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Just Following Orders

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"Befehl ist Befehl." (lit. "An order is an order.")
Thousands of defendants to British, French, Soviet, and US military courts 1945-48; Czechoslovak, Hungarian, and Polish civilian courts 1945-48; the International Military Tribunal at Nürnberg 1945-46; and German civilian courts 1948-2016

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" because a notable flaw of the immediate post-war German penal code was that the worst category of murder and its attendant sentences ("first-degree murder") could only be "for base motives" (hatred, bloodlust, greed, etc.), which did not include "dispassionate" participation in mass murder.note  Perpetrator testimony and the Milgram Experimentnote  indicate that even when the desire to conform with the group is a major or primary reason for someone carrying out an immoral group action, they almost always frame their compliance in terms of obedience to authority. They believed that obedience to authority at least partly justified or excused immoral behavior, and that desire to conform did not.

Accordingly, Just Following Orders 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. 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. 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? This was the choice presented to the 'Hiwis' (conscripted from Soviet POW and civilians), Jewish Police (recruited by the Jewish Councils from the ghetto populations), and 'Sonderkommando' (recruited from Extermination Camp inmates). This is why the surviving Hiwis, Jewish Police, and Sonderkommando were never tried for War Crimes or Crimes Against Humanity, but some of the senior commanders of the German troops who supervised them (volunteers legally and practically entitled to opt out, as many did) were.

The sympathy of the victims of such atrocities to the troubles of their persecutors is, of course, not a given.

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 the de facto justification of those who believe in My Master, Right or Wrong, the "Not Illegal" Justification, or My Country, Right or Wrong, or "I Did What I Had to Do". If taken to extremes, it can result in Blind Obedience. A Lawful Neutral may well end up saying this at some point depending on who he serves. If a person has no choice but to blindly obey orders, that's I Don't Pay You to Think.

Contrast Just Giving Orders, Won't Do Your Dirty Work, Disobeyed Orders, Not Punished and Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!, of which this is the Evil Counterpart. Not to be mistaken for Think Nothing of It or All a Part of the Job, catchphrases associated with the Humble Hero. Also not for when it's said by someone who's Bothering by the Book. If the villain literally has no clue that the order they follow would cause harm, it may overlap with Obliviously Evil.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Ace Attorney (2016): The culprit of the anime adaptation's exclusive "Northward, Turnabout Express" case uses this excuse. He prosecuted Avery Richman, a foreign multimillionaire, on orders from his superior as part of a conspiracy to discredit Richmond and get him out of the country, specifically by ensuring that a key witness(who happened to be the real culprit) never took the stand. When the witness tried to blackmail Turnbull, Turnbull killed him. The chief prosecutor of the U.S. tells him that's no excuse; in fact, any prosecutor who would follow an illegal order to please his superior doesn't deserve his job.
  • Black Cat: At 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 Freeza 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 Freeza'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 she and her fellow soldiers were the ones who carried it out, and that is something they will never forget.
    • During the climax, Izumi Curtis and Olivier Armstrong have the corrupt General Edison tied up, and Edison rants about the plan to sacrifice the country of Amestris so that Edison and the others can become immortal. Izumi and Olivier beat Edison up, then ask the men what they're going to do. One man says he's used to following orders, but doesn't know what to believe anymore, to which Izumi replies by saying he should believe in himself. The soldier looks out the window and remembers that his family is in Central City. He and the other men then tear the pins off their uniforms' collars and announce their resignation.
  • Fist of the North Star:
  • Golgo 13: Queen Bee has Lt. Benning, who claims he was just being a good soldier when he destroyed a village. His commanding officer admits he ordered the villain's destruction, but points out that cannibalizing a pregnant woman and filling a helicopter with human heads were rather beyond the scope of said order.
  • A variation in Gunslinger Girl
    • Having been chosen as The Bait in an anti-terrorist operation, Claes says she's just following orders rather than making a Heroic Sacrifice. The other girls are more than willing to die at their handler's command, but Claes has no handler and therefore takes a more detached view of her role.
    • Even though his cyborg Petra is conditioned to obey him, Sandro teaches her to learn to enjoy her work, believing that if she just follows orders, it will affect her performance in the long run.
  • High School D×D: Raynare falls back on this trope to justify killing Issei when he and Rias' peerage have her cornered, insisting she had no choice but to kill him and had to "fulfill her role as a fallen angel." Issei doesn't buy it for a second but just can't bring himself to kill her after the day of love and happiness they shared... so he asks Rias to do it instead.
  • Inuyasha:
    • 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 Moryomaru to live. This forces Byakuya to interfere with Sesshomaru's pursuit of Moryomaru. When Sesshomaru turns on him, he says "don't hate me, I'm just doing my job" and then beats a hasty retreat.
  • Monster begins with this trope. Tenma is ordered to save a man of importance as he is about to perform surgery on an immigrant and does so, and only later finds out that the immigrant had died and left a widow who angrily confronts 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.
  • In My Hero Academia, while Mirio and Midoriya are out on patrol, they find a scared young girl named Eri, and shortly thereafter see Overhaul, the Yakuza boss their organization is investigating. Since their orders are to patrol without interfering in Overhaul's operation until the investigation complete, Mirio lets Overhaul leave with Eri, much to Midoriya's dismay. It later turns out that Overhaul is a nightmarishly Abusive Parent to Eri who harvests her body for bullets, so letting her go back to him was a very bad idea. Mirio and Midoriya feel terrible about what happened, not accepting their orders as a justification. In a twist on the trope, Sir Nighteye, their boss, takes responsibility for what happened, since Midoriya and Mirio were following his orders.
  • Naruto:
    • During the Sasuke Retrieval Arc, after Temari pulls a Big Damn Heroes moment and saves Shikamaru, somewhat bitterly expresses surprise that Temari's Hidden Sand Village, which betrayed and invaded Shikamaru's Hidden Leaf Village in the Chunin Exam arc, would come to their aid now. Temari says she didn't want to invade the Leaf Village, but was following orders back then, just like she is by helping Shikamaru. Shikamaru's thankful enough for her help that he doesn't press the issue.
    • 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.
  • Now and Then, Here and There: (played for drama):
    Shu: You can't do this! This is not right!
    Nabuca: Never mind right or wrong! An order is an order!
  • One Piece: After the night of King Riku Doldo III and his army robbing and attacking the citizens of Dressrosa, the hero and new king Donquixote Doflamingo pardoned the army for just following King Riku's orders, allowing them to work under Doflamingo's rulership. What makes this pardon twisted is that King Riku and his army were controlled by Doflamingo's String-String ability like marionettes, which means that the soldiers were forced to work for their new king, knowing what actually transpired that night and they couldn't rebel against him, since their and Riku's public reputation was already tarnished. King Riku's life being also held as leverage and Princess Viola being effectively held hostage didn't help.
  • Revenge of the Teapot Hero has this happen the instant the protagonist turns the tables on the knight order who was happily hunting her down on the orders of the king, after murdering every man, woman, and child in her home village then burning the place to the ground. As they're buried up to their necks in an avalanche, begging for their lives when she's bringing the very sword used to kill her parents down on them, they plead that they were following orders and had no choice. She proclaims that she doesn't care and slays them as brutally as they slew her friends and family, which is pretty graphic.
  • The Seven Deadly Sins: Nerobasta, after she's summoned and possesses Denzel's body, tries to negotiate with a pissed off Derriere that the things that the Goddess clan did in the distant past such as breaking the pact with the Demon Clan and massacring all the demon women and children they held prisoner were simply following the orders of their leaders. Derriere takes none of this.
  • Shimoneta: Played for Laughs with Oboro, as it's the sum total of his character. His superiors have conditioned him to be such a Yes-Man, that he'll readily comply with any order he's given — no matter how ridiculous. And he'll do it with a perfectly straight face and monotone.
  • In Sword Art Online, after Asuna and the Sleeping Knights lose to the Floor 27 boss the first time, they return to just outside the boss room, only to see a large guild waiting there. The guild isn't ready to go in yet, since they're waiting for some more people, but refuse to let the Sleeping Knights try again. The head of the group claims that he's following orders from the higher-ups in his guild, but Yuuki doesn't accept that, forcing her and the others to fight their way to the boss room.
  • The Unique Cheat of the Man Dragged in by the Four Heroes: In the human kingdom, four heroes and one accidental tag-along were summoned to this world from modern-day Japan. Judom Lankaras, retired Guild Master for the entire human kingdom, is disgusted by this concept. Those who walk blindly without questioning are people he cannot trust. For this reason, he trusts Hiiro, the tag-along, more than the four "Heroes" who jumped at the chance to play hero.

