Just Following Orders aka: I Was Just Following Orders
Not knowing can be dangerous if there are anthromorphic wolves about.
Argel Tal: I have never pretended to be anything but weak, Kharn. I don't enjoy war, yet I fight. I don't relish torture, yet I inflict it. I don't revere the gods, yet I serve their holy purpose. Humanity's weakest souls will always cling to the words "I was just following orders". They cower behind those words, making a virtue of their own weakness, lionising brutality over nobility. I know that when I die, I'll have lived my whole life shrouded by that same excuse. Kharn: So will I. So will any Space Marine.
Just Following Orders is a justification for morally questionable actions that a character may invoke when questioned about the rightness or necessity of such actions. This justification holds that the (bulk of the) responsibility for such actions falls upon those who make such decisions and give such orders within a (military) hierarchy; by extension, those who obey and act upon such orders cannot be held (entirely) accountable for their actions. Often invoked with the exact phrase "I was Just Following Orders." Also known as the "Nuremberg Defense", this is the Stock Phrase motto/mantra/defense of the Punch Clock Villain, as well as most bureaucrats (obstructive or otherwise), Mooks, and just about anyone during failures of nerve, job security, heroic fortitude...
It seems justifiable if you put yourself in their shoes. If your life and/or your family's life was threatened if you disobeyed orders you knew to be morally reprehensible, what would you do? For reference, the concentration camps also housed those convicted of treason, and their families would be tainted by the obvious "bad blood". Many of those who used the Nuremberg Defense knew what was waiting for them whether they followed orders or not. One is legally trapped between the prospect of immediate punishment from national law, or possibly delayed punishment from an international court attempting to judge from a higher moral law.
Of course, the victims of atrocities are likely to be far less sympathetic to this view...
This trope is by now usually not played straight but instead cowardly, ironically, sarcastically, or self-hatingly. Still, it's one of the tropes that cycles between Dead Horse Trope and Undead Horse Trope, because the dilemma it rests on is close to unresolvable. Quoting the trope by name, though, is likely to be met with skepticism and ridicule. If the "crime" being excused is a relatively minor one, though, then an accuser invoking a parallel with Nuremberg may be seen as invoking Godwin's Law.
Often also turns up in or close to other guises: My Country, Right or Wrong, people claiming "I Did What I Had to Do". Often prefixed by "Nothing Personal", usually said by an assassin. A Lawful Neutral may well end up saying this at some point depending on who he serves.
Not to be mistaken for Think Nothing of It or All a Part of the Job, catchphrases associated with the Humble Hero.
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Anime & Manga
Black Cat: In the beginning of the anime version, this is the defense Train gives to justify attempting to murder Eve.
Dragon Ball Z had Zarbon claiming this after Vegeta rammed a fist through his gut. In the English dub version, this sounds plausible, because Frieza came up with the idea of destroying the Saiyans on his own. In the original Japanese version, this is nonsense, because Zarbon and Dodoria were the ones who planted the idea that the Saiyans were a threat that needed to be destroyed in Frieza's head in the first place. Either way, Vegeta is not impressed and simply kills Zarbon by shooting through him.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Ed tries to invoke this when Riza tells him what happened in Ishval, saying that the Homunculi were really the ones behind it. Riza replies that, yes, the Homunculi may have started it, but they were the ones who carried it out, and that is something they will never forget.
Naruto: It initially appeared that Itachi, Sasuke's big brother, slaughtered their clan, including their parents, simply to see if he could. However, after Sasuke finally takes his long-awaited revenge on Itachi, it's revealed that the Uchiha were planning a coup against Konoha, and Itachi killed them to prevent it on the Konoha Elders' orders. Even then, he was so torn up and conflicted over it that his own parents, while at his mercy no less, actually encouraged him to finish the job.
In episode 52, after a fully-demonized Inuyasha kills Gatenmaru and starts slaughtering his way through his human henchmen, some of said bandits attempt to save themselves by insisting they were just following Gatenmaru's orders. Unfortunately (for them), Inuyasha is too far gone to give a crap.
Naraku orders Byakuya to allow Mouyoumaru to live. This forces Byakuya to interfere with Sesshoumaru's pursuit of Mouryoumaru. When Sesshoumaru turns on him, he says "don't hate me, I'm just doing my job" and then beats a hasty retreat.
Monster: Began with this trope. Tenma was ordered to save a man of importance as he was about to perform surgery on an immigrant and did so, and only later found out that the immigrant had died and left a widow who angrily confronted him about it. Tenma is later presented a similar situation, and opts instead to save the young boy he was about to operate on over another man of importance. And oh, what a mistake that was.
Lucifer: Fate's a slippery sort of concept, though, isn't it. I mean, most of the time it's just an excuse for doing what you want to do anyway." (Empties kettle of molten lead over Shinto Monster).
Big Nameless Shinto Monster: Nuuuh! It burns! It BURNS!
Lucifer: Well, that's what happens when you play with fire. Here we are. The red stone, I think you said."
This is X-Factor's government liaison's excuse for being part of the Sentinel program behind the back of her mutant/human relations team. Quicksilver immediately calls her on it.
SPC Devon Dixon: [feeling bad about killing] I'm not doin' the wrong thing, I'm just following orders, so I'd rather it not be me. So, I had to, you know, I learned to live with it.
