Johann Conrad Friedrich, a soldier and adventurous man also known as “the German Casanova” and author of some fascinating, although hard to find memoirs entitled Forty Years in the Life of a Dead Man (1848-49), tells the following story:
The captain of a Napoleonic regiment troop, famous for being valiant and a good soldier, brought his company together to perform skeet shooting drills at a square. However, before the practices began, he ordered his men to form a circle around him; and in a dramatic speech, he instilled in them that the first and most sacred duty of a soldier is unconditional obedience toward his superiors no matter what they might order. After all, the weight of the responsibility falls ultimately on them.
After that address, he ordered his men to line up again and charge their weapons, performing diverse routine operations afterwards. In a given moment, he stood in front of them and in a single breath, he blurted: “Ready, aim, fire!!!” Immediately after, his body fell lifeless on the ground. Two thirds of his men had shot. Only the remaining third had enough reflexes and conscience to stop in time and not pull the trigger.
The story of this captain caused sensation and was quickly spread by the press of Napoleon’s enemy countries, especially England. In France, however, censorship stopped it, although the spreading of rumors showed its efficiency as always.
Many of the soldiers that had shot their captain immediately lamented their actions, but they alleged not having enough time to react. The impulse to obey an order was faster (and easier) than their thought process. After some time, it was revealed that the captain had decided to execute himself in this way because the Legion of Honour Order, which he expected to obtain a long time ago, was granted to his rival. “It is difficult to believe —Johann Conrad Friedrich comments— that such an insignificant thing, a little toy made of a little ribbon with a little cross, was able to prompt a sensible person to commit such stupidity”. Even more, we may add: The captain also used as a toy the conscience and loyalty of all his men.
Conrad Friedrich still does not have the precise expression for the core of this anecdote. However, we do. It’s called: Due Obedience. This is an expression that acquired a sad popularity in the eighties related to the crimes of the Argentinian dictatorship and which remained valid as an unanswerable legal defense until the International Military Court questioned it as such in the Nuremberg process.
What do you think you would have done? Would you shoot? Perhaps. After all, the desperate captain did not jeopardize anyone’s life but his own. And he did it by his own will. Nevertheless, it does not cease to amaze me that a third of the squad managed to inhibit their impulse and bear in mind just on time that the fulfillment of that order originated from an ilicit act.
(Translated from Spanish by Diana Patricia Harmon)