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#5: Just Following Orders




#5: Just Following Orders

Gregg Evans

          I’m sure you know what the Nuremburg Defense is, if not by name at least by content.  The Nuremburg Defense takes its name from the war crimes trials in Nuremburg, Germany, after WWII, at which several of the defendants claimed, “Befehl ist befehl” (“Orders are orders”).”  In English, the Nuremburg Defense is stated, “I was just following orders.” With this assertion, the war crimes defendants sought to exonerate themselves, or at least mitigate their guilt, by shifting moral and criminal culpability to their superiors – the ones who ordered them to carry out their crimes. Alfred Jodl, the Chief of Operations for the German High Command, remarked, “I don’t see how [the judges] can fail to recognize a soldier’s obligation to obey orders.  That’s the code I’ve lived by all my life.”   Fritz Sauckel, Chief of Slave Labor Recruitment, insisted, “I was given this assignment which I could not refuse.”   In a court of law, a lot of factors go into determining the merit of a Nuremburg Defense, including the status/authority of the one who gave the orders, the relative willingness/cooperation of the one who carried out the orders, the level of duress involved (usually threatened consequences for not obeying), and a handful of other considerations.  We all recognize that there’s a difference between a subordinate who kills to fulfill a superior’s orders, on the one hand, and a cold-blooded murderer, on the other, and that difference is what the Nuremburg defendants tried to claim.  Unfortunately for them, their befehl ist befehl defense didn’t fly in Nuremburg.  Of the 21 major defendants, 18 were found guilty, 11 were sentenced to death and 10 were hanged on October 16, 1946 (Hermann Goering, sentenced to death along with the others, committed suicide on October 15).  Most of us take a dim view of those who plead a Nuremburg Defense – we want people to take responsibility for their actions – but how many of us have ever faced the moral dilemma that arises from being ordered to shoot another human being? I faced that very dilemma myself almost half a century ago at the age of twelve.  I’ll relate that story shortly, but first I need to introduce to you my grandfather, Gael R. Stuart.
          Gael was a big fish in the small pond of Port Townsend, Washington.  He came to Port Townsend late in 1945 at the age of 26 and quickly became a pillar of the community.  He founded the Kiwanis Club the year he arrived, was the high school principal and served as superintendent of schools for decades.  Though he never held or even ran for public office, for about forty years, from 1945-1985, there were few civic improvements in Port Townsend that Gael did not have a direct hand in bringing about.  When things needed to be done in Port Townsend – when a hospital needed to be built, when the library needed to be saved, when Fort Warden needed to be turned into a world class music education center, etc. - Gael was the one who made things happen, writing grants, chairing committees, and winning over the opposition.  In 1961, just 16 years after Gael arrived in Port Townsend, the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce determined that their annual “Man of the Year” award was not sufficient recognition for Gael’s contributions to Port Townsend and Jefferson County, so they created a new award – “Man of the Century” – solely for Gael.  I have the plaque.
          As one of his four grandsons, it was great fun to go downtown (or uptown, for that matter) with Gael.  Everyone knew and liked him.  Shopkeepers and people on the sidewalk greeted him by name, often expressing gratitude for Gael’s latest contribution to the city; former students and school district employees were unfailingly respectful and affectionate, shaking his hand or giving him a hug and thanking him for the positive impact he had on their lives.  To me, Gael seemed like just about the most important man in the world, and in the hierarchy of authorities in my life, he was right at the top, which brings me back to my story, because it was my grandfather, Gael R. Stuart, who ordered me to shoot someone.  Two people, in fact.
          It happened on a duck hunting trip in neighboring Clallam County where Gael and a few of his friends leased a large tract of farm and marshland for their duck hunting club. If you’re from the area and over 60 years old, you might know the place as the McInnes farm.  The duck club members, always limited to eight, were a veritable Who’s Who of Port Townsend royalty – Gael Stuart, Jack Carroll, Harry Plut, Doc Warner, Miles Brown, Dick McCurdy, Doc Scheyer – but that morning, Gael and I had the place all to ourselves and were stationed about 50 yards apart in two of the five or six blinds strategically positioned on the perimeter of the main marsh. Sitting in those blinds for hours on end could be awfully boring, especially for a 12 year old, so when I spotted two people walking along the dike that separated our marsh from the Strait of Juan De Fuca shoreline, I watched them with interest, especially since the entire perimeter of the club’s land, including the dike, was posted against trespassing. I had never seen anyone walking along the dike before, and I wondered what they thought they were doing.  I’d watched them intently for a few minutes when I heard my grandfather yell to me, “Take a crack at them!"