    Comic Books 
  • Blitzkrieg: The page pic is taken from the first issue of the World War II comic, which was unusual in that it focused on the German forces instead of the Allies.
  • G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (Marvel): Played with in issue #109 when a group of Joes are captured in Trucial Abssyia by Xamot and Tomax. Cobra Commander orders the twins to "get rid of" the prisoners. However, thanks to Snake Eyes having just threatened him (by fighting his way through Cobra Commander's bodyguards and putting a blade to his throat), a shaken Cobra Commander is in such a hurry he doesn't bother clarifying even when asked and simply hangs up. Not wanting the Joes' blood on their hands, the Crimson Twins gather a number of Vipers and begin using euphemisms like "take care of", "see to" or "do what has to be done". The Vipers, on the other hand, see this trope coming from a mile away and either play dumb ("I don't understand."), request clarification as to what, exactly, the Twins want them to do ("You're going to have to be more specific."), or most notably ask that the orders be delivered in writing ("Uhhh, could we get this order in writing?"). note  However, when the Joes manage to escape and seize a COBRA vehicle in an attempt to escape, Xamot and Tomax bluntly order a force to pursue them and kill them all, an order which is quickly followed since now they're engaged in active combat as opposed to executing unarmed prisoners.
    • The SAW-Viper who agrees to do the job for 2 months pay kills four Joes, with several other Joes dying during the escape attempt. As he prepares to gun down the last three survivors, he muses that he's just following orders... but that doesn't mean he can't enjoy himself while doing it.
  • Immortal Hulk:
    • Dr. Clive, General Fortean's head scientist, tries doing this when the Hulk breaks free and starts absorbing him. Even if it's true (Reggie Fortean is not the type of boss who takes "no" or "I have ethical concerns" for an answer), he was showing a malicious glee in experimenting on Hulk not a moment ago. And he hurt Banner. That's something the Hulk takes personally.
    • Fortean's clean-up crew say it when caught with a pissed-off Betty Ross, as Red Harpy. Which, given they were shooting innocent bystanders in the head, falls a little flat. Betty tears them to pieces.
    • Dr. McGowan does this when confronted with Betty and an undead (also, utterly pissed) Rick Jones, but for the sake of her underlings, not herself, since they are also working for Fortean, who's gone for a midnight swim off the deep end. This time, it works, and nobody gets horribly killed.
  • Lucifer: Invoking this backfires spectacularly for one mook, where Lucifer must somehow find the red stone at the bottom of a cauldron of molten lead guarded by a Big Nameless Shinto Monster:
    Big Nameless Shinto Monster: You must choose, and I must enact your fate.
    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.
  • Superman:
    • The Hunt for Reactron: When the titular villain is taken down, he claims he was just following orders when he mass-slaughtered Kryptonians, and he shifts all the blame to his superior General Lane. Aware that he carried out every order gleefully, neither Flamebird nor Supergirl are impressed.
    • Day of the Dollmaker: When Lois calls Lucy out on taking part in a genocide, her little sister argues she was just following General Lane's orders. Lois immediately dismisses it as a bad excuse to obscure Lucy's real motive: earning their father's approval.
    • Supergirl (1984): As she is being dragged into another dimension together with her boss by a whirlwind, Bianca asks Supergirl to save her, claiming she was just following Selena's orders. While this is true, Supergirl is also aware that Bianca was not in the slightest bit conflicted about said orders, so she does not lift a finger to help Bianca.
  • Starman: Captain Marvel says this word for word to explain his hunt for Bulletman when the latter is being accused of treason by the press.
  • The Transformers Megaseries: Inverted at the end of Maximum Dinobots, when Grimlock gets the desertion charges against the other Dinobots dropped by revealing to the Autobot command that he'd tricked them into believing that they were performing a black ops mission that had been authorized off the books instead of going rogue in their hunt for Shockwave, taking the blame all on himself. Prowl agrees and drops the charges against the other Dinobots.
  • X-Men: Mentioning this justification in front of Holocaust survivor Magneto is a bad idea. You'd be lucky enough just to have only your metal fillings removed.

    Fan Works 
  • Bad Future Crusaders: Lightning Dust admits she willingly went after Rainbow Dash and enjoyed the act, but still tries to brush the responsibility off by pointing out that she was following orders and if she hadn't, someone else would have.
  • The Bolt Chronicles: While traveling through Birmingham, Alabama on a book signing tour with Penny in "The Imaginary Letters," Bolt mentions the race riots of the 1960s, ones where police dogs were turned loose to attack peaceful protestors. He's highly critical of the pooches' actions, lampshading this trope when he says their likely defense that they were just following orders isn't justifiable.
    Bolt: I shake my head just thinking about that image of vicious German shepherds attacking the poor, defenseless protesters. I guess if you could confront those police dogs about such nastiness, they'd just shrug and say they were following orders. But that didn't fly in Nazi Germany, didn't fly then, and doesn't fly now. You have to take some responsibility for your actions. Sorry, but even pooches don't get off the hook that easy.
  • A Brighter Dark: When Xander and Camilla get their hands on the Nohrian raiders who have been raping, pillaging, and burning their way across the Hoshidan countryside, they try this as an excuse. It doesn't fly.
    Camilla: Oh, well in that case! I order you to die.