The Battlestar Galactica/Battletech crossover Hunted Tribes gives one of the most epic treatments of this trope ever. Clan Wolverine soldiers refuse to associate with crewmembers from the Pegasus, considering the ship and all who served under Admiral Cain disgraced for abandoning civilians to the Cylons. When someone tries to claim they were just following orders, the Wolverines state that people's conscience should have stopped them, and that they should have killed Admiral Cain for issuing the order in the first place. Roslin tries the I Did What I Had to Do-Defense, only to be told that the Wolverines have been in similar situations without ever compromising their morals, and that that excuse would have been good enough for any number of people, but NOT for them.
Rosario Vampire: Brightest Darkness Act II: Subverted; while Dark does tell Tsurara that he was following his then-master's orders when he attacked the Snow Woman Village years before, he openly acknowledges it doesn't excuse his actions in the slightest.
Films — Animated
Good Cop/Bad Cop in The LEGO Movie faces this dilemma when he's forced to embalm his parents in glue.
Kaufmann was lying. He was a cruel man who loved his work. This becomes even more evident later when you learn more about him from both his employer and his apprentice, who give a rather unpleasant account of how long he managed to keep a victim alive while torturing him.
Used along with a healthy dose of Godwin's Law in Clerks. A man berates Dante in front of customers for selling cigarettes, accusing him of being just like the Nazis since he's "only following orders," and tells customers that they should buy Chewlies Gum instead (because selling a dangerous product to a willing consumer is just like gassing innocent people). The man is later revealed as a Chewlies Gum salesman.
The Dark Knight Rises: The police guarding the bridge to Gotham have orders not to let anyone cross, following Bane's threat to detonate a stolen nuclear device if anyone is allowed to escape. When Officer Blake and a group of citizens (orphaned kids among them) try to cross, the guards demolish a section of the bridge and use this defense when Blake calls them out on it.
Blake: You assholes! You just killed us all!
Guard: We're just following orders!
In X-Men: First Class, the Nazis that Erik confronts trot out this line as an excuse for their actions. Charles later makes the mistake of echoing it while trying to calm Magneto down. Definitely an Oh, Crap moment for the audience when he says it.
Alien vs. Predator: Requiem: Near the end, the surviving protagonists are confronted by a group of military men after Gunnison, Colorado, is nuked off the face of the Earth. Dallas accuses them as such, and they respond with these exact words.
Compliance is a dramatization of an actual crime where the staff of a fast food restaurant followed the increasing perverse orders of a voice on a phone claiming to be a police officer, without anyone asking basic questions as to why.
The submarine triller Crimson Tide features an interesting variation. The Captain wants to launch his nukes because the orders in hand say so. His Number Two points out that a second message may have been a repeat of those orders or a cancellation. Both men are opposing each other precisely because each believes he's Just Following Orders.
The court-martial in Breaker Morant hinges on whether or not the defendants were this when they killed prisoners of war. The movie is set in 1902, when the Nuremberg Defense was perfectly valid.
In Star Trek Into Darkness, Kirk tries to give this excuse on behalf of his crew to prevent Marcus from killing them. Unfortunately, he didn't intend to let them live anyway.
In the previous film Kirk actually uses this trope to justify his blatant disobedience of said orders. Specifically, when Captain Pike leaves the Enterprise to board the Narada he leaves orders for the crew to "come get him". Most likely, he did NOT mean for Kirk to disobey Acting-Captain Spock, attempt a mutiny, provoke Spock into resigning command, and disregard Starfleet regulations by taking on the absurdly powerful Romulan ship alone. This being James T. Kirk, of course it works, and as Kirk is freeing Pike, Pike asks "What are you doing here?" "Just following orders," says Kirk with a grin.
By the next movie, Kirk's "creative" interpretation of the rules to justify his ignorance of them catches up to him and he's (temporarily) demoted.
John Ford's final western Cheyenne Autumn has a German accented military officer who claims to like the Cheyenne people but unfortunately has to follow orders and keep them locked up in appalling conditions with no food and water and a group that includes women and children too. This over the objections of several token good team-mates and Only Sane Man officer. When the Cheyenne rebel violently, and the officer looks at the carnage, the officer rubs it in:
"Have orders been sufficiently followed, sir?"
In Cube Zero, Dodd has resigned himself to his job of overseeing the deaths of countless people trapped in the Cube by just keeping his head down and obeying the orders sent down to him without question, in the hopes they won't throw him in there as well.
Dax: Well, that's good, but you forgot about the children. Dill: ...What? Dax: Cowards; they always hide behind two things: orders and children.
Breaker Morant is about Lieutenant Harry "Breaker" Morant and two fellow officers of Britain's Bushveldt Carbineers facing court-martial for killing Boer prisoners of war (and one German missionary believed to be covertly helping the Boers) without fair trials. Both the prosecution and defense fully acknowledge that said killings took place, but the issue determining the guilt of the Carbineers is whether the acts were committed because of an informal order from higher up to do so (in order to adapt in the face of a brutal guerrilla war, and also because they felt the prisoners couldn't be adequately fed alongside British soldiers) or if Morant ordered the killings purely out of Revenge for the death and mutilation of a good friend and fellow officer. Complicating matters is that the three are being indirectly tried by the people who gave the informal order — Lord Kitchener and his military circle want to dispose of Morant and company as scapegoats for the killings rather than own up to giving the order so that Britain can avoid incurring the wrath of Imperial Germany (both because of the German missionary and because Germany sympathized with the Boer cause) and cool any simmering tensions with the Boers so a peace treaty can be made.
When an escaped Nazi war criminal is finally cornered in The Stranger, he says "I followed orders", to which the man that's been hunting him spits back "You gave the orders!"
According to one tale, a sick Gurkha was lying on a hospital bed, dying, so a British officer walked up to him and sternly told him 'don't die'. At that, the Gurkha recovered. After all, Gurkhas follow orders.