          Take a crack at them? Good grief, that didn’t sound right. I mean, in my family just pointing a real gun at someone was the ultimate no-no – strictly forbidden and a rule never violated – so the command to actually shoot at someone was virtually incomprehensible.
          “What?” I shouted back, hoping my grandfather would hear the reluctance in my voice and rescind the hit order. After all, he didn’t force me to eat food I didn’t like, so maybe he would be similarly forbearing about my distaste for shooting people.
          “Take a crack at them,” he repeated adamantly, adding, “they’re in range.”  Well, no they weren’t.  Gael was always over-estimating the range of my Ithaca model 37 20-guage.  I could spray the couple pretty good from that distance - they'd know they'd been intentionally shot - but they wouldn’t be hurt.  Was that what Gael wanted?  Did he want me to just give them a little warning by shooting at them harmlessly?  Even if that’s all he wanted, shooting at the couple still didn’t seem right.  On the other hand, my grandfather had adamantly told me to shoot them and he surely had a good reason for it.
          What’s a 12 year old to do?  At my age, following the instructions of trusted adults was the overriding principle governing a fair bit of my behavior, and it was definitely a trusted adult telling me to shoot the trespassers. Though my own moral sense argued against shooting them, another part of me argued that my grandfather surely had a better understanding of the situation than I did and could be trusted to guide me in the right direction. I imagined that he knew something about the circumstances that I didn’t; maybe even something about those particular people.  Maybe they were notorious trespassers who had already been warned that they would be shot if they trespassed at the club again.  Gael knew the sheriff – he knew everyone – and probably had the inside scoop on the two on the dike.  Getting sprayed with some lead might be just what they needed to teach them a lesson.
          “Shoot them? Really?” I called back, not so much to get confirmation but to buy the errant couple enough time to drop out of sight on the beach side of the dike.
          “Yes, shoot! Don’t hesitate,” he insisted, “Stand up and take a crack at them.”  There were a few moments of indecision as I weighed my grandfather’s clear and forceful orders against, oh, everything I’d ever been taught about gun ownership. In the end, I decided against shooting the couple, first, because shooting them still seemed wrong even if approved and ordered by the highest authority I knew; second, because I feared no punishment for not obeying – I mean, there was no way I was going to get in trouble for not shooting two complete strangers; and third, because if my grandfather was so eager to have them shot, he could damned well do it himself. After all, he had the 12-gauge Belgian Browning and was the better marksman by far. Fortunately, the couple disappeared on the far side of the dike before either of us were able to “take a crack at them.” 
          A couple hours later, during lunch at The Three Crabs restaurant in nearby Dungeness, I brought up the issue of shooting the trespassers, but as it turned out, I was the only one aware of the issue. Sipping his Manhattan (Up), Gael blushed to learn that I thought he had told me to shoot some beachcombers.  He hadn’t even seen them, much less urged me to shoot them.  Apparently, my interest in, and surveillance of, the trespassers had rendered me oblivious to the several ducks that had flown directly over my blind, easily within range of my 20 gauge. It was ducks, not trespassers, that Gael had urged me to take a crack at! The urgency in his voice had been frustration that I was letting ducks fly over me again and again.
          That incident has provided me with food for thought for almost 50 years. I’m glad I got to wrestle with the moral dilemma of being ordered to shoot someone – I mean, not everyone gets to think through such an order – and I’m certainly glad I didn’t shoot those people, but I’m still haunted by the knowledge that it could have turned out differently.  How long would I have defied my grandfather?  How close had I been to denying my own conscience and following what I thought was Gael’s directive?  All these years later, my general disdain for anyone pleading the Nuremburg Defense is tempered by my personal experience, for had I shot that couple, my honest defense would have been a kid-sized version of, “I was just following orders.”
          It’s been 47 years since I considered shooting those people on the dike.  I’m now nine years older than Gael was then, and Gael’s been gone for 15 years.  I miss the steely gray dawns along the Strait of Juan de Fuca; the crunch of frozen grass underfoot; the bunkhouse and the ramshackle cabin with its pot-bellied stove over which we dried and warmed socks and gloves.  I miss the mallards and spoonbills, the pintails and the teal; the hiss of their cupped wings cutting through the morning air, their last-second adjustments on approach, the mallards’ bright orange landing gear plowing into the black water of the marsh. I found the McInnes farm on Google Earth the other night.  I think the cabin and bunkhouse are still there, but the marshes, the blinds and the slick, narrow planks we walked to get to them are gone.  Even the dike is gone and a dozen beachfront homes have taken its place.  I wonder if the couple from the dike that morning are still together or even still alive.  They never knew that a 12 year old kid had once wrestled with an order to shoot them.