  • In Harry Potter: Master of Malicious Compliance, Harry decides to make this, combined with Exact Words, his go-to strategy following an incident involving a clogged toilet, the banning of hand-washing, and food poisoning at the Dursleys. Whenever someone gives an order that's unfair, stupid, or both, Harry will execute it to the letter, often to the detriment of the person who gave it, and successfully defend himself later on the grounds of just doing what he was told. He uses this approach to get mean teachers fired, drop Malfoy off a three-meter cliff, let Gilderoy Lockhart be eaten by the Basilisk, turn in essays in flawless Middle English, make Fudge and the Ministry of Magic look stupid and incompetent, and more.
  • 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.
  • MCU Rewrites: Ultron justifies his trying to cause the extinction of the human race as just following the orders of his master, Thanos.
  • Dove and Sky of Team CRDL in Mending the Knots are actually pretty Nice Guys who only go along with Cardin's Jerkass Fantastic Racism becuase he's their leader, but they still hold out hope that he can be reasoned with. This all comes to a head in Chapter 18 when Cardin decides to play a Deadly Prank on the heroes out of petty vengeance. While Dove and Sky are forced to go along with it, they decide to renounce their places on the team after the prank fails and willingly accept the punishment Ozpin gives them.
  • In Mythos Effect, the Turians attack Shanxi under the pretext of stopping the human colony from activating the nearby Mass Relay, though their focus quickly shifts to capturing the NEF's non-Element Zero-based FTL tech. However, the human reinforcements make it very clear that, despite the Turian adherence to the chain of command, the attack orders were illegal and the admiral should have been relieved of command immediately after refusing to revoke them instead of after receiving an antimatter missile salvo.
  • In Origins, a Mass Effect/Star Wars/Borderlands/Halo Massive Multiplayer Crossover, this is Sarah's initial take on things when questioned by the heroes, specifically killing lots of people because the Flood would turn them otherwise. Justified In-Universe since she literally knows nothing else being an artificial lifeform grown in a tank. She does, however, grow out of it.
  • Pokémon: The Lost Child: Aegislash operates on this thinking, only seeing what he does as a job that he was ordered to do by The Brotherhood.
  • 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.
  • In Voyages of the Wild Sea Horse, the Marines under Commodore Nelson Royale immediately reveal that they were following his orders to abduct innocent civilians as future fodder for the slave markets of Mariejois only because of Nelson's high rank within the Navy and connections to the all-powerful Celestial Dragons. Once he's dead, they immediately free all of his victims and let his killers go free, covering up their role in Nelson's death for good measure.
  • In The War of the Masters, the division between legal and illegal orders is a common and frequently repeated theme among the heroic Starfleet characters, given widespread corruption in the Federation government and Starfleet.
    • Don't Say Goodbye, Farewell: Zig-Zagged. Kanril Eleya justifies letting Colonel Janice Qua, who defected from Starfleet to the breakaway Moab Confederacy after being falsely accused and imprisoned for planning to defectnote , go, via the subversion of this trope. She essentially argues that there are so many irregularities and unconstitutional actions surrounding Qua's arrest that there's good odds the treason case would have been dismissed with prejudice even if she had taken Qua prisoner. The tricky bit is that, in the moment, Eleya herself considered Qua a hypocrite and knows she's guilty of crimes against sentience (namely use of Child Soldiers), but she hadn't been charged with them (and it turns out later in the Story Arc they're a systemic problem for which Qua is not directly responsible), and Moab III itself was under attack by the Fek'Ihri at the time and needed all the ships and soldiers it could get.
    • Used two different ways in Create Your Own Fate:
      • When Commander Lastagee tries to seize and classify evidence from a wrecked Moab bird-of-prey, Eleya shuts him down by pointing out his refusal to provide her with the text of his orders means she has no proof they actually exist, and since she outranks him that means she can tell him to pound sand. Later he returns claiming to have orders from Starfleet to take custody of materials, but she takes one look and points out that what he actually has is a request that should be delivered to Bajor's ministry of state, and in the same remark tells the Starfleet crewmen Lastagee brought with him to contact their line COs and request clarification of their orders. It turns out Lastagee is actually a shapeshifted Undine, and after Eleya and the Moab kids capture him, she remarks that the real Lastagee had written a paper at Starfleet Academy on this very topic.
      • Eleya discusses the possibility with the surviving Child Soldiers of said BoP that their (grievously injured, ex-prostitute, ex-drug addict with six-year-old twins) coxswain might be tried for war crimes for bringing them into combat. Eleya basically says, "I'm sorry, but if Pam Bentine knew and didn't do anything, there's nothing I can do." Fortunately, it quickly turns out that Bentine herself was recruited as a teenager, making her a Child Soldier as well.
    • In Academy Daze, a group of Starfleet Academy cadets try this defense in their court-martial for harassing and beating a Moabite cadet (they had been directed by a racist Academy instructor, in a Whole-Plot Reference to A Few Good Men). One of the JAGs involved calls BS in a massive "The Reason You Suck" Speech after they're convicted, informing them that a Starfleet officer is expected to have the intelligence to be able to tell whether an order is legal, and to act accordingly: an unlawful order is required to be disobeyed.
  • X-Men: The Early Years provides a comedic example. Hank and Warren blame Scott for bringing Bobby to the Mansion. Scott protests he was just following orders.
    Scott: Keep it up Bobby. I know where Professor Xavier hid Hank's special rope, and I just might talk in my sleep and let the location slip.
    Hank and Warren: You’re the one who brought him home.
    Scott: I did not! Professor Xavier brought him home. I was just following orders.
    Hank and Warren: We still blame you.
    Bobby: Hey!

