July 15 – A Lecture by Ian Fishback

On Monday, 15 July 2019 at 12h at our library, the Institute of European Studies is organizing a lecture by Ian Fishback

Obedience to Orders, Command Responsibility, and the Structure of the Laws of War

Ian Fishback is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan who researches rule of law with a special focus on the laws of war.  Prior to transitioning to academia, he served for over a decade, including four combat tours, as an officer in the US Special Forces and paratroopers.  During that time he made a stand against the Bush Administration’s illegal torture program.


According to the most widely accepted beliefs about the morality of war, there is a conceptual distinction regarding duties to obey orders. On one hand, politicians are morally responsible for ordering combatants to resort war, but combatants are not morally responsible for following politicians’ order to resort to war.  On the other hand,  combatants are almost always morally responsible for following orders to commit crimes during the conduct of war.  In other words, there almost always a respondeat superior (let the commander answer) justification for a combatant’s participation in war even though there is almost never a respondeat superior  justification for a combatant’s conduct during war.  I will challenge this conceptualization of a combatant’s duty to obey orders, arguing that the respondeat superior defense is often available to combatants who violate rules that regulate conduct in war.  In situations were the law and morality are unclear, (1) commanders who issue orders almost always bear sole moral and legal responsiblity and (2) subordinates almost never bear legal or moral responsibility.  Rather than being revisionist, my view is actually represented in case law and moral judgments about particular cases.  Therefore, many of the most widely accepted moral beliefs about combatants’ duties to obedience are contrary to legal and historical precedent.