Carrot's affinity for subversions of this trope may also explain how he is the first (and arguably only) character in Feet of Clay to notice that the Golems rebel by following orders.
Played straight with the local watchmen from Bonk in The Fifth Elephant where the captain thereof tries to justify the things he's done to VIMES using this. Needless to say this is a futile effort, leading to the defiance of this trope, where Vimes orders Detritus to kill the man, and Detritus, knowing what's up, telling him to stuff it (with all due respect). Vimes himself has always acted in the knowledge that he swore an oath which was about upholding the law and defending the citizens, and didn't say anything about obeying orders anywhere.
'All right. All right. I don't like it any more than you, but I told you. I can't disod- disoy - not do what I'm told. 'M'a'nangel.'
Ironically, near the end of the book it's Aziraphale who points out, while trying to convince Crowley not to leave the mortals to confront Satan alone, "Lots of people in history have only done their jobs, and look at the trouble they caused."
Jamie Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire has become a Jaded Washout for this reason. His initial naive ideas of being a knight is shattered when he realizes that being part of the Kingsguard, an elite institution of the Praetorian Guard largely involves standing by while the King rapes his wife and summarily executes innocent people by the dozens while the knights stand on and do nothing, even good knights like Ser Arthur Dayne and Ser Barristan Selmy. The fact that he becomes The Oathbreaker by killing the King when he decides to Kill 'em All by unleashing wildfire on a civilian populace and ends up being shamed and misunderstood for a selfless heroic action, only makes it worse. On a broader note, this is in fact the theme of the series, to what extent is honor and chivalry a respectable code to follow and to what extent its merely an enabling fantasy for being unthinking thugs who do what they're told.
He does, however, inadvertently save the Rebellion by not firing immediately after ordered. He says "Stand by" twice before Luke's torpedoes hit the reactor.
Since the Empire resembles Nazi Germany, sympathetic Imperials wrestle with this trope a lot in the Expanded Universe.
For a book which became notorious for discussing the "banality of evil", Hannah Arendt's Eichmann In Jerusalem is in fact a thorough and detailed takedown of the mentality of Just Following Orders. She notes that regardless of Eichmann's lack of Devil in Plain Sight behaviour and his insistence that he was following orders, this is still not an excuse and that people have a moral obligation and can be tried for failing to pass on it, even in the most exceptionally difficult circumstances.
Non-military variation; The Grapes of Wrath features an interlude with a bulldozer driver who is employed by the banks and landowners to bulldoze repossessed farms for development. One of the dispossessed farm-owners recognises him as the son of an acquaintance and demands to know how he can do this to his own people. The bulldozer driver replies that it's his job; it's all very well for the farmer to view him as a traitor, but the bulldozer driver has a family to think of as well, and if he quit out of moral outrage all that would happen would be that the banks would get someone else to do his job and he and his family would end up starving as well. Sort of a Deconstruction of We Are Struggling Together, if you think about it.
Perhaps the most extreme version imaginable appears in the last book of Stephen King's The Dark Tower. One of the mooks at the Evil Overlord's multiverse-breaking facility blames the heroes for attacking him and his fellows, in reply to which she queries how exactly this compares to the moral status of their working to kill absolutely everyone everywhere. His answer? Go on, guess.
Ranga Sanga in the Belisarius Series both plays this straight and subverts it. He fights for the bad guys because of his feudal duties but doesn't commit atrocities for them and turns on them when they go too far.
Belisarius himself, goes out of his way to order his men not to commit Rape, Pillage, and Burn on random civilians and in fact harshly punishes those who do such things. Those are of course good orders.
In Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, Hanna is prosecuted as a war criminal when she is found to have been a concentration camp guard who oversaw a forced prisoner march. The guards were ordered not to lose any prisoners, and so locked them inside a church on an overnight stop. When the church caught fire, the guards chose to leave the doors chained rather than risk that any might escape, and all 300 prisoners died. When questioned about this, she points to her orders, and asks the judge naively, "What would you have done?"
Referenced in World War Z. A unit of the German army has been ordered to retreat to a more defensible location and abandon the civilians they have been defending to the zombies. Despite the fact that he understands the awful necessity of it -their position was in imminent danger of being overrun and to stay would be a futile gesture- the officer being interviewed is appalled that the theatre commander was capable of giving this order, for everyone who enlists in the German military has it impressed on them that their first and most important duty is to their conscience.
The officer is more upset because he later finds out that his superior, who issued the order, shot himself because he couldn't live with his own orders. He views it as moral cowardice, the worst offense possible. Closer to this trope is the US Military, which first abandons over 50% of the United State's land mass, leaving millions to fend for themselves, only to later come back and wage war with those who survive, as many of them are understandably pissed off and are trying to fight for independence.
Another WWZ example: When a rebellion of Russian soldiers is put down, they are forced to select one of their comrades out of every ten and stone them. With this hideous punishment in mind, as well as the guilt and shame of having carried out these orders rather than refuse and be shot for it, the survivors are too frightened to disobey any future orders, no matter how hideous.
'' We relinguished our freedom that day, and we were more than happy to see it go. We lived in true freedom that day, the freedom to point at someone else and say, "They told me to do it! Its their fault, not mine!" The freedom, God help us, to say "I was just following orders."
When one character is ordered to destroy a bridge with refugees still on it and can't bring himself to follow through, his commanding officer recognizes his dilemma and does it himself.
A variation occures in the "Dragon" play by Eugeny Shwartz.
Henrih: It's not my fault. They've taught me this way! Lancelot: They've taught everyone. But why did you have become to the top student, you scum?!