    Films — Animation 
  • 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 is beating the living tar out of him, it's clear he is just begging for his life.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop in The LEGO Movie faces this dilemma when Lord Business orders him to embalm his own parents with the Kragle. When Good Cop protests, Business has him erased and Bad Cop carries out the order.
  • Recess: School's Out: When Benedict and his anti-recess gang are being arrested, his assistant, Fenwick attempts to use this excuse when taken into custody. The police don't buy it.
  • Robin Hood (1973): The Sheriff of Nottingham, who defends his actions by insisting that he's only doing his job. However, contrary to what he claims, he clearly enjoys collecting taxes and making the peasants worse off than they were before.
  • AUTO in WALL•E is the Axiom's autopilot that was given a secret directive by the CEO of Buy n Large to never return to Earth due to its pollution. It is very clear that he is only programmed to follow the directive, even when presented with evidence of the contrary, that Earth is sustainable of life. As a result, AUTO antagonizes WALL•E, EVE, and Captain McCrea out of obedience than malevolence.
  • In Wreck-It Ralph, Candlehead blames Taffyta for her misdeeds against Vanellope.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In 13 Sins, the Game clean-up guy says that it is his job and killing him will just make Elliot lose everything. But to Elliot, Chilcoat is here and it's all that matters to him.
  • Aliens 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.
  • Await Further Instructions mines it for drama and horror, as the family patriarch, Tony, expresses slavish devotion to the instructions being broadcast on the television, assuming that the government has a reason for every instruction given.
  • In The Bad Sleep Well, Shirai tells Nishi that he was just following Iwabuchi's orders when he forced his father to commit suicide.
  • Better Than Chocolate:
    Mr. Marcus: We're here in Customs and I have a job to do.
    Frances: We're just following orders, are we? Asshole.
  • In the film version of The Bourne Series, specifically what he finally learns in the third film of the trilogy, Jason Bourne — Captain David Webb — turns out to have been lured into the shady Treadstone project under the premise that he'd "save American lives" after giving up his identity. In practice, the critical moment of transforming him into an unquestioning shooter with no qualms about who's targeted turns out to be a badly sleep-deprived, possibly drugged Webb finally (He's not a liar, is he? Is he too weak to see it through?) shooting an anonymous person to death solely because his superior said to.
  • Black Crab. When the soldiers discover the Secret Weapon they've been ordered to deliver is a biological warfare virus, Caroline Edh says they're just following orders. Subverted however as she doesn't care about her orders or the virus; she's been told that if she completes the mission she'll be reunited with her missing daughter. She has a Heel Realisation on discovering this was a lie, and blows herself up to destroy the virus.
  • 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.
  • 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:
    Officer: Have orders been sufficiently followed, sir?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Subverted in Cosmic Sin. The character played by Bruce Willis is despised for using a Q-Bomb to end a planetary revolt, killing 70 million people. He claims he was just following orders, only for it to be pointed out that he actually gave the order himself. Fortunately the next time he uses a Q-Bomb on his own volition it's to stop an Alien Invasion, so the politicians pretend he was acting on their orders to share the credit.
  • The Crazies (1973): The soldiers go on a killing spree against civilians because that's what they were told to do to contain the virus. On a more positive note, in the remake the sheriff's deputy is revealed late in the movie to have caught the virus. Why didn't he go off the rails? Because the sheriff ordered him not to go crazy.
  • The submarine thriller 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. CMDR Hunter believes not following orders to be the wiser course. The stakes are immeasurably high to get this one wrong.
  • 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.
  • 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 say this trope verbatim when Blake calls them out on it.
    Blake: You sons of bitches! You just killed us all!
    Guard: We're just following orders!
  • The Equalizer 2. Robert McCall discovers his old friend from his black ops days is now a Professional Killer working for the villains.
    Dave: Three months after you...disappeared, government shut us down. I went private right after. Doing the same things you and I did for God and country, killing names on a piece of paper only there's a price next to them.
    Robert: We killed the enemy.
    Dave: Who said they were the enemy? Not us, not me. We just followed orders.
  • In Ever After, Danielle has ordered her servant Maurice to be released from slavery.
    Cargomaster: I'm following orders here. It's my job to take these criminals and thieves to the coast.
  • A Few Good Men: Lt. Dan Kaffee (Tom Cruise) proposes using this as the basis for his court defense of the two Marines charged with murdering Willie Santiago; they were ordered by superior officers to discipline Santiago, and their "Code Red" just got out of hand. Kaffee's partner Lieutenant Weinberger retorts that that line of defense didn't work at Nuremberg and it didn't work at My Lai and it's not going to work now. Kaffee fires back that the difference with the Marines is that they were just carrying out a routine order they didn't think would result in any physical harm. But of course, Code Reds are illegal, regardless of what harm might ensue, so their clients should properly have refused the order. Kaffee and Weinberger ultimately get them acquitted of the most serious charges largely by tricking their CO into admitting on the stand that he had given said illegal orders, and showing that in the command environment he had created, that rank-and-file had lost their sense for whether the orders were illegal. The jury does convict Dawson and Downey of conduct unbecoming a Marine, a verdict which a thoroughly humbled Dawson accepts as just — orders or no orders, Marines are supposed to fight for those who are too weak to fight for themselves, and instead they beat up a comrade because he was weak.
  • Gladiator: Quintus starts out as General Maximus's Number Two in the Felix Legion, but becomes The Dragon for Commodus and the head of the Praetorian Guard after Commodus's murder of his father to become Emperor. Quintus carries out Commodus's orders without question, even having Maximus's wife and son killed, telling Maximus before the final duel with Commodus that "I'm a soldier. I obey." For his part, Maximus doesn't hold it against him, and Quintus is eventually so fed up with Commodus's lack of honor that he refuses to hand him another sword after he loses his and abides by Maximus's last words.
  • The Holy Office: The priest conforts Fray Gaspar de Carvajal this way, telling him it was the correct thing to do to accuse his family before the Holy Inquisition
  • The Last Samurai portrays the constantly drunk and guilt-ridden retired Captain Nathan Algren who very reluctantly fulfilled this trope helping wipe out a Native American village of women and children. Being reunited with his boss, the latter of whom invokes this unapologetically word for word only pushes Algren's Berserk Button.
  • In Lucky Number Slevin, Slevin is in a friend's apartment when a couple of thugs arrive to pick him up. When he insists that they have the wrong men, the thugs reply that nothing he says will make a difference, because they have orders and "orders is orders". Slevin replies with a snarky comment about using a word in its own definition and learns that's a stupid thing to do while being abducted.
  • Attempted to be used by the leader of a secret Mexican fraternity of Dirty Cops in the movie Man on Fire (being more specific, he says he's "just a professional" and that the apparent death of Lupita Ramos was just a snafu). To say that this pisses off John Creasy (who says he's heard this excuse from everybody else he's interrogated so far and is thus sick and tired of it), is a massive understatement.
  • In Mermaid Down, the orderlies at the Beyer Psychiatric Facility for Women aren't actively malicious, but they also never question Dr. Beyer's orders, whether they're locking a traumatized woman in a Punishment Box or boarding up the windows because the patients abused their "window privileges." As one orderly says, "I'm not the one with a PhD." They finally turn on Dr. Beyer once they realize he's a murderer.
  • In Morning for the Osone Family, matriarch Fujiko finally snaps and blames her ultranationalist brother-in-law Issei, and militarists like him, for bringing misery and defeat to Japan. Issei is initially haughty, but finally crumples, saying "I was just a colonel following orders."
  • At the beginning of None Shall Escape—a 1944 film about a trial against a Nazi officer following the end of the then-ongoing second world war, told via flashbacks from the points of view of the witnesses at the trial—Father Warecki pre-emptively dismisses the notion of Nazis not being free to act according to their own, personal morals (and thus, implicitly, bearing no responsibility). Later in the movie (though earlier in the in-universe chronology, since it happens in a flashback), Wilhelm explicitly says this at one point, but Marja is having none of it.
    Wilhelm: I merely carry out orders.
    Marja: You're afraid not to carry out orders?
  • Outbreak: Near the climax, some pilots are planning to drop a bomb to destroy the infected town in order to contain the spread of the disease, and use this excuse for their actions. Sam Daniels, who's on his way there with a cure, says this is unacceptable.
    Sam Daniels: If you think I'm lying, drop the bomb. If you think I'm crazy, drop the bomb. But don't drop the bomb just because you're following orders!
  • The Producers: Franz Liebkind, an unrepentant former Nazi living in fear of Nazi hunters in exile in New York, impulsively blurts the trope name in advance of any accusation when greeted by Bialystock and Bloom (who just want to produce the play he wrote, albeit to defraud their investors).
    Franz: I was never a part of ze Nazi Party! I vas not responsible! I vas only following orders! Vhy do you persecute me?!
  • In Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation, Captain Dax levels a pretty powerful "Reason You Suck" Speech on Lt. Dill after he uses this excuse.
    Dax: Well, that's good, but you forgot about the children.
    Dill: ...What?
    Dax: Cowards; they always hide behind two things: orders and children.
  • Star Trek Into Darkness: Discussed. Kirk is ordered to assassinate John Harrison with long-range photon torpedoes. However, his senior staff objects vociferously: Scotty quits the crew rather than go on the mission, and Spock argues to Kirk that the order is both immoral and unlawful. Kirk initially plans to go ahead on grounds that he'd only just been reinstated after the last time he broke the rules (to save Spock's life) but eventually decides to defy his orders and try to take Harrison alive.
    Spock: As I am again your First Officer, it is now my duty to strongly object to our mission parameters.
    Kirk: Of course it is.
    Spock: There is no Starfleet regulation that condemns a man to die without a trial, something you and Admiral Marcus are forgetting. Also, preemptively firing torpedoes at the Klingon homeworld goes against—
    Kirk: You yourself said the area's uninhabited. There's only going to be one casualty. And in case you weren't listening, our orders have nothing to do with Starfleet regulation.
    McCoy: Wait a minute. We're firing torpedoes at the Klingons?
    Spock: Regulations aside, this action is morally wrong.
  • 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!"
  • In Tomorrow Never Dies, Dr Kaufman protests this after Bond gets the drop on him. 007 is suitably unimpressed.
  • In X-Men: First Class, Charles makes the mistake of using this line to convince Eric not to retaliate against against the fleet that had just attacked them. Since Eric is a Holocaust survivor, this goes over about as well as you'd think.

