Recent bad news about CIA interrogators, Michael Jackson's physician and Lt. William Calley of My Lai massacre fame brings a familiar theme rattling back into my mind like a ghost from the past: They were only following orders.
That's the notorious "Nuremberg defense." It comes from the war crime trials in Nuremberg, Germany, in which Nazi officers tried to shift blame to their superiors for their mass murder of innocent civilians.
That defense returned to mind with last weekend's news out that Calley had broken four decades of media silence. Speaking to the Columbus, Ga., Kiwanis Club near Fort Benning, where he was convicted in 1971, Calley apologized for the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in and around the village of My Lai in 1968.
Although he said he was following orders, Calley was the only American soldier to be held legally responsible for the massacre that was conducted under his command. The Army reduced his original life sentence and he served only three years, mostly under house arrest ordered by President Nixon.
Jimmy Carter, Georgia's governor at the time, called Calley a "scapegoat." I agree. For opponents of the war Calley became a visible symbol of its worst atrocities. For defenders of the war, he became a scapegoat to avoid the prosecution of others above or below him in rank.
As a young man who was drafted into the army just as Calley's story broke in 1969, I understood both sides. Calley was guilty, but he was not alone. He was following orders from above, although there were conflicting accounts as to what exactly those orders were. The heroes of the day were helicopter pilot Hugh C. Thompson and two other soldiers who stopped the massacre before even more civilians were slaughtered. Still, there was a fundamental unfairness in the way Calley took the fall alone.
Neither the Army nor Washington showed much appetite for prosecuting those who gave Calley his orders or the bad intelligence that targeted the village incorrectly as a beehive of enemy activity. Once allegations like that start up the chain of command, who knew where they might end up? The White House? Perish the thought.
Then thoughts of the Nuremberg defense returned when news broke that the Los Angeles coroner was blaming Michael Jackson's death on a powerful anesthetic administered by his personal physician, Conrad Murray, a Las Vegas cardiologist. It was not clear whether Murray would be charged. According to reports, he said he was actually trying to wean Jackson off of drugs administered by his other medical personnel.
His doctors surely will say that they were diagnosing what they felt was best for Jackson's insomnia and other ailments. Perhaps a jury will have to sort it out. But even after you separate out the gossip and rumors that swirl around the pop star's death, you get a familiar picture: Wealthy celebrity with money to burn goes doctor shopping until he finds some who will prescribe things his way. Doctors can't say they are only "following orders," but some have a disturbingly loose way of going along with requests.
It is fuzzy gray areas of judgment like that, awash in conflicting guidelines, that apparently moved Atty. Gen. Eric Holder to give CIA interrogators a break. He announced he was authorizing a preliminary review of whether CIA employees broke the law while interrogating suspected al-QaIda members after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But he stipulated that interrogators who operated "in good faith and within the scope of legal guidance" would be exempt from prosecution.
Holder is acknowledging that the Obama administration has a tighter definition of what constitutes torture than Team Bush did. Team Obama also released an internal May 2004 CIA report that concluded "unauthorized, improvised, inhumane, and undocumented" interrogation methods had been used on the suspects inside secret prisons.
Holder's announcement puts President Obama in an awkward position. Until now the president has fended off those who call for investigations of possible war crimes or other excesses by the Bush administration, saying we need to look forward, not backward.
That's a politically practical decision at a time when he has bigger fish to fry with health care, two wars and a sluggish economy.
But a don't-look-back posture also can amount to a dangerous dodge. The lesson of Calley's tragic story should be to give soldiers, military commanders and intelligence commanders clear guidelines before putting them in contact with suspected enemies. Those who fail to identify and learn from past mistakes invite new ones.