Said by Marcello Clerici, the Villain Protagonist of the novel The Conformist which is set in Fascist Italy and ends on the night of Mussolini's fall from power, when his colleague Orlando wonders how they'll explain their role in the government.
In Harry Potter, some of the Death Eaters (after Voldemort's "death") used this in the most literal way possible - they claimed to have been under the Imperius curse. Most of them weren't.
Bothari in Vorkosigan Saga is a special example. He is so mentally ill that he can barely do anything else and it takes all his courage just to abstain from raping Cordelia at the command of a sadist. Bothari knows this and thus clings to the Vorkosigans because he thinks he can trust them to give good orders and that is the best he can do. He doesn't think following orders takes away responsibility so much as thinking he barely do anything else so he better find a Reasonable Authority Figure if he wants to be human.
A less complex example is Aral's regular lectures to graduates of the Imperial Service on what constitutes an illegal order.
Argel Tal in the Horus Heresy acknowledges that he is following this trope, but does not consider it a worthy excuse and believes that he is a coward, along with every other human in history who has ever used this excuse.
Argel Tal: I have never pretended to be anything but weak, Kharn. I don't enjoy war, yet I fight. I don't relish torture, yet I inflict it. I don't revere the gods, yet I serve their holy purpose. Humanity's weakest souls will always cling to the words "I was just following orders". They cower behind those words, making a virtue of their own weakness, lionising brutality over nobility. I know that when I die, I'll have lived my whole life shrouded by that same excuse.
Kharn: So will I. So will any Space Marine.
Blood-chillinglyAverted with Szeth-son-son-Vallano of The Stormlight Archive. As a Truthless of Shinovar, Szeth must obey any order given by the holder of his Oathstone, whether the order be to cut open his own arm, pour someone's beer on his head, empty the privies, or cut the hearts out of a hundred innocent babies and eat them. The only two orders he won't follow are orders to kill himself or surrender his Shardblade. So far it sounds like a straight example, but then we learn that he is still held fully morally responsible for every evil order he follows, despite the fact that he has no choice but to follow them. As he puts it:
Szeth: It is my punishment. To kill, to have no choice, but to bear the sins nonetheless.
A rare instance of this being used positively is in Voices by Ursula K. Le Guin. The Waylord of Ansul actually defends Ald occupation general Ioratth despite having been brutally tortured by the Alds for a year, since the occupation would have happened with Ioratth or without him, and it was actually his son and the Ald priests who carried out the worst abuses. Ioratth just finds the whole venture pointless and is quite happy when he gets new orders that let him ease up on the repression.
A major theme of Humane Tyranny. The Agents who execute the unfortunate souls selected through the Lottery Of Doom but don't believe that the population desperately needs to be reduced still have a job to do. At times, private citizens might be required to help the Agents in their tasks and they are legally obligated to do so no matter how they might feel about what is going on. Chelsea has no sympathy for any of those people, though Nero has some for the latter group.
Invoked in The Dresden Files book Summer Knightbecause Harry's crew was following his orders when he led them into a Fae war, bringing iron into the battlefield, causing the deaths of several Sidhe, and the Big Bad Sidhe, none of the crew will be the target of any repercussions. However, Harry, as the leader, will be bearing the full consequences of his orders.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xander chloroforms Dawn and kidnaps her under Buffy's orders. However, it turns out Dawn carries a tazer and doesn't care, so she tazes him and drives them back anyways.
Data: Captain, I wish to submit myself for disciplinary action. I have disobeyed a direct order from a superior officer. Although the result of my actions proved positive, the ends cannot justify the means.
Captain Picard: No, they can't. However, the claim "I was only following orders" has been used to justify too many tragedies in our history. Starfleet doesn't want officers who will blindly follow orders without analyzing the situation. Your actions were appropriate for the circumstances.
Commander Riker: I wasn't a hero, and neither were you! What you did was wrong. And I was wrong to support you, but I was too young and too stupid to realize it! You were the captain, I was the ensign. I was just following orders.
In "Conundrum" refusal to obey orders that couldn't be verified and were suspicious at best was a key plot point when the crew of the Enterprise-D was tricked and their memories wiped.
Picard: I feel as though I've been handed a weapon, sent into a room and told to shoot a stranger. Well, I need some moral context to justify that action, and I don't have it. I'm not content simply to obey orders. I need to know that what I am doing is right.
More or less the theme of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Duet", where it is doubly subverted, first when a Cardassian officer gleefully refuses to claim it, and then at the end when it turns out that he's actually just a common soldier who is still tortured by his acquiescence in the atrocities ordered by his superiors, and has been impersonating a dead superior in hopes of shaming his fellow Cardassians into admitting guilt.
Captain Kathryn Janeway: I'm putting an end to your experiments, and you are hereby relieved of your command. You and your crew will be confined to quarters.
Captain Ransom: Please, show them leniency. They were only following my orders.
Janeway: Their mistake.
In The Thick of It, Hapless minister Hugh Abbot is about to introduce a new bill about special needs schooling, and gets uncomfortable around an aide who opposes it because he thinks the bill will fail his own child.
Hugh Abbot: Glenn, the special needs bill. With your particular interest, I... I can't do this.
Glenn Cullen: You know my views, you know inclusion is an illusion, it doesn't work.
Hugh: But you don't mind if I go ahead with it.
Glenn: Of course not, look - you're only following orders.
Hugh: Oh thanks. So you won't make me feel bad, except by comparing me to a concentration camp guard.
Glenn: No, that's right.
It continues in Series 3 with incompetent new press officer John Duggan:
"I'm Just Following Orders! Like a Nazi guard, only less gassy! [sheepish pause] You're not Jewish are you?"