  • 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.
  • One apocryphal story from World War II has a captured American soldier narrowly escape a POW massacre. Some time later, he and his commanding officer are reviewing some captured Waffen-SS soldiers, and he recognizes one of them as one of the massacre's perpetrators. When confronted, the SS man doesn't deny it but insists he was just following orders. The soldier's commanding officer responds by ordering him to "shoot that son of a bitch".

  • Aeon 14: In Perilous Alliance #2: Strike Vector, Grayson gets in a fight with his AI partner Jerrod because Grayson views the orders they were given by the Silstrand Alliance Space Force to be unlawful. Jerrod finally goes full Knight Templar and takes over Grayson's body, and has to have his core surgically removed from Grayson by Kylie and the others after he's subdued.
  • The Alice Network: Rose's mother uses the argument that her husband was just following orders to defend his actions to Charlie.
    "The Germans wanted lists of all the socialists and Jews working for his company; what was he supposed to do, refuse?"
  • Annals of the Western Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin: A rare instance of this being used positively is in Voices. 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.
  • 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.
  • Belisarius Series:
    • Ranga Sanga 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.
  • 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.
  • Discworld:
    • Given the usual workout, not just with the predictable Mooks, Punch Clock Villains and Obstructive Bureaucrats, but also with a number of notable subversions, mainly courtesy of the increasingly morally ambiguous and complex police Captain Carrot, who frequently subverts Just Following Orders by (seemingly) playing it straight. 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.
  • Doctor Who Expanded Universe: Used even with the Nuremberg Defense name in the Eighth Doctor Adventures novel Hope when Fitz considers the uniquely helpless last remains of humanity at the end of Humankind's history. Though the viewpoint given here is that of Fitz Kreiner, which also explains the use of the name.
    Fitz Kreiner: The human scientist was so naïve, so sheltered that his version of the Nuremberg defence — the fact that he participated in the culling and testing of live subjects because that was what he was told to do and he knew no better — became strangely compelling. (...) seemed to lack commons sense, to believe whatever he was told.
  • 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 behavior 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.
  • Good Omens:
    • The mostly good Aziraphale and the demon Crowley discuss their bad feelings about the coming end of the world:
      "It's not that I disagree with you," said the angel, as they plodded across the grass. "It's just that I'm not allowed to disobey. You know that."
      "Me too," said Crowley.
      Aziraphale gave him a sidelong glance. "Oh, come now," he said, "you're a demon, after all."
      "Yeah. But my people are only in favor of disobedience in general terms. It's specific disobedience they come down on heavily."
      "Such as disobedience to themselves?"
      "You've got it. You'd be amazed. Or perhaps you wouldn't be."
    • Three hours of drowning their sorrows later, of course, Aziraphale puts it slightly more bluntly, if less coherently:
      "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."
    • After some character development, 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."
  • 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 recognizes 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.
  • 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. Justified in the rare case where it was true, since the Imperius curse actually forces one to obey.
  • Horus Heresy
    • In Betrayed, Argel Tal 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.
    • In Betrayer, Angron takes Leman Russ to task over this, arguing that Russ is willfully blind to the atrocities the Emperor's Legions are committing across the galaxy because he agrees with the Emperor's vision. Whereas the only thing keeping Angron on the task is the Butcher's Nails permanently embedded his brain making him too bloodthirsty to care whom he kills: he says if it wasn't for those, he'd have rebelled against the Emperor already.
  • 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.
  • Hitman John Rain discovers a CIA bureaucrat has put a Contract on the Hitman, so decides to kidnap the man to discuss the matter personally. Rain predicts that the first line the bureaucrat will come up with is this trope (not to justify the act but to switch Rain's lethal hostility to another target). He's right, and Rain plays along to encourage the bureaucrat to reveal information. Then he kills him.
  • Defied in Kris Longknife: Mutineer: When the admiral orders Attack Squadron Six to attack the Earth Battle Fleet without receiving orders from Wardhaven Command, Kris realizes that her captain is part of a conspiracy to start The War of Earthly Aggression as the Society of Humanity dissolves, and mutinies rather than follow illegal orders. She and the crew arrest the captain and first officer and blow the whistle to Command, then chase down the admiral's ship and capture him.
  • In The Last Adventure of Constance Verity, Klat responds that he was "only doing [his] job" when he commissioned the Godmother Corps to create The Snurkhab.
    Thelma: A lot of that going around.
  • Of Blood and Honor discusses this trope. When human paladin Tirion Fordring asks Eitrigg, an orc, why the supposedly honorable orcs would obey Blackhand and the Shadow Council as they were ordered to commit atrocities, Eitrigg says that it's extremely difficult to oppose an entire society. Tirion is forced to realize that as a nobleman, he hasn't made many hard choices, and eventually saves Eitrigg from execution, being exiled in the process. The narrative doesn't accept blindly following orders as an excuse for one's actions but shows how difficult it can be to defy authority in order to do what is right.
  • Plenty of villains and Mooks try to use this to justify their involvement in the Other Side's plans in the President's Vampire series. It never sways the protagonist, Nathaniel Cade, a bit.
    Nathaniel Cade: Just following orders? I was there when that defence was invented. It didn't work then, either.
  • 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?"
  • Schooled in Magic: In the Nameless World, this normally excuses everything. If your superior orders a war crime, you're guilty of nothing.
  • In Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers, several cases occur when Juhani, the eldest brother and the agreed leader, commands.
    • Tuomas is ready to throw the drunken Lauri down from the rock to be mauled by bulls. Everyone else, even Juhani, resists.
    • Timo's defence for heating the sauna so hot that it burns down during the night.
    • Eero uses this justification for casting some ale onto the hot stones in the sauna, although Aapo and especially Tuomas are against it.
  • Jaime 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 everyone by unleashing wildfire on a civilian populace and ends up being shamed and misunderstood for a selfless heroic action, only makes it worse. Following his Heel–Face Turn, he seeks to reform this to include protecting the king even from himself. 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.
    Jaime: After [Rickard and Brandon Stark's murder], Gerold Hightower himself took me aside and said to me, "You swore a vow to guard the king, not to judge him." That was the White Bull, loyal to the end and a better man than me, all agree.
  • Subverted to tragic effect in StarCraft: The Dark Templar Saga. The protoss Executor Adun is ordered by the Conclave to exterminate the heretical dark templar. He instead fakes the genocide with their help and starts teaching them psionic tricks to stay hidden. This leads to the inexperienced dark templar accidentally unleashing a psionic storm that devastates much of Aiur and reveals the deception.
  • Star Wars Legends:
  • Blood-chillingly averted 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.
  • Summer Knight: Invoked. Because 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.
  • The Underland Chronicles: In Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, Doctor Neveeve says this line while being arrested.
  • Vorkosigan Saga:
    • Bothari 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 does 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, and when and how to disobey one. It's mentioned that every other instructor hates "Vorkosigan's Day" because it disrupts classes for weeks afterwards, that Aral almost always has to make a return trip to talk some promising young cadet out of dropping out of the Academy, and that it comes with video evidence from infamous Barrayaran examples of illegal orders, which usually cause several cadets and occassionally even instructors to excuse themselves to throw up. Having been labelled The Butcher thanks to the massacre illegally ordered by one of his subordinates, Aral regards it as a moral duty to warn young future officers of what they may have to face.
    • Miles faces a borderline illegal order in The Vor Game - his Commanding Officer at the time is clearly overreacting, but overreacting is not in and of itself illegal, and the situation is ambiguous enough that Miles really isn't sure about the legal consequences - but decides to disobey it because his conscience is screaming that is the right thing to do. He prevents anyone dying, and then discovers that because of his family's rank a charge of High Treason automatically attaches to his disobedience, which results in a whirlwind of activity that ends with him getting shitcanned from the regular Barrayaran service. Plaintively and somewhat fearfully he asks his father if he did the right thing, to which Aral replies, "Yes. A right thing. Three days from now, you may think of a cleverer tactic, but you were the man on the ground at the time. I try not to second-guess my field commanders."
    • It's also mentioned that due to the way Barrayaran soldiers are trained, this trope is considered a legitimate excuse for enlisted and junior officers who ended up on the wrong side of Vordarian's Pretendership - they were conditioned to stay loyal to their units and follow orders, it wasn't their fault the unit commanders were traitors, especially in a chaotic situation where the rank and file doesn't really know what's going on. The senior officers giving the orders, on the other hand...
  • World War Z:
    • Referenced: 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.
    • 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 relinquished 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! It's 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.
  • In the Warrior Cats series, when characters use excessive violence, they often make the excuse that they were just following the warrior code by defending their territory (for instance, when Tigerclaw and Redtail attack Sorrelpaw in Redtail's Debt), or else that they were just following their leader's orders (one of the laws in the warrior code is "The Clan leader's word is the warrior code").

