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I Did What I Had to Do

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"I have always admired Lincoln. When the South began going its own way, he knew that taking a position against them would lead to civil war. But he did it anyway. Because he understood something... understood it more perhaps than anyone else in that time. He knew that a house divided against itself cannot stand... a nation cannot be divided and survive. Under his administration, brother hunted down brother, friend turned against friend. It was terrible. It was bloody. It was necessary. Because at the end, the republic held, and the nation was restored."
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Sometimes a decent person has to do something bad because it is the only way to prevent something worse from happening. 'I Did What I Had To Do' generally involves an after-the-fact justification for morally questionable actions. The culprit presents this statement when he's confronted with a "What Were You Thinking?" or "What the Hell, Hero?" reaction from someone (particularly The Heart) to whom he owes an explanation.

The questioned character will generally say, "I did what I had to do." And, more often than not, nothing else.

The consequences of such an action vary, of course, depending on the work's place in the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism. A character who sincerely regrets the 'necessary' action is likely to regard it as Dirty Business, suffer Bad Dreams, or try to forget through chemical means. Someone who realizes they don't feel all that bad about the 'necessity' may be suffering from Start of Darkness. A character who was already rather amoral might say this only because they're upset that they had to get their hands dirty.

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Generally associated with O.O.C. Is Serious Business. Compare Well-Intentioned Extremist and It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. When the character's motivation is her responsibility to those under her command, see The Chains of Commanding. If the consequences shown actually justify the action, then that's And It Worked. A character growing too comfortable with 'doing what I had to do' is guilty of a Reverse Slippery Slope Fallacy. Can be a Moral Event Horizon if it was particularly cruel or if they're particularly callous and nonchalant about it when confronted. If invoked large-scale by a Visionary Villain, it's Utopia Justifies the Means. Also, see Just Following Orders.


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Examples:

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     Comic Books 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Nine: Buffy repeatedly justifies her destroying the source of Earth's magic to stop Twilight the previous season this way. However, Willow insists that she will eventually have to deal with the consequences, but Buffy dismisses it; naturally, Willow turns out to be right when Dawn falls ill and starts to die without magic.
  • In The DCU, this is Amanda Waller's raison d'être.
    • Waller is odd in that she has a tendency to surround herself with idealists in an attempt to curb her pragmatic tendencies. When she (invariably) alienates these people, she REALLY starts to fall into this trope.
    • In the Elseworlds story Kingdom Come, the U.N. Director invokes this trope when he gives the order to drop nukes on the big superhero brawl. "The only way to make certain future generations will know this was our only hope... is to ensure there will BE future generations." He is later shown in his office, looking rather regretful.
  • Marvel Comics' Cable might as well have this monogrammed on his towels as often as he says it in his early appearances.
  • Magog from Kingdom Come uses this one too, which isn't surprising as he was inspired by Cable.
  • In Supergirl (Rebirth) Cyborg Superman defends his actions stating that he did what he needed to do to guarantee Supergirl's happiness.
    Cyborg Superman: I heard you, Kara. You longed to return to Argo City. I did only what needed to be done to give you that.
  • Wonder Woman ends up having to say this a lot after killing Maxwell Lord (with the whole thing recorded and broadcast to boot), who was controlling Superman (and who could've killed everyone present in the time it took to come up with a better plan). The whole thing sets off the Crisis Crossover, Infinite Crisis.
  • This is Batman's tacit justification for every time the Justice League finds out his plans to take them down should it be needed. Interesting because Batman helps undo them anyway. He also encourages this state of mind in his protégés, especially Tim (among others, in the form of a Dangerous 16th Birthday worthy of the greatest Manipulative Bastards).
  • In The Long Halloween, Harvey Dent says that he did what needed to be done when he kills Falcone.
  • Ozymandias from Watchmen killed millions to save billions. Possibly. The ending deliberately leaves it ambiguous as to whether his gambit ultimately succeeds. Regardless, he certainly believes his actions will save billions, at least until Dr. Manhattan leaves him with the words "Nothing ever ends, Adrian".
  • Cyclops has spent the last decade giving up everything he believed in, from his own moral code to his own happiness and the relationship between himself and his friends, resulting in many supervillains and psychopaths being put down, causing him to be compared to Magneto, but all so he could keep the last of his kind from extinction.
    • He kinda succeeds after the events in Phoenix Five. Kinda.
  • During a comic book crossover between Witchblade and Tomb Raider, Sara Pezzini, a cop, calls Lara Croft to task after witnessing Lara cold-bloodedly kill two men. Lara's response is basically "sentence given, judgment passed".
  • Spider-Man breaks a promise to Venom to let him go after capturing Carnage. J. Jonah Jameson can't resist pulling a What the Hell, Hero? by saying that Captain America would have kept his word. Spidey's response smacks of this trope.
    Spidey: Cap wouldn't have given his word. He'd have found another way, a perfect solution. He's a legend. Me, I'm just a man. And men have to make choices. Yeah, make them, and then live with them.