Averted at least once in Babylon 5. Dr. Franklin is ordered to turn over his notes on Minbari DNA so that the military can create a biological weapon. He refuses, stating that under military law he has no duty to obey an order if it would violate his conscience.
Not so averted. The military locks him up and tears his house and office apart looking for some remnant of those notes. He was just Genre Savvy enough to have destroyed them in advance, knowing in times of war, military law is "Do What We Say And Maybe We Won't Kill You."
Delenn raised a whole fleet without the permission of the Grey Council. So much for orders.
In the episode "Deathwalker", Sinclair uses this reason, but it is clear he is sickened by Earthdome's actions.
Played straight in Intersections in Real Time. Sheridan's interrogator never uses the exact words, but it's clear that it's how he reconciles what he's doing.
Sheridan beats this trope to death by actually seceding and later coming back to overthrow the regime-with the help of Minbari. His crew of course follows his orders, presumably because he is a badass.
And then he resurrects it by not protesting a blanket pardon for the regime - in Season 5 there are numerous individuals flying starships who bombed civilian targets and slaughtered refugees.
And then it's twisted in a knot in "A Call To Arms": a whole crew of pardoned war criminals joins Sheridan out of guilt for their actions during the war, and ultimately makes a Heroic Sacrifice.
In fact, the entire plot arc of Season 4 (the Earth Civil War) is more or less an exploration of this trope. Sheridan gives a number of speeches (no surprise) about illegal orders.
Word of advice, do not invoke this trope around the Doctor. It will only make him mad. For example, this exchange from "Bad Wolf":
Female Programmer: If you're not holding us hostage, then open the door and let us out. The staff are terrified!
The Doctor: That's the same staff who executes hundreds of contestants every day?
Female Programmer: That's not our fault. We're just doing our jobs.
The Doctor: And with that sentence, you just lost the right to even talk to me. Now back off!
An episode of JAG (season 9) involves a Marine who disobeyed an order to "treat everyone as hostile" during the invasion of Iraq, freezing when confronted with a 10-year-old kid, who then exposed his squad's position, leading to the deaths of two Marines. He's accused of dereliction of duty and the "duty to obey unlawful orders" is discussed. At the pretrial hearing, the judge feels he isn't guilty of dereliction of duty, but there is a change for insubordination, which he pleads guilty to.
Used in V by humans to justify working for the visitors. One woman is called out on this, being told that the same excuse was used at the Nuremberg Trials.
Invoked in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, A Thousand Days On Earth: during a murder investigation, Catherine uncovers that while their main suspect isn't guilty of the crime, he is hiding his past as a sex offender (turns out he's really a decent guy that made a stupid mistake, and is trying to start his life over). Upon learning this, she goes completely overboard and personally crucifies him by explicitly telling his fiancee of his sex offender registration, who then tells his boss and he is fired, and tries to make the evidence point to him as the criminal. Many members of her team continuously point this out, claiming she is not listening to how his alibi checks out or the fact that one sarcastically comments how it is fun to watch how she is just making the evidence fit her theory. In the end it was her actions alone that destroyed his life. Although cleared of the murder charge, the man's life is effectively ruined by the revelation.
"I was just doing my job. I was just following orders. Blonde Nazi bitch! You get in there with your big boots and you kick it all apart and you don't care who you hurt. Whose life you destroy in the process."
Used in Rome, in a situation which actually turns out to be for the better.
Centurion Lucius Vorenus: Pullo, report to Princess Cleopatra and do whatever she tells you.
*Cue a prolonged bout of vigorous and noisy sex.*
Legionary Titus Pullo: Gods, that was something, let me tell you.
Pullo: Why? I was only obeying orders. Bloody good orders, too.
Annie Cartwright in Life On Mars uses this defence - not necessarily as an excuse but as an admission of complicity in the death of Billy Kemble - in this way in the penultimate episode of series 1.
Invoked in Episode 6 of Torchwood: Miracle Day when Gwen confronts Dr. Patel about the incineration of 'Category One' patients. Dr. Patel begins to protest, and Gwen interrupts her.
Gwen: Don't you dare. Don't you dare look at me and tell me you're obeying orders. Don't you bloody dare.
And again with Colin Maloney, director of the San Pedro camp.
Rex: They built ovens! And you're the director, so you know that.
Maloney: Look, I'm not in charge of policy... we had instructions that got sent out nationwide, worldwide, and we had orders from above not to say anything. I just did as I was told.
Invoked by Jack O'Neill in the Stargate SG-1 episode "Cor'Ai", where Teal'c stood trial on another world for crimes he committed there while under the service of the Goa'uld:
Teal'c, there are a lot things we do that we wish we could change and we sure as hell can't forget, but the whole concept of chain of command undermines the idea of free will. So as soldiers, we have to do some pretty awful stuff. But we're following orders like we were trained to. It doesn't make it easier; it certainly doesn't make it right, but it does put some of the responsibility on the guy giving those orders.
Interestingly, Teal'c doesn't use this justification himself. He did a lot of awful things while in the service of the Goa'uld and he always takes full responsibility, even going so far as to willingly submit to execution in "Cor'ai."
Hammond: These people's laws in this regard are no different from our own. We don't stop pursuing war criminals because they have a change of heart. O'Neill: War criminals. Hammond: Yes, Colonel, he is. Like it or not, what the Jaffa have done to these people and thousands of other people is a crime. Now Teal'c spent many years serving the Goa'uld doing some damned distasteful things. Surely both of you must realize that this was bound to happen sooner or later. O'Neill: General Hammond, I have spent a lot of years in the service of my country, and I have been ordered to do "some damned distasteful things."