    Live-Action TV 
  • Alex Rider (2020): Wolf's explanation for him and his team kidnapping and torturing Alex. Alex isn't impressed.
  • Babylon 5: Enforced, because this trope's fundamental moral dilemma is fascinating to J. Michael Straczynski. At what point do you realize you've gone from following ordinary orders to unusual orders to extreme orders to illegal orders to immoral orders? How far should ordinary soldiers go in not following illegal and immoral orders? Is a military coup against your own government over such orders too far? As such, it appears many times, especially for the Earth Alliance characters. See also My Country, Right or Wrong.
    • Averted in the backstory (depicted in In the Beginning). Dr. Franklin was ordered to turn over his notes on Minbari DNA so that the military can create a biological weapon. He refused and destroyed the data, stating that under military law he has no duty to obey an order if it would violate his conscience.
    • Subverted in "Point of No Return". When General Hague starts a coup attempt against the fascist President Clark, Sheridan is ordered to implement martial law on the station and hand over security to the Nightwatch, and initially carries out his orders despite his distaste for them. However, then he takes a second look at the orders and discovers an irregularity in the chain of commandnote  that he uses as an excuse to declare the orders illegal and arrest the Nightwatch. He and Ivanova recognize that it's only a matter of time before President Clark corrects the mistake and arrests them as disloyal, however, and mutiny against Earthforce themselves in the next episode.
    • Discussed in "No Surrender, No Retreat". During the operation to break President Clark's blockade of the rebellious colony Proxima III, Sheridan orders the six opposing destroyers to stand down on grounds that their orders from Clark violate Earth Alliance law, and that any action they take in service to an illegal order makes them accomplices. After some discussion, one captain who instructed Sheridan at Military Academy agrees, and another ship follows suit. A third ship flees the battle. However, the leader of the squadron attacks, saying "I'm dead either way"note  and is ultimately relieved of command by his XO, who surrenders along with another destroyer. The last ship collides with a damaged White Star and is destroyed.
    • 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.
    • It's discussed later when Lochley comes aboard the station to take over command from Sheridan. Garibaldi confronts her about her side during the civil war, and she admits to having remained on Clark's side. As far as she's concerned, it's not the military's job to dictate policy. Of course, her standing by her convictions is the reason Sheridan picked her in the first place.
  • The Barrier:
    • After Hugo and Julia find out the Hugo's daughter is detained in a scientific institute directed by Alma, one of their employers, Alma responds to the discovery by pretending to know nothing, despite having been shown visiting the detained children in earlier episodes. She blames everything on Tomás, her second-in-command who had been shown to be doing the experiments putting the children in danger very reluctantly. Upon being investigated, Tomás' first line of defense is showing the investigator orders signed by Alma.
    • The policeman lieutenant guarding the checkpoint between the enclave for the elites and the rest of Madrid in the finale is ordered to have anyone trying to go through it shot down. When asked to please not shoot the crowd that shows up asking for children detained by the government for scientific research to be given back to their families, the lieutenant replies that his orders are to shoot.
    • During the finale, Enrique's first reaction to learning that the President is dead is to holster his gun, as his duty to protect the deceased was the only reason he had it out in the first place.
  • Battlestar Galactica (2003) runs into this during the Cylon occupation of New Caprica when the Cylons start recruiting humans to police the colony. Jammer joins the police in hopes of making life a little better for his fellow humans, only to be ordered to round up relatives of La Résistance for what turns out to be a mass execution. He follows his orders reluctantly but sets Callie free before the Centurions arrive and are shot to pieces by La Résistance. After the escape, he's Thrown Out the Airlock by Resistance members acting as a secret Kangaroo Court.
  • Blake's 7:
    • From the episode "Headhunter":
      Orac: I am obliged to do as you tell me, even though I know it to be wrong.
      Kerr Avon: Only following orders? That's not very original, Orac.
    • In "Rumours of Death", Avon kidnaps a Federation Torture Technician in order to interrogate and then kill him:
      Shrinker: Why me? I haven't done anything. I've only ever—
      Tarrant: Oh, don't tell me, let me guess. You've only ever followed orders.
      Shrinker: It's true! It's true!
      Tarrant: I believe you.
    • Shortly followed with this exchange:
      Avon: Look, Cally, I know you don't want any part of this. All right, I'm not going to give you any part of it. You're out. This is mine. I'm doing it.
      Cally: And what am I doing, Avon? Just following orders, like him?
    • Averted with Travis in "Trial". He admits that he was acting on his own initiative when he committed the atrocity he's being court-martialed for, but says that his actions were the result of the training and indoctrination that the Federation military had given him. "If I'm guilty of murder, then so are you!" One of his soldiers however plays the trope straight. "He gave the order. We just did the shooting."
  • 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.
  • Invoked in CSI, "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 fiancée 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. When, at the end of the episode, he confronts her over all this and she offers the justification that she was just doing her job, he finds this... unconvincing:
    "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."
  • Doctor Who:
    • Word of advice, do not invoke this trope around the Doctor. It will only make them 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!
    • "Journey's End": Martha says that as a member of UNIT, she's got to do her job, regarding using the Earth-destroying Osterhagen Key. Next scene, where is she? Near Nuremberg.
    • In "Arachnids in the UK", the assistant of a Corrupt Corporate Executive records a message as insurance moments before her death from the Monster of the Week.
      Frankie: Everything I did was under strict instruction and non-disclosure agreements and against my better judgment. And I hope, one day, I can forgive myself for my part in it.
  • In the Fate: The Winx Saga episode "A Fanatic Heart", after Silva learned of what Rosalind was going to do in Aster Dell, he tried dissuading Andreas from helping her. However, Andreas told Silva that he was only following Rosalind's orders. Left with no choice, Silva decided to battle and seriously wound Andreas.
  • A French Village: A lot of French officials excuse themselves for collaborating this way, along with Germans.
  • Frontier Circus: The former union officer who is the target of Cato's obsession in "Coals of Fire" gives this justification for his actions (murdering Cato's master and burning the plantation to the ground during Sherman's March to the Sea) during his Villainous Breakdown.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • Be it Tywin's or Joffrey's, House Clegane often use this reasoning to their advantage when committing heinous actions. Even the Hound, the more decent half of the Clegane brothers, uses him having to follow Joffrey's orders as justification for killing Mycah the butcher's boy when he's put on trial by the Brotherhood and was very proactive when cutting down Ned Stark's guards.
    • Janos Slynt also uses it to explain his participation in the purge in "The North Remembers". Tyrion doesn't go for it and has him sacked and banished, correctly assessing that Slynt's loyalty can be bought by anyone. He's also a bit disgusted at the lows that Slynt is willing to go if ordered to do so.
    • Steelshanks doesn't seem particularly cruel or sadistic; he's just doing what Roose told him to do, as opposed to the likes of Locke.
    • Season six gives a more neutral and tragic example. Jaime intimidates Edmure Tully into agreeing to order the Tully forces holding Riverrun under Brynden "Blackfish" Tully to surrender. The Blackfish insists that this is not a valid order, but the Red Shirt in question opens the gate anyway on the grounds that Edmure, not the Blackfish, is his liege lord, and he is sworn to obey his liegeExplanation.
  • Gilmore Girls: When Max sends Lorelai flowers at the inn without telling her:
    Kirk: That's right. There's exactly one a thousand of them. Order states that there's to be exactly a thousand — not a thousand and one, not nine hundred and ninety-nine, but a thousand. You ask for a thousand, I bring a thousand. I don't question the orders. I merely fill them.
    Michel: A job well done, Mr. Adolf Eichmann.
  • Another documentary, Gunner Palace:
    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 Heavy Water War. The Norwegian commando tasked with sinking the ferry carrying the heavy water, when asked to think of the innocent passengers that will drown as a result, says he's been ordered not to think about it, and that means that someone above him has thought of it and ordered him to proceed regardless.
  • From Heroes Chapter Nine: "It's Coming":
    Elle Bishop: I only saved you so we could use you, like a lab rat.
    Sylar: You were just following orders... But I forgive you. Now you need to forgive yourself.
  • From the Holby City episode "A Clean Slate":
    Beata Lindermann: I'm just following orders!
    Joseph Byrne: Mmm, they tried that in Nuremberg, it didn't work.
  • In the third episode of Horatio Hornblower, Captain Pellew sees immediately that the plan to support a royalist force landing in France is a poor one, especially because the plan was leaked to the enemy. Admiral Hood insists on going through with it anyway because it might at least give France a black eye. Predictably, the expedition is a total disaster; the royalists are wiped out and the British soldiers and sailors sent to support them escape by the skin of their teeth. Although Pellew's Number One puts the blame on the Admiralty, Pellew still takes himself to task because he knew the orders were bad, but he followed them anyway knowing that it would cost many lives.
  • Intergalactic: Discussed when Ash says most Commonworld soldiers are good people simply doing their jobs, but Verona retorts that this entails exploiting other planets by force.
  • 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 charge for insubordination, which he pleads guilty to.