    Machinima 

    Music 
  • A few lyrics to "My Way" go as thus:
    I did what I had to do
    And saw it through without exemption...
  • The song "Pancho and Lefty" contains the following example:
    Pancho needs your prayers it's true
    but save a few for Lefty too
    he only did what he had to do
    and now he's growing old...
  • Appears verbatim in Pearl Jam's "Footsteps": "I did what I had to do, and if there was a reason, that reason was you." The song's narrator is reflecting on his life as he awaits execution for a killing spree chronicled in "Once", a reaction to his mother's incestuous advances in "Alive".

    Podcasts 
  • Janna from The Fallen Gods stands by this with regards to enslaving dozens of merfolk, saying that one must make difficult decisions in wartime.

    Tabletop Games  
  • Warhammer 40,000. All of it... at least the "good guys". The bad guys just enjoy their work. The kicker? For the sake of surviving, they really DO have to do it.
    • Well, they don't HAVE to, and the brutality of their methods backfires as often as it helps. Other races, notably the Tau and the human splinters Horus dealt with before his corruption, have much greater success fighting chaos with more surgical (or at least less exterminatus- and mass brainwashing-based) methods, they just haven't caught on in the Empire because the climate of fear and absolutism is also necessary to keep the imperium in power.
      • It's kind of worth noting here that the Tau A) do resort to similar methods as the Imperium (keep the knowledge of Chaos from the common people, whatever methods are necessary) and B) are about as warp-sensitive as a particularly dull rock, meaning the risk of Chaos corrupting a Tau is somewhere roughly between zero and none. Additionally, the Imperium's brutal methods are at least arguably justified in-universe by the fact that they've seen the result of what happens when Chaos goes unchecked time and time again, and the harsh methods of the Inquisition has kept the Imperium together for ten thousand years. Finally, the Interex and their supposed success at combating Chaos is not only the exception to the rule, but also dubious considering the fact that they were closely allied with xenos that produced weapons dedicated to the powers of Chaos and how easily they were manipulated into a war they couldn't win by one agent of Chaos.
    • Warhammer too. Burn down an entire village because of possible chaos taint? Had to be done. Burn the Witch! definitely had to be done. And this is just the humans, the other 'good guy' races are just as bad.
  • Exalted from White Wolf Games has the Sidereal Exalted, who masterminded the Usurpation that overthrew and murdered the Solar Exalted rulers of the setting. The Solars of the First Age were rapidly becoming mad and wicked tyrants, and the Sidereals saw two options: a Million-to-One Chance to save Creation by redeeming them, or a near-certain chance to solve the problem by killing them all, destroy the magitech infrastructure of the First Age and save what they could of Creation. They chose the latter, and the Bronze Faction maintain that their actions were correct to this day and are still correct. Whether they're right is fuel for endless disagreement, Flame Wars, and Natter.
    • This is especially true for Chejop Kejak. While he maintains he did the right thing, the memories of the Usurpation still haunt the old Seer thousands of years later. It is to the point that according to his character sheet in the Sidereal Exalted manual, his Motivation (which means his main objective in life) is "Justify the sacrifices of the past", and his defining quote is: "It was necessary."
    • More generally, this kind of situation is what the Conviction virtue is for. According to the first edition rulebook, someone with a legendary convition (level 5) has what it takes to put a whole nation to the sword, if it is really necessary.