The audience never finds out how a USAF officer has no problem comparing his own classified service record to that of an alien commandant who has admitted to committing acts of genocide.
In the opening of The Outer Limits (1995) episode "Free Spirit", a group of scientists receive an order to end a mind-transfer experiment by terminating their unconscious human test subjects. When the last one escapes as an incorporeal spirit and eventually comes back for revenge, they try to use this excuse by claiming they had no choice in the matter. He calls them out on how weak it is, as they didn't even attempt to object to the order.
In one episode of Old Harry's Game the Professor is interviewing various historical figures for a history book. This includes a Nazi who claims he was only following orders. The Nazi in question was actually Hitler.
A subversion in the Traveller volume Alien Races 4. The Bwaps are a race whose hat is being BadassBureaucrats. In one side story a Bwap starport official is processing incoming passengers. The Bwap stopped a mother and her baby, claiming a petty technicality and caused the whole line behind her to become indignant at his supposed stupidity. But as it turned out the passengers behind were terrorists and the Bwap was pretending to be Just Following Orders as a Batman Gambit to delay them so that Swat could get into place—using stereotypes to divert suspicion. After the incident the Bwap insisted that the mother he was delaying share in the reward.
Heinrich von Kleist's play The Prince of Homburg is about a cavalry general put on trial and condemned to death for disobeying an order not to charge in a battle.
Franz Liebkind (author of "Springtime for Hitler") in The Producers:
"I vas never a member of the Nazi party. I only followed orders. I had nossing to do with the war. I didn't even know there vas a war on. Ve lived in the back. Right across from Svitzerland. All ve heard vas yodeling."
In The Time Of Your Life, the cop Krupp enters arguing with his longshoreman friend McCarthy, protesting that all he's doing is carrying out his orders to keep the peace on the waterfront. McCarthy asks Krupp if keeping the peace means hitting him over the head with a club if he's on duty and standing on the opposite side.
Subverted in The Devil's Disciple. When the hero Richard Dudgeon tries to rebuke General Burgoyne by saying "because you are paid to do it," Burgoyne retorts "Ah, I am really sorry that you should think that, Mr. Dudgeon. If you knew what my commission cost me, and what my pay is, you would think better of me. I should be glad to part from you on friendly terms."
Metal Gear Solid 2's Raiden was a victim of this. He is not, in fact, working for the special ops group FOXHOUND, but is just another Patriot agent, like Ames and Johnson. This is why most characters react to the player with suspicion.
In The Punisher video game, one mook yells out "I was just following orders!" when you torture him to his breaking point.
Punisher: (Kill) Orders are no excuse.
Punisher: (Mercy) Think for yourself next time.
There's also another variation: "I'm just a soldier!"
Sunset Riders does this after one of the boss fights. After the beaten but still alive boss falls to the ground, his sister suddenly runs up and says "please don't shoot my brother. He was just following orders." Ever the chivalrous gentleman cowboy, your character can't turn down a request from a lady and agrees to spare him. Note that this is the only time you spare a boss; every other one gets a bullet between the eyes, even if he was just following orders.
It's rather odd that she would specifically ask you not to shoot him considering that, in order to beat the guy, you have to shoot him about a hundred times. What's one more bullet?
Mega Man 8 features Sword Man, the one robot master who doesn't seem to have any problem with Mega Man; in fact, he seems to respect him quite a bit. He invokes this trope (along with Nothing Personal) right before you fight him.
Assassin Blue uses this as an excuse for killing at least initially.
If you take The Paragon option, Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 2 can get two prison guards to avert this trope when beating up a prisoner.
Shepard: This degrades you as much as him.
Guard: We have orders.
Shepard: You're not important enough to make your own decisions?
Guard: I admit... I sometimes get tired of this. Does this really get us anything useful?
Shepard: Stop this. For your own sake.
Guard: Yeah, you're right. (To the other guard) Call it off. At least for now.
Admiral Hackett: I wish every soldier had your definition of "just doing your job." You're a credit to the uniform.
The Turians are implied to have tried to use this defence as justification for performing a pre-emptive strike on Pre-Contact Humanity, stating that were merely acting in accordance with Galactic Law to prevent tampering and activation of a dormant Mass Relay. Given how they are still paying reparations for the brief War that ensued, its clear that the Council didn't let them off the hook for this.
This is Thane's philosophy about killing: as an assassin, he is basically a weapon with hands and feet, and only feels moral responsibility for those he kills on his own initiative (such as his wife's murderers). He's also one of your most moral teammates, striving to avoid civilian casualties wherever possible.
This is the excuse for the soldiers in The Last of Us. They're not killing civilians for kicks; they're following their superiors' orders and trying to protect what's left of humanity from the Zombie Apocalypse.
The Machina Vanguard from Baten Kaitos Origins are all three pretty decent people despite working for The Empire. Valara even goes out of her way to be nice to Sagi while he's still in the Dark Service, and references this trope verbatim during one of the battles against her.
Fallout: New Vegas has Boone saying this to justify why he participated at Bitter Springs. It turns out to be a deconstruction in that Boone can no longer live with himself after participating in the massacre and leaves the military, after which the orders seem an incredibly hollow justification, even to him.
Enforced in Dragon Quest IX: One of the cardinal rules of the Celestrians (the guardian angels the protagonist is part of) is that they cannot disobey a direct order from their superior or rebel against him. So when it turns out the Big Bad is a Fallen Angel and thus cannot be fought, the main character willingly becomes a mortal.