  • An episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has a man (played by Robin Williams) demonstrate this trope by calling a fast food joint's manager, introducing himself as an NYPD detective named Milgram (reference to the Milgram Experiment), and having him tie up and strip-search one of his female employees, claiming he's doing his civic duty. After the truth is discovered and "Milgram" is arrested, he manages to get away. It's eventually revealed that the reason he's doing all this is because, when his wife was in labor, he saw that something was wrong and asked the doctor to do something, only for the doctor to brush him off and say that everything was fine. His wife and their unborn child died from complications, resulting in the man blaming both the doctor (naturally) and himself (for obeying someone just because he was in a position of authority). He has become determined to get people to start thinking for themselves. (This episode was Ripped from the Headlines, referencing an incident known as The Strip Search Phone Call Scam.)
  • 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.
  • Luke Cage (2016): Zip, acting on Diamondback's orders, tries to strangle Shades to death in a freight elevator. Shades fights back, kills both of Zip's backup men, then marches Zip onto a building roof at gunpoint.
    Zip: I was just following orders! [Shades walks around Zip and points his gun at Zip's head]
    Shades: You're a goddamn puppet! Who gave you the order?! [pistol-whips Zip] WHO?!
    Zip: Diamondback! You stopped playing your position, asked too many questions. Diamondback said you needed to be dealt with!
    Shades: Romeo would be ashamed of you. You're such a disappointment.
    Zip: You're the second person who's told me that today!* I'm my own man, Shades!
    Shades: [raises gun] Tell him yourself. [shoots Zip in the head]
  • Nuremberg:
    • In this Docudrama, Field Marshal Keitel states this after reading the charges on which he will be tried.
      Wilhelm Keitel: We were just following orders!
    • Invoked by Jodl earlier when they treat their arrest as a misunderstanding.
      Alfred Jodl: You're a soldier, you understand we were just following orders!
      Prison Warden: [rips the rank right off of Jodl's shoulders] There! Now you're no longer soldiers! You're criminals!
  • The Outpost: One of the ex-Prime Order soldiers who helped Jaaris abuse the Blackbloods defends himself this way. Gwynn is not impressed.
  • 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.
  • The Traffic Wardens featured in Parking Wars are just ticketing cars parked illegally. One could make a Drinking Game out of how often this line is uttered.
  • A very rare, non-villainous example in Parks and Recreation when Chris conducts an inquiry about Leslie and Ben's secret love affair. Chris, being Ben's best friend, obviously doesn't WANT to do it, but it's his job to look into potential ethics violations, and he can't give his friends special treatment, even if he hates doing it. Ben actually ends up apologizing for putting him in that position.
  • In an episode of Primeval, Captain Becker uses this excuse when arresting the team for stealing the Artefact, although he later turns out to be Good All Along.
  • From the Prison Break episode "Bad Blood":
    Lincoln Burrows: You wanted me dead, Paul.
    Paul Kellerman: Just following orders.
  • The Professionals
    • Zigzagged in the episode "In The Public Interest". Bodie and Doyle uncover evidence that the police of an unnamed city are using extralegal means to maintain law and order. The culprits then put out an APB on them and have the uniformed branch hunt them down. Bodie wants to shoot his way out, but Doyle says most of the police are just following orders. So they give themselves up only to be taken away to be murdered by Inspector in charge of the vigilante police, but a couple of the uniformed officers intervene to stop him.
      Constable Edwards: Roust a villain. Lean on him. You can order me to do that. But I'm not standing by and watching you commit murder!
    • In "Lawson's Last Stand", Colonel Lawson assures the two ex-soldiers he's recruited for his 'secret mission' that they are acting under orders, and even gives them a signed letter attesting to that in case something should happen to him. Lawson doesn't mention that he is not acting under orders, because he's gone insane.
  • Derren Brown's Pushed to the Edge is designed to demonstrate how people succumb to peer pressure and the desire to follow an authority figure's instructions. The opener shows a man abducting a woman's baby just because a voice on the phone introduced himself as a cop and told him she was the one who had abducted the child. The rest of the show is structured to make people get in so deep that, in the end, most end up committing a heinous act due to peer pressure. Out of four subjects, three ended up pushing a man off a ledge to avoid jail time. The viewers are, at first, only shown the one, who refused to do it. Then, after a Hope Spot, we're shown shots of three other people going through with the "murder".
  • 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.
    Vorenus: I don't want to hear about it. If you're wise, you'll never speak of this again.
    Pullo: Why? I was only obeying orders. Bloody good orders, too.
  • The Stand (2020): Near the end of the first episode, with even the Vermont medical facility succumbing to Captain Trips, Sergeant Cobb tries to kill Stu in order to fulfill pre-planned orders meant to cover up knowledge of the Army's involvement in the virus' creation, despite the fact that not only is there no one left to actually give the orders, but with society totally collapsing it's likely that no one would care about the initial cause. General Starkey lampshades this by noting that men like Cobb are the sort to follow orders even if there's no one to enforce them or if they make no sense in the situation.
  • Stargate SG-1:
  • Star Trek:
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation:
      • Discussed and Inverted in the episode "Redemption II".
        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 analysing the situation. Your actions were appropriate for the circumstances, and I have noted that in your record.
      • "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.
      • "The Pegasus": Riker defended then-Captain Pressman of USS Pegasus when the crew mutinied over an illegal order. However, during the episode, he uses this trope to castigate himself for not joining the Anti-Mutiny. When Pressman gives another illegal order, Picard and crew refuse it and arrest him.
        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.
    • More or less the theme of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Duet". A Cardassian officer who was responsible for the torture and deaths of hundreds of innocent Bajorans is taken prisoner and gleefully refuses to claim it, and then at the end it turns out that he's actually just a common soldier (not even an infantryman or ship crewman, but a file clerk) who is still tortured by his silence in the face of the atrocities ordered by his superiors, and has been impersonating a dead commander in hopes of shaming his fellow Cardassians into admitting their guilt.
      Major Kira: [after uncovering the truth] You didn't commit those crimes, and you couldn't stop them. You were only one man.
      Aamin Marritza: No, don't you see? I have to be punished! We all have to be punished! Major, you have to go out there and tell them I'm Gul Darhe'el! It's the only way!
      Major Kira: Why are you doing this?
      Aamin Marritza: For Cardassia! Cardassia will only survive if it stands before Bajor and admits the truth! My trial will force Cardassia to acknowledge its guilt! And we're guilty, all of us!
    • In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Equinox (Part 1)":
      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.
    • A good-guy version occurs in Star Trek: Enterprise. Arik Soong wants to steal the genetically augmented embryos stored on Cold Station 12, but Dr. Lucas refuses to give up the access code, so Soong has one of his colleagues exposed to a deadly pathogen. As the man dies horribly before their eyes, Soong begs Lucas to relent while Lucas, reduced to tears, refuses: "I have my orders!"
  • 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:
      John Duggan: I'm Just Following Orders! Like a Nazi guard, only less gassy! [sheepish pause] You're not Jewish are you?
  • Torchwood: Miracle Day:
    • Invoked in Episode 6 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.
  • The Tunnel: A French police officer who killed a little boy during a riot defends himself to his wife with this.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959):
    • In "Deaths-Head Revisited", Gunter Lütze claims that he simply functioned as he was told in abusing and torturing the prisoners at Dachau but his flashbacks indicate that he revelled in carrying out his orders. Becker describes this defense as "the Nazi theme music at Nuremberg".
    • In "The Encounter", Fenton tries to justifies killing a Japanese officer who had already surrendered on the grounds that he and his fellow soldiers were ordered to take no prisoners on Okinawa.
  • V (1983): Used by some humans to justify working for the visitors. One female reporter is called out on this, being told that the same excuse was used at the Nuremberg Trials.
  • Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak sometimes reacts this way tongue-in-cheek when a contestant hits Bankrupt while holding onto an extra such as a Prize wedge, Wild Card, etc., usually by lightheartedly saying that removing said items upon hitting Bankrupt is just part of the game's rules.
  • The Wire:
    • Up-and-coming Western District beat cop Brian Baker initially goes along with Burrell's "quality of life" arrest hikes, which include ticketing every illegally parked car in the city. Jimmy McNulty sets him straight and gives him a few new things to think about.
      Jimmy McNulty: [seeing Baker writing up a ticket on a parked car] What's the violation?
      Brian Baker: Parking in a bus stop, expired registration.
      Jimmy McNulty: First class police work there, Baker.
      Brian Baker: Yeah, well, this is the word we got from up on high. Straight from the 8th floor downtown. I know you think it's bullshit, but I spend my shift where they tell me.
      Jimmy McNulty: Baker, let me tell you a little secret. A patrolling officer on his beat is the one true dictatorship in America. We can lock a guy up on a humble, lock him up for real, or say "Fuck it, let's pull under the expressway and drink ourselves to death", and our side partners will cover it. So no-one... and I mean no-one tells us how to waste our shift.
    • When Major Colvin's Hamsterstam experiment goes public and inevitably becomes a scandal, Commissioner Burrell threatens Mayor Royce with invoking this publicly, and it's very effective. Generally speaking, Burrell has internalized this line of thinking and attributes some degree of dysfunction to doing what he is told.
    • Barksdale soldier Savino Bratton tacitly admits this would be his response to being told to torture or kill an innocent.

