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The military order: Obeying can sometimes be a slippery slope

A military order would seem to be a cut-and-dried directive that simply needs to be obeyed, right? That seems fairly evident from even a cursory examination of military history, doctrine and practice in the field.

It also seems manifestly apparent from the oath that every servicemember takes upon enlistment in the armed forces. That oath specifically and quite explicitly imposes a duty to obey orders.

As pointed out by a national Internet content provider, though, that duty can raise troublesome questions in certain instances.

What if an order seems flatly unethical or even illegal to a military member tasked to carry it out? When that is the case, a soldier, sailor, airman or marine can face a hard challenge that balances doing right with doing what is ordered.

And if that servicemember makes the wrong choice, he or she can face notably serious consequences spelled out in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“Here’s the rub,” states the above-cited online source provider. “A military member disobeys such orders [seemingly unlawful directives] at his/her own peril.”

Being challenged by a questionable order can thus be quite harrowing for any recipient of such a directive.

Again, here’s the potential Catch-22 in a given case. Trusting a superior officer and obeying an order that turns out to be unlawful can bring about severe military punishment. Conversely, refusing to carry out an order believed to be unlawful can also bring punishment, given that determinations of legality are made by military officials and not by individual servicemembers.

Ambiguity concerning orders often takes center stage at a court-martial or disciplinary hearing. An experienced military defense attorney can play a key role in helping to flesh out important information about an order -- its issuance, the circumstances under which it was given, whether carrying it out would have abetted a crime and so forth -- and in fully promoting the legal interests of a servicemember charged with making the wrong choice.

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David P. Sheldon | International Military Law Attorney

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