This is a plot point in Super Danganronpa 2: Pekoyama claims that she was just "Fuyuhiko's tool", with no will of her own, after she has been already voted as the culprit. Therefore, Monokuma could rule that Fuyuhiko was the real mastermind behind the murder, and thus allow him to "graduate" and get away scot-free while everyone else gets executed.
In Kingdom Hearts I, after you defeat Lock, Shock and Barrel, Barrel whines as their defeat quote that they were "just following orders." (Oogie Boogie's orders.) He says it again if you talk to him after the battle.
In Juathuur, this is the main source of conflict between Sojueilo (who follows orders) and Thomil (who doesn't).
Schlock Mercenary had the eponymous amorph explain fine details of "I'm just doing my job" to a bureaucrat who was going to take advantage of a strip search of Dr. Bunnigus, required of all doctors arriving in Haven Hive.
In Escape From Terra a UW gunner who incinerated a defenseless Cerean homestead tried to use this excuse, after the superior who ordered the attack had assured the gunner he'd be taking full responsibility. The court did not see it that way-he and the ordering officer were both executed, though his death is a bit quicker than the officer's.
In Jack, Todd, who was a soldier in WWI, was ordered to kill one hundred and thirty-two children. Not only does he blame that he was just following orders, but as a strong believer in fate, he insists that he never had a choice to begin with. So naturally, his punishment in Hopkin's Ironic Hell is to be a character in a pre-destinedcomic strip drawn by the devil.
After being defeated in a water balloon war, one of Nelson's goons says this in The Simpsons episode "Bart the General." Bart spares them and pelts Nelson with the extra balloons instead.
In one episode of Johnny Test, Johnny, his friends and enemies start to have a drag race but are stopped by the sheriff. The General tries to fast-talk their way through before yelling, "GO around him! the general rules!" The two secret agents call this trope as they do just that.
In Gravity Falls, Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland don't want to lock Dipper and Mabel up in a government facility in Washington, but they had orders.
In the Justice League Unlimited episode "Flashpoint," Captain Atom is ordered by his Air Force superiors to keep Superman and Huntress from taking the Question from the Cadmus facility where he was being held. He even justifies his action to Superman by saying that he has his orders, "legal and proper." He ignores the obvious signs of torture on the Question's body, clear evidence that Atom's orders were not legal and that his military oaths actually require him to refuse those orders (see "Real Life," below).
Deadshot in Batman: Gotham Knight uses this defense. It doesn't help his case that he clearly enjoys his work and can afford to live in luxury because of it. Given that Batman was beating the living tar out of him, it's clear he was just begging for his life.
Famously used by Nazi defendants during the post World War 2 Nuremberg Trials. AKA the "Nuremberg Defense".
At the Nuremberg trials, it was established that "just following orders" is a valid defense, but only below the rank of lieutenant, and only if the orders in question are not clearly illegal. Many times the accused said that they followed orders because it was either work in the camps or the front line.
In a subversion, the Nazis who gave birth to this trope weren't the ones who were Just Following Orders but the ones who impressed their superiors enough with their enthusiasm to be assigned to running concentration camps. The ones who were just following orders ended up at the Russian Front, and usually didn't survive to reach Nuremberg in the first place.
Some historians who have interviewed ex-Nazi's, or supporters or collaborators of the regime, have reported that the subjects are very often proud of what was done and either don't use this defence or only used it as an excuse if they don't want to attract bad attention. Notably, some of those same historians have also interviewed former Soviet and Japanese soldiers who also took part in atrocities and generally conclude that this trope suits them better, since in the former case you could be sent to the Gulag or shot if you were suspected of being "un-revolutionary", and in the latter case one's superiors savagely beating their subordinates and treating them like dirt was the rule rather than the exception. In contrast, while in some cases not following orders could get you sent to the very dangerous Eastern Front, the majority of SS and Wehrmacht killers were often not severely punished and very usually had no problem with what they were doing; indeed, in many, many cases, they exceeded their orders and many atrocities were initiated at ground-level by officers. Since conquered Jews, Poles and other victims were forbidden to work (slave labour aside) yet were now part of the Greater German Reich, they became an economic burden, and since deportation was increasingly impractical, mass murder was often seen as cheaper and easier. The majority of Holocaust victims were shot, in thousands of separate instances; roughly half of its millions of victims were dead before Auschwitz opened its gas chambers.
As it happens, Adolf Hitlerhated giving orders and liked to keep them as vague as possible, leading to what historian Ian Kershaw called "working towards the Fuhrer", i.e. doing what you think Hitler wants, which as it happens was usually just anything that made the problem go away. A common problem, even in the early days of the regime, was that the SA, the SS and the more ideological members of the Party and the army would assault or kill more people than the leaders intended and had to be reined in (this was one of the reasons the SA was purged on the Night of the Long Knives, as they were considered too unruly compared to the "disciplined" SS). The initial plan for the occupation of Poland- then Eastern Europe- was to kill a certain % of various Polish social groups (e.g. Jews, academics, officers, lawyers etc.) and have the rest either deported or kept as slave labour (and/or held as hostages) while their land would be given to "ethnic" Germans, but the SS and sections of the German army ended up killing so much that even Himmler protested to Hitler (albeit on the grounds that it showed a lack of discipline). Eventually, for many, committing genocide simply became normal.
Older Than They Think: Henry Wirz, commandant of the notorious Andersonville POW camp during The American Civil War, claimed that he was only following orders when the victorious Union finally put him on trial. It didn't work any better for him than it did for the Nazi officers at Nuremberg eighty years later; he was hanged after a trial whose probable unfairness was made a moot point by the fact that he probably wasn't under orders to be that nasty anyway.
