The army people get punished only for disobedience is an erroneous belief. In 1860, a Prussian Field Marshal reprimanded an officer of the rank of a Major for an operational lapse: The officer represented saying, “ I have obeyed my superior”. The Field Marshal told him, “You were made a Major because the King believed that you knew when to disobey!! Nuremberg Principle highlights the same thing, “It is not an acceptable excuse to say ‘I was just following my superior’s orders”. The military trials have often upheld the principle that a soldier obeying his commander’s orders is not protected, if the orders are unlawful. Understandably, the ordinary soldier is in a tough spot since all his military training has stressed instant and unquestioning obedience to the orders.
One may recall, Jai Prakash Narain, during the emergency, in 1975, had called upon the army and the police not to obey the unlawful command of the government. He was then accused of preaching indiscipline and sedition in the uniformed forces. In those days, many of the men, both in police and the military, were caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea.
One of the most famous precedents on the subject of a superior’s orders is the “Maxwell Case” dating from the Napoleonic Wars. French prisoners in a Scottish jail had refused to extinguish a light in their cell window when ordered to do so by a guard. This guard, under the direct orders of Ensign Maxwell, fired at the light, killing one of the prisoners. Maxwell was tried and convicted for murder by the High Court of Scotland. His plea that he was acting under orders of higher officers was rejected. The court declared, “every officer has a discretion to disobey order against the known laws of the land.”
However, Not every case is clear-cut. Soldiers taking orders in combat are required to act quickly and don’t always have time to calmly deliberate on every decision. Importantly, every country has its own laws on the subject. While the American soldiers can disobey only if the command is unlawful, the German soldier is not bound by such restrictions: He may disobey, if the order is not in the general interest of the nation, even if he is in the middle of a combat. Lieutenant William Calley, an American officer in Vietnam War, had ordered a group of nearly 400 unarmed civilians into a ditch and killed them point blank. The American court, while ordering a death sentence to the officer, noted that, “For 100 years, it has been a settled rule of American law that even in war, the summary killing of an enemy, who has submitted, is a murder.” His plea that he acted on the orders of his superior did not cut ice with the judiciary.
Finally, how about the Indian soldiers?
The oath is unambiguous, “I, …………………….., do swear in name of God that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India as by the law established and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully serve in the regular Army of the Union of India and go wherever ordered by land, sea or air, and that I will observe and obey all commands of the President of the Union of India and the commands of any officer set over me even to the peril of my life”( Form of Oath)
It highlights, “ I will observe and obey ‘ALL COMMANDS’……….TO THE PERIL OF MY LIFE”.
In the Indian Army, Unconditional obedience to military orders is a norm and there is no exception!!