  • Dungeons & Dragons had a version of this for PALADINS in the "Complete Scoundrel" 3.5e sourcebook: the Gray Guard Prestige Class, which basically allows the paladin to violate the code of conduct for the class with a minimal penalty if he does so in pursuit of a greater good.
  • There's a reason the Forsaken are called such — because they killed their father deity when they saw that he was getting weak and was unable to hunt down the spirit entities that threatened primordial Earth. As a result, they pretty much dashed Paradise to pieces, alienated their mother deity for millennia, and earned the undying enmity of their cousins, the Pure.
    • The Hunters say this a lot, too. Living in the World of Darkness and fighting the eponymous darkness not only requires cast-iron balls but all too often demands a willingness to accept innocent casualties as inevitable in the name of fighting a greater evil.
  • Urza in Magic: The Gathering practically had this printed on a shirt. Let's put it this way: his plan to wreck the biomechanical hell of Phyrexia involved recruiting eight planeswalkers. One of said planeswalkers was a sociopathic murderer who Urza knew all along would try and kill the other planeswalkers; he let said murderer kill two, then hit the kill command for that murderer's powersuit and used his life energy to prime the bombs. While ranting about how everyone kept underestimating him, no less.
    • He did a lot more than that. Let's begin with the earlier years of his four thousand year life. He rose to power as a talented Artificer in Yotia. Soon he came into conflict with a neighboring desert nation led by his brother. The following war saw entire forests cut down for wood, seas poisoned, deserts burned to glass and the earth blackened. The Brothers' War devastated Terisaire and killed most of the continent's population, all to save those that did survive from his brother, who was even worse. In order to win his war, Urza used the sylex at Argoth, which was pretty much a magic nuke that changed the shape of Dominaria forever. After that the list gets even longer. He unintentionally led the Phyrexians to Serra's realm, which was destroyed. He sacrificed friends as if they grew on trees, all in the name of revenge. In order to combat Phyrexia, Urza began a century-long eugenics project to breed a savior that can defeat them. He built a school for mages only to abandon its students when the academy was trapped in time dilation. Here is a man who sacrifices friends and nations, a man to whom no price is too high to defeat Phyrexia and Yawgmoth. In the end, he even sacrificed himself to that end. All of this made his betrayal of his own cause that much worse. After all of the terrible things he did to fight Phyrexia he was seduced by its power and majesty and pledged himself to Yawgmoth at the moment of truth. He only got back on track after Gerrard chopped his head off.
  • Firewall in Eclipse Phase do what they have to do. This doesn't make it any easier on their operatives when they have to shoot a child out of an airlock to keep him from infecting others with a virus that's raw Body Horror.

    Theatre 
  • Odysseus argues along these lines to Neoptolemus both for what they are about to do (abduct a man against his will), and for leaving said man stranded on the island in the first place in Philoctetes.
  • In All My Sons, Joe Keller insists that the reason why he kept quiet about shipping 120 cracked engine heads until it was too late and denied all responsibility for it was that it was necessary to keep his Family Business in business.
  • The Mrs Hawking play series: In Gilded Cages, Reginald Hawking feels bad about his part in putting down the desperate Indian Rebellion of 1858, but accepts it as a terrible part of the duty he owes to the British Empire.
  • This is Colonel Jessep's justification for his actions in A Few Good Men.