The US Military specifically states that following an order you know to be illegal (such as shooting civilians) denies you the use of this defense: you knew it was wrong and failed to refuse the order. It's failure to follow lawful orders that gets you punished-if an officer has to use a gun to make the troops follow orders, it's clearly not lawful.
The Canadian Forces have a very similar law as the US example above about only following lawful orders. They also practice "Due Diligence", which requires a soldier to understand what would and wouldn't be a lawful order, and said soldier will be punished for following an unlawful order even if he believed 100% that it was a lawful one.
A soldier given an illegal order is basically put in a no-win situation: they can follow orders and get punished by a military court later, or disobey and get punished by their superior officer right now.
When top SS officer and Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann was brought to trial in Israel in 1961 after 15 years on the lam, he used the Nuremberg defense. Depositions from other SS officers, however, shot holes through even that defense.
The infamous Christmas Truces in World Wars I and II were proof that many soldiers on both sides had no interest in killing each other outside of being ordered to do so. Many of these truces actually had the armies from both sides venturing out into No-Man's Land together to bury fallen comrades, exchange gifts, play football, and even sing carols.
The New York City Police Department (NYPD) marched to protest a few of their fellow cops being charged with sweeping crimes under the rug. The slogan on their sign was the name of this very trope. Analogues to Nazi Germany were not far behind.
Stanley Milgram's infamous psychological experiment in obedience, which tested whether people would willingly administer what they thought were painful or even harmful electrical shocks to another person if ordered to do so by an apparently knowledgeable authority. Over and over again, the majority of subjects were seen to follow the experimenter's instructions through to the end, although the "victim" voiced their protests, and even claimed to have a heart condition that could kill them if the shocks got too strong.
It was originally thought that obedience to authority led the participants in said experiment to act the way they did, however newer evidence suggests that identification with the experimenter and his research goals led them to continue with the experiment. Or to quote the authors of this essay:
"Our desire to be good subjects is stronger than our desire to be subjects who do good."
This can be an even stronger motivation for immoral behavior than just being forced into obedience. Also, the belief that it is for a higher good, be it science or an ideology, motivates people to transgress moral norms.
The Nazis were particularly good at setting up a system that rewards ideological fellowship over blind obedience: In the Nazi bureaucracy, orders often weren't formulated explicitly. Instead they vaguely formulated goals and had their subordinates do what is necessary to achieve them.
Another famous experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, showed that even ordinary people given authority over their peers will invariably become drunk on power, even when they go back to normal lives outside of the prison. More recent experiments have shown that one is more likely to abuse authority if the position involves power without respect and/or prestige (e.g. traffic cops, the DMV, staff managers). This means they won't get in trouble if caught and are unlikely to lose much even if they do. Or they hate the job so much they just don't care.
Anyone who has ever worked in any of the positions just listed will tell you that this cuts both ways. Because, say, a traffic warden, a staff manager or a DMV teller is held in contempt by the public, this sometimes gives members of the public the idea that they can order you around or that normal rules don't apply to them.
The job doesn't even need any kind of power or prestige. This is the only real defense bottom-rung employees such as cashiers, waiters, and the like have against rude customers. If a customer starts berating them for something completely out of their control (prices, the room temperature, a policy they don't like), the only thing the completely-powerless employee can say is "It's store policy/management's decision/up to the boss."
The Watergate burglars used the Just Following Orders defense, and succeeded. Notably, it succeeded because they had done it under what they believed to be a lawful order, issued from the appropriate authority (the President), and they followed the order in the expectation that it was entirely valid. The Watergate scandal erupted and threatened to consume Nixon, but the grunts that actually committed the physical crime were acquitted. Remember, most people asked to do something by the Leader of the Free World tend to listen.
The fallout from this led to a law referred to as Martinez-Baker, and is still on the books.
Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao Zedong, attempted this defense when the Gang of Four was put on trial after Mao's death. It didn't work.
"I was Chairman Mao's dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite."
The entire Romanian political police got away with everything they did after '89, because they were just following orders. Interestingly, the people whose orders they followed suddenly turned out to be Good All Along, and promptly executed the Ceausescu couple as an act of justice. It worked. Nobody else was brought to trial for their atrocities.
Many of the torturers in the Hanoi Hotel were brainwashed teenage boys whose families were being held hostage by Pol Pot. They were told to either follow orders or they and their whole families would have the same fate as the prisoners. In later interviews, this trope is their justification, saying that they too were prisoners. It falls apart when one of the few survivors confronts his captor.
"I wasn't trying to do anything to that Parks woman except do my job. She was in violation of the city codes, so what was I supposed to do? That damn bus was full and she wouldn't move back. I had my orders."
There was at least one incident of an employee cutting off some branches from a couple of trees, damaging the cars parked underneath them in the process. The employee claimed he was ordered to cut the branches and had no other choice but to follow the orders, and his boss is responsible for everything.
The employee might have been charged with cutting the branches, but he also had a responsibility to do his job in a manner that avoids harming his boss/organization.
Lawyers by law and ethical norm are required to use a version of this. While Lawyers can resign from service (usually) of any particular client, an attorney is expected, within certain outer limits, to engage in whatever morally-questionable-but-legal tactics will best serve his clients' interests. This could include making a child witness cry so as to convince prosecutors to give your client a better deal to protect them from you or it could include burying the other side in discovery to make pursuing a case against your client extremely time consuming. The justification is built into the ethical norms of the profession: you are your clients' advocate, and therefore must help them to the greatest legal extent possible. This ethical weirdness is the origin of the Amoral Attorney trope.