02 July 2005

Germany -- A Soldiers Right to Disobey

This very illuminating topic came via The Week Magazine (news McNuggets on good paper).
Because of our country’s Nazi past, said Reinhard Müller in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, German soldiers have long been given the right to refuse orders to do anything they consider “patently wrong,” such as killing a prisoner, or bombing a hospital.
I do believe the key word in that sentence was "consider."
A federal court has just expanded that right, ruling that a soldier can also refuse to do anything that might—even indirectly—further the cause of a war he does not believe in. Maj. Florian Pfaff, 48, a career army officer, was working on a software program to integrate the armed forces’ computer networks. After the Iraq war began in 2003, he refused to continue his work because his superiors could not guarantee that the program would not be used by U.S. forces stationed in Germany. A military court demoted Pfaff to captain for insubordination. But the higher civilian court has restored his rank, saying that he was exercising his constitutional right to freedom of conscience.
I am confused. Were we at war with Germany when the good Major-to-Captain-back-to-Major felt his conscience stirring? Wait a minute. Doesn't this mean that the German federal court ruled the actions in Iraq illegal? More on that later.
This excellent decision proves that German army is not like other armies, said Stefan Geiger in the Stuttgarter Zeitung. “It wants soldiers who think. It actually commands them to disobey any order they deem illegal.” Freedom of conscience is seen as the highest form of patriotism. After the national shame of World War II, when Nazi soldiers who massacred civilians used the excuse that they were just following orders, Germany went to great lengths to ensure that its soldiers would never commit such crimes again.
I, too, want soldiers who think. I want soldiers to think about what will happen to them if they disobey a lawful order. Perhaps the Germans should spend more time educating their officer corps as to what is, and is not, a lawful order. A brief lesson in our Uniform Code of Military Justice probably wouldn't hurt either.
It’s the first thing recruits learn, said the Leipziger Volkszeitung in an editorial. No soldier is obliged to follow any order that goes against his conscience. “Obviously this does not apply to an order to polish one’s boots,” but it does apply to important ethical questions. The freedom to say no is what makes our Bundeswehr different from—and better than—Hitler’s Wehrmacht. “Dictatorships can’t allow their troops such leeway. Democracies must. Otherwise they wouldn’t be worth protecting.”
Always nice to have shiny boots at a Courts Martial.
But when soldiers have the right to disobey orders at their own whim, said Kurt Kister in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, how do you run an army? It would make more sense to give soldiers the right to quit the armed forces altogether if they don’t want to participate in a given war. “It is not his prerogative to examine every single order in the light of his individual interpretation of politics and international law and then decide whether he’d like to follow it.” No army could function under such rules. Generals are already beginning to panic, wondering whether they can count on their troops. And what about NATO? “If Bundeswehr soldiers in important positions suddenly start invoking their consciences,” said retired Gen. Jörg Schönbohm, “our allies may doubt our reliability.”
Doubt your reliability? Count on your troops. That has been established, don't you think?
And well they should, said Richard Meng in the Frankfurter Rundschau. The implications of this ruling go far beyond the army. The court has, in effect, ruled that the Iraq war is illegal. “After all, if there were no substance in the major’s argument that the war was an act of aggression, he couldn’t have won his case.” That means that Germany is in breach of its own constitution, which forbids military aggression. The government has tried to finesse the issue by insisting that, since no German troops are in Iraq, Germany isn’t helping the war effort. But that argument is disingenuous. Germany sent troops to Bosnia specifically to free up U.S. troops for deployment in Iraq. The “correct conclusion” to draw, then, is that we need to renegotiate the terms of our cooperation with NATO—and particularly, with the U.S.
No German troops in Iraq? I hadn't noticed.

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