    Web Original 
  • The 6th episode of the TV Tropes original webseries Echo Chamber has Tom claim that, when he dumped his ex-girlfriend, he was just doing what he had to do. For once, it seems like he's telling the truth.
  • PreGame Lobby parodies this trope... With a giant blue duck.
  • Survival of the Fittest villain Bobby Jacks' entire justification for 'playing the game'. (The full statement being: 'I did what I had to do to survive')
  • A common theme of the SCP Foundation, but by far the most extreme example is the SCP-231 project. Pregnant girl of undetermined age carrying what appears to be some monster that, if birthed, will be The End of the World as We Know It. The only way to prevent the birth? Procedure 110-Montauk, which (while never actually described what it entails), must be carried out once every 24 hours by 6 Class D Personnel Yes, it is as bad as you think. No, the girl cannot be put out of her misery. No, the girl cannot be drugged into unconsciousness. She has to be fully awake for the procedure to work. In fact, she is routinely given amnesia drugs so that she can't ever get used to it. Yes, it is just as horrifying a prospect as you could imagine. A hidden message on the page claims the Foundation has no intention of trying to save the girl and want whatever is inside her right where it is.
  • In Big Red, a story in The Wanderer's Library a village offers children's hearts to a monster attacking them.
  • In Friendship is Witchcraft, Applejack apparently committed one or more war crimes during the backstory. Applejack insists, "I did what I had to do to protect the Apple family!"
  • RWBY: Blake once tells her team that Adam started off as a good person who became bad over time and by degrees. She said it would start as accidents that escalated over time. In the Volume 6 Character Short, flashbacks over time show this descent into villainy. When Adam kills a human who is trying to kill Ghira, Ghira is horrified by the unnecessary death and Adam also looks disturbed. However, Sienna and the other Faunus surprise him by praising him as a hero. When Blake later challenges him about the increasing frequency of human deaths occurring on his missions, she asks him how many more there will be. Adam states he doesn't know because he's out there risking his life for the Faunus cause, and people get hurt when that happens.

    Western Animation 
  • Ra's Al Ghul says this line verbatim in Batman Beyond. He had placed his mind into his daughter's body in order to cheat death.
  • Codename: Kids Next Door:
    Number 1: You do what you have to, and I'll do what I have to.
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, this is used by Zuko twice; once in his second fight against Zhao to justify becoming the Blue Spirit and springing the Avatar, thus rendering himself a traitor to his own nation, and then again in season 3 to Iroh as his excuse for his actions during the season 2 finale. It's pretty notable that while the first is said with utter conviction, the second time it's used it more or less fails to even convince Zuko himself. In the case of the latter though, it's more from a pragmatic standpoint that if Iroh had joined him, he wouldn't have had to end up rotting in a cell.
  • This was Ultra Magnus' justification for creating Person of Mass Destruction Omega Supreme in Transformers Animated, showing that he was (and still is) willing to do nearly anything to end the war. Ratchet didn't agree.
    • Ironically, Ratchet says the exact same thing later when Omega questions the point of war. Then again, Omega was on the verge of dying, and Ratchet probably wanted to make him feel good in what could have been his last moments.
  • In the finale of Beast Machines Optimus, Rattrap, Cheetor and Botanica were barricaded inside Megatron's fortress while Megatron and his Vehicons were trying to get in, but were unable to as long as the shields were up. Stalemate. However, being separated from the soil meant Botanica (Rattrap's love interest) was losing her life energy. Rattrap opened a small hole in the shields in order to get Botanica out and back to the ground - which worked, but which Megatron immediately picked up on and used to destroy the base. Optimus and Cheetor flipped out at Rattrap, who used this as his justification.
    • Optimus ended up dropping the issue while noting that the shields would have failed sooner or later after the initial flip out.
  • Rocky Hauler (AKA Rhino Dump Truck) from Matchbox Hero City after realizing that Bobby and Buzz left decided to help clean up Rocket Park for the city even if it meant getting dirty.
  • The Season 3 finale of Star vs. the Forces of Evil has Eclipsa saying this after she killed her own daughter to protect the Kingdom of Mewni from her rampage.
  • In Transformers Prime, Optimus says this when he finally realizes that the war will never end until he kills Megatron. Since it's Optimus, he obviously doesn't go through with it. He gets interrupted when the literal Transformer Devil wakes up
    • Also in "Darkest Hour", when Optimus had to destroy the Omega Lock which would have revived Cybertron to save the Earth.
    Ratchet: All of our struggles and energon spilled and countless sacrifices, for NOTHING!?
    Arcee: Right decision or wrong, what's done is done...
  • In one episode of Futurama, a character says this to Fry after removing Bender's brain.

