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U.S. army soldiers in Afghanistan in 2009
U.S. army soldiers in Afghanistan in 2009
Robert Christy*

The terrorists attacks in Brussels last week provided instant fodder for the U.S. presidential campaign. Republican front-runner Donald Trump had already boasted last month that he would order the U.S. military to "target the families of terrorists," also pledging to reinstitute waterboarding and "a whole lot more" as a tactic to extract information from terrorists.

With 35 innocent people dead in the Belgian capital, Trump wasted no time in doubling down on his support for torture, declaring in an interview that he would have used waterboarding to extract information from Salah Abdeslam, the suspect in November's Paris terror attacks who'd been arrested just four days before the Brussels attack.

"Frankly, waterboarding, if it was up to me, and if we change the laws or have the laws, waterboarding would be fine," Trump said. "We work within laws. They don't work within laws. They have no laws. The waterboarding would be fine and if they could expand the laws I would do a lot more than waterboarding."

Perhaps the most notable response to Trump's virulent pledges have come from Michael Hayden, the retired Air Force general and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. "If he Trump were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act," Hayden said during an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher. "You're required not to follow an unlawful order. That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict."

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Gen. Michael Hayden when he ran the CIA

There's only one problem with that statement: Soldiers almost always follow orders.

I know because I was a soldier once, a good soldier. I did as I was told.

When I enlisted at the age of 17, I was a high school dropout with few prospects other than the military. In 2005, at the height of the Iraq War, the Army was more than willing to give me a job fighting overseas. I knew nothing about international law or human rights.

The moment you enlist, you swear an oath to "obey the officers appointed over you." During basic training, the obligation to follow orders is physically and mentally drilled into you. No military tolerates dissent among its ranks. That's how armies have functioned for thousands of years. It's how they must function. Without discipline, an army becomes a rabble, easily defeated by a well-organized enemy.

When I failed to follow orders, it inevitably led to physical suffering or public humiliation.

An example of a minor infraction was when I neglected to get a haircut. My platoon had been in the field all week training, and I was frankly exhausted. But my platoon leader said, "I won't have any fucking Elvises in my platoon. Get it trimmed."

With every intention to get a haircut, I headed back to my barracks. Once I arrived, my roommate offered me a cold beer, and I happily accepted. One led to another, and then another. Before I knew it, the barbershop had closed for the day. I could've had a fellow soldier cut my hair in the barracks, but I decided to forgo it and enjoy the rest of my night. I could always get a haircut the next day.

Next morning's formation proved otherwise. I was dealt a quick and severe punishment by a dog-faced sergeant via "corrective training," which is a euphemism for punishment.

Throughout the day I was forced to perform various physical exercises meant to degrade me, such as crawling on all fours everywhere I went. To add insult to injury, the sergeant also shaved my head with a razor. Exhausted, humiliated and bald, I swore never to disobey another order.

I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I arrested countless military-age males with no little or no cause. I happily turned over those prisoners to Iraqi and Afghan Army or police units, whom I knew routinely tortured and even executed their prisoners.

It wouldn't be a surprise if some of the "high-value targets" I assisted in capturing are now in Guantanamo, where they perpetually languish, without charge. I abused my authority, ransacking homes as I "searched" for contraband in Iraqi and Afghan houses.

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Scandal of U.S. military torture in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison — Source: Wikimedia Commons

My fellow soldiers and I are not sociopaths, and you wouldn't even consider us bad guys if you met us. We were just following orders. We're programmed from the first day of basic training that if a superior instructs you to jump, your only response will be, "how high?"

So, when that same platoon leader who told me to get a haircut told me to "tear this fucking house apart!" I did. I was a good soldier, they said.

Follow orders — get rewarded. Disobey — be punished. Worse than punishment, you'll be seen as weak. Speak out, and they'll call you snitch.

A more severe infraction, such as abandoning your guard post in Iraq, could warrant death by a military court martial. §890 of Article 6 (link) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) states: "Any person subject to this chapter who — (2) willfully disobeys a lawful command of his superior commissioned officer; shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct…"

The operative word in the section is "lawful." As long as what your superiors tell you to do is lawful, you are legally bound to follow orders. Your life may even depend on it.

Therefore, General Hayden is correct: Service members are not required to obey "unlawful" orders. The problem is they almost always do.

I'm thankful I was never ordered to torture a prisoner, because I would have done as I was told. If the military followed the illegal orders of one bad president, we would follow the orders of another. That's what good soldiers do.

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