdrawal of the force was unanimous.12

But what, then, is the answer? Faced with such a horrible dilemma—an unsympathetic, unresponsive political bureaucracy, the likelihood of Tutsis under his guard being slaughtered, the likelihood of his own outnumbered and under-armed men being killed—is there anything Lemaire could possibly have done differently?

One option was offered to me recently by a combat-hardened officer who snarled, "There's no way I could leave those people [the Tutsis] to be killed. I'd tell my men they could leave if they wanted to, it'd be their choice. But I'd stay and defend those people with my weapon, even if it cost me my life." When he offered that pronouncement in a room of 20 officers with similar experiences, there was a respectful silence. In one angry swoop, he had touched on two fundamental ethical principles shared by many in that room: he could not—one should not—abandon unarmed innocents to be massacred, and in such a desperate, untenable situation, everyone under his command must be recognized as a separate moral agent entitled to make an independent existential choice. The men could stay and fight alongside him to protect the Tutsis, come what may. Or they could go. It was their call. But if he was to live with himself as a moral man, that officer would choose to stay.

It's a courageous, principled position, and one I'd never heard expressed before by a career officer. I have no doubt the man was absolutely sincere. But having said that, I do not fault Lemaire for failing to choose such a course. I believe the decision to stay is exactly the sort of position only those who have been tested and scarred by similar trials are qualified to take, and I am not remotely in that cadre. But it is a position I admire, if only for its Kantian strength in the face of political and bureaucratic calculation. It's also, in my opinion, the position of an ethical leader.

About the Author(s):
George Lober teaches ethics at the US Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.

This is a work of the US federal government and not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Foreign copyrights may apply.

  1. George Lober, "Making Decisions, Taking Ethical Responsibility, Part 1: To Tool or Not to Tool," CTX 5, no. 2 (May 2015): 59: back up
  2. Eyal Press, "Disobeying the Law," in Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times (Kindle edition) (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 11–46.go back up
  3. Ibid., 43.go back up
  4. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), "The Triumph of Evil (Transcript)," Frontline, 26 January 1999: wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/evil/etc/script.htmlgo back up
  5. Alison Des Forges, "Ignoring Genocide," in Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (New York: Human Rights Watch, March 1999): back up
  6. United Nations, "Rwanda—UNAMIR: Background," n.d., back up
  7. Des Forges, "Ignoring Genocide."go back up
  8. Ibid.go back up
  9. Ibid.go back up
  10. Ibid.go back up
  11. Ibid.go back up
  12. "The Ghosts of Rwanda," Frontline episode for PBS, directed by Greg Barker (Alexandria, Va.: PBS Home Video, 2004), DVD.go back up
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