    Real Life 
  • Michael Jackson's father, Joe Jackson, described this as being his mindset when it came out that his training regimen for Michael and his siblings was not only exhausting, but reached a point of being mentally and allegedly even physically abusive. His children weren't allowed to refer to him as "Dad" during rehearsals, and it has been said by some that if they continued to mess up they would be slapped with a thin rod, though the truth of this uncertain. For his part, Joe's reasoning behind this was that he knew Gary, Indiana was considered a slumhole town for good reason, and he refused to let his children fall into a gang like many other poor kids did at the time. His mindset was that it was better his children grew up to hate him and be successes than to love him and die in a shoot-out early in their lives. Even if they disagreed with his methods, Michael and most of his siblings did at least grow to forgive their father in the end.
  • Ronald Reagan said, on the bombing of Libya in 1986, "Colonel Qadhafi is not only an enemy of the United States. His record of subversion and aggression against the neighboring States in Africa is well documented and well known. He has ordered the murder of fellow Libyans in countless countries. He has sanctioned acts of terror in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, as well as the Western Hemisphere. Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again."
  • Harry Truman stood by his decision to use atomic bombs against Japan, saying "I knew what I was doing when I stopped the war... I have no regrets and, under the same circumstances, I would do it again." In private diaries, however, he expressed some regrets and uncertainty.
    • Paul Tibbets, the pilot of Enola Gay that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima said in 2005 that "If you give me the same circumstances, I'd do it again". Crew members of Enola Gay and Bockscar (the plane that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki) said similar things, except Robert Lewis, co-pilot of the Enola Gay, who had a My God, What Have I Done? moment.
  • This is actually the law whenever an aircraft of any stripe has an emergency. The commander of the craft is authorized to do what he has to do to minimize the harm and prevent catastrophe, and any property damage or deaths that happen as a result of this are legally just collateral damage. Specifically, the US regulations say (as an example) "In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency." but it follows it with "Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator." Short version: You can do what you have to do, but you better have a good reason.
  • Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in The Prince that a Prince should not let his morals impede the running of a state.
  • Josef Stalin was (in)famous for using this as justifying his actions. Along with the general claim that he was creating a new socialist utopia, Stalin also specifically said that the USSR had to industrialize, and quickly, or else it would be overwhelmed by the rest of the world. He said the following exactly 10 years, 3 months and 12 days from the beginning of Operation Barbarossa:
    We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they will crush us.
  • During World War II, in the Pacific Theater, a fighter pilot crashed upon landing and was trapped in the burning wreckage. The first officer to arrive on the scene, hearing the pilot's screams as he was burned alive and knowing that the firefighting equipment to put out the fire and extricate him from the wreck would never get there in time, promptly drew his sidearm and killed the pilot, sparing him an agonizing death. There wasn't even any talk of a court-martial, as everyone knew that he'd basically had the balls to do something unpleasant that had to be done.
  • After World War I, Italian General Luigi Cadorna, best known for his draconian discipline measures, inability to conceive a different tactic from the frontal attack, practically establishing a dictatorship in everything but name and getting crushed at Caporetto before being sacked, wrote a book in which he justified almost all his actions with necessity. Doing only frontal attacks? There was no time nor resources to retrain the soldiers for different tactics, and he still managed to partly do it and create the most feared special forces of the war. Retiring most troops and all airplanes from Libya, thus crippling the efforts to crush the Senussi rebellion while it's still weak? He needed them to fight Austria-Hungary, and they could reconquer Libya relatively easily once the war was won. The dictatorship? Necessary to fight a war without being crippled by Italy's Obstructive Bureaucrats that caused the Italian Army to enter the war underequipped, and he could have taken over and established an actual dictatorship whenever he wanted (he actually got some flak from Mussolini for backing out of a coup attempt). That draconian discipline? It had to be done. What's worse, is that, aside for the draconian discipline, he was right.
  • Following Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974, his successor Gerald Ford gave him a pardon for any and all wrongdoings he may have committed as president, saying "Our long national nightmare is over." This proved to be a very controversial decision, and he knew it, but now many say he did the right thing as Nixon's trial would have further divided and weakened the country, especially on the eve of its Bicentennial. As Ford put it in his 1979 autobiography A Time to Heal:
    Ford: America needed recovery, not revenge. The hate had to be drained and the healing begun.
  • During his recent interview with Sean Penn and Kate DeCastillio, notorious drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman listed this as the reason he entered the drug business and ended up heading his cartel.

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