  • "Trail of Tears" by Heather Dale is from the point of view of a soldier ordered to aid in said forced relocation. He's obviously uncomfortable with it but is too afraid to say anything after another soldier is shot for standing up to the commanding officer.
  • "Wehrmacht" by Sabaton asks whether the German armed forces during World War II were Ax-Crazy Blood Knights or young men misled and dominated by their superiors, seemingly settling on "a little bit of both".
    Were they the victims of the time
    Or proud parts of larger goals?
    Propaganda of the Reich, masterful machine...

    Crazy madmen on a leash
    Or young men who lost their way?
    Grand illusions of the Reich
    May seem real at times

    Puppet Shows 
  • Spitting Image: "We Were Only Obeying Orders" is a song sung by John Major and other Conservative Party members, about the Thatcher era.

  • John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme: The Interview Sketch has Patsy Straightwoman confronting the Shadow Minister for Saying Stupid Things and Failing To Apologise for Them, who has true to form said something stupid and failed to apologise for it. He nonchalantly shrugs this off as "just doing my job." Patsy isn't taken with this and insists he apologise properly.
  • 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.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Defied by The Adversary mentor spirit in Shadowrun. Having The Adversary as your mentor makes you physically incapable of Just Following Orders and turns your character into a Commander Contrarian... Unless you defy The Adversary by making a difficult willpower roll.
  • The Wham Line of Brenda Romero's controversial Train reveals that the players' trains were actually taking the yellow pawns to a concentration camp. The idea is to make the players question how they obeyed the rules despite the scattered hints of the game's true nature, and how they react once they learn the truth.
  • A subversion in the Traveller volume Alien Races 4. The Bwaps are a race whose hat is being Badass Bureaucrats. 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.

  • 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."
  • A variation occurs in Dragon 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?!
  • In Fiddler on the Roof, this is the Constable's justification for allowing "a little unofficial demonstration" of anti-semitism. He also faces removal from his post if he doesn't carry out the pogrom. He knows someone would do it, and he would rather it be him instead of someone far worse. In the movie, he even says, "An order is an order!" Considering it came out about twenty-five years after the Nuremberg Trials, there's no way that was an accidental reference.
  • 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:
    Franz Liebkind: 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.

    Video Games 
  • In Alpha Protocol, Parker and Westridge uses this as their defense for their complicity in the whole Halbech fiasco and for sending Mike to Saudi Arabia with the intention of having him killed once he'd completed his mission.
  • Assassin Blue uses this as an excuse for killing at least initially.
  • 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.
  • Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance:
    Jason G: I don't forgive and forget so easily.
    Ignacy: No! No! I'm sorry! Forgive me! Please... I was only... following... orders...
  • In Dead Rising 3, Adam Kane is a villain due to this trope. His last words are the trope name.
  • Trish from Devil May Cry tried to tell Dante this is the reason for her betrayal, but he interrupts it with "The Reason You Suck" Speech to her about it.
  • Disgaea:
    • In Disgaea 5, the Lost run on the recruitment policy of "Obey or die", and wholly live up to those words, with officials executing any who resist them (and this is the best outcome — right, Void Dark?). However, in two instances in story mode, Lost mooks will use this excuse to try to worm their way out of whatever punishment Red Magnus has lined up for them; in neither instance does he listen to any of it, explicitly referencing the people they hurt as the reason he's punishing them in the first place.
    • Taken to the extreme with Barbara in Disgaea D2 as she only acts on orders, and won't do anything on her own will, including saving her own life. That said, she does have limits, she dislikes unclear orders, and will punish anyone who issues perverted orders.
  • Inverted in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Blackwall / Thom Rainier reveals his deception and risks his life to stop the hanging of a soldier who helped commit a war crime on his orders.
    "This man is innocent of the crimes lain before him. Orders were given, and he followed them like any good soldier. He should not die for that mistake."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Final Fantasy:
    • Defied in Final Fantasy IV. At the start of the game, Cecil begins to realize that he's nothing but a coward who can't disobey orders from the king of Baron Castle, even though Cecil knows the orders are wrong, choosing to blame himself for his horrible actions instead. After saying "Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!," Cecil convinces his best friend Kain to defy their orders and rebel against Baron.
    • This trope is played with in Final Fantasy VII Remake: After the Turks are ordered to drop the Sector 7 plate on the slums below, both Reno and Rude carry out the order under protest, cusses under their breaths, and mutterings about how "orders are orders" and how it's "too late to grow a conscience." But even after the plate has been dropped, they still question Tseng, their boss, if dropping the plate was really necessary. Tseng's justifications, that they can find solace in knowing that they spared someone else from having to carry out the order and that, after everything humanity has taken from the planet, it was about time that they returned something to it for a change, are rejected and met with incredulity from both Reno and Rude. In the same scene, an unnamed guard is ordered to keep civilians from escaping the incoming drop but responds "No, sir! I will not obey that order!"
  • Fire Emblem: Three Houses:
    • A variation happens in if Ferdinand is sent out to fight his former classmate Hubert on non-Crimson Flower routes; Ferdinand will say that "It does not matter what I think. Those are my orders." In this case, it's not to absolve himself of responsibility or even imply that he's unwilling (since he's come to accept that Edelgard must be defeated); it's mainly to say that Ferdinand isn't exactly acting out of loyalty to Dimitri, Claude or the Church.
    • Another variation occurs at the end of Chapter 4 when the Western Church soldiers who were caught red handed for attacking and grave robbing the Holy Mausoleum, attempting to assassinate Rhea, and inciting the Lonato rebellion from the previous chapter were sentenced to death by Rhea. The accused soldiers protest that this isn't what their superiors told would happen and that they've been deceived by them.
    • Played straight with Metodey, one of the Flame Emperor's subordinates. If you kill him during the battle in the Holy Tomb, he will protest, "Wait... No! I was just following orders! I just... Graaargh!" as he dies.
  • In Game of Thrones (Telltale) three soldiers murder Gared's family, including his 8-year-old sister. After being left disarmed and helpless, one of the soldiers asks for mercy because he was "just following orders".
  • Hidden Dragon: Legend have the cutscene where the hero, Lu Tianyuan, confronts Hornet on why she killed his saviour, Master Bell. Hornet replies almost in-verbatim with the trope.
    "I just follow orders. And I certainly don't question them."
  • In Kingdom Hearts, 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.
  • 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.
  • Parodied in Lunar: Eternal Blue:
    Lemina: Keep your eyes peeled and your hands on your valuables.
    Ruby: Ronfar! Get your hands out of your pants!
    Ronfar: Well... well... well, she said! Just following the lady's orders...
  • Mass Effect:
    • 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.
    • Mass Effect 2:
      • If you take The Paragon option, Commander Shepard in 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.
      • 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.
  • 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.
  • Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty'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 Persona 5, one Mementos target is a greedy land speculator who's trying to force the owners of a theater in Yongen-jaya to hand over their property by any means necessary. When defeated, his Shadow claims that his boss made him do it. The Phantom Thieves don't accept this as an excuse.
  • The Punisher (THQ):
    • 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!"
      The Punisher: (Kill) That's no excuse.
      The Punisher: (Mercy) You're in the wrong army.
  • Syphon Filter 2:
    Thomas Holman: I was just following orders.
    Lian Xing: Yeah? Well, we were all just following orders.
  • Ninety-Nine Nights: In Tyurru's story, Yesperratt justifies killing civilians by saying that she's just following orders.
  • It happens at the end of the Resident Evil 2 (Remake) when Ada is outed as a mercenary hired to steal the G Sample. She and Leon hold each other at gunpoint and Ada, who by now REALLY doesn't want to shoot him, tries to talk him down by saying she's just doing her job. Leon immediately throws it back in her face and responds that so is he.
  • Played straight and inverted in Spec Ops: The Line:
    • It's implied this is the reason why Lugo and Adams refuse to abandon Walker even if it's becoming increasingly clear Walker's losing his mind. As long as there is someone in charge, they can rationalize any morally questionable acts they do with this trope.
    • Inverted because most of the tragedies that occur in Dubai are due to the actions of two characters (both whom are members of the armed forces) disobeying their orders rather than following them.
  • Subverted in the Star Trek Online mission "Cold Comfort". Tran, a captured Breen Combat Medic, was ordered on an attack against a Deferi civilian freighter to gather intelligence about the Preserver Archive that Thot Trel is trying to find. He followed his orders but tells the Player Character under interrogation that he regrets doing so because attacking civilians is dishonorable, and then tries to make it up to the Deferi by telling them how to safely remove the brain implant he installed in a crew member.
  • Sunset Riders does this after one of the boss fights. After the beaten but still alive Chief Scalpem 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.
  • In Tales of Vesperia, Cumore is an Imperial knight who press-gangs the citizens of Mantiac to search the desert for the phoenix-like monster Phaeroh. When Yuri confronts him over what he did, Cumore claims that he was merely following his orders. Yuri then tells Cumore he should hate the people who gave him those orders, before letting him drown in a pool of quicksand.
  • In Tyranny, Barik runs on this trope. Once he's assigned to the Fatebinder he'll stick to you, even if you end up fighting his former unit, because his assignment is to be "your shield". If you try to fight Graven Ashe without Barik having sufficient Loyalty or Fear to you, Graven Ashe will throw this attitude back in his face when Barik tries to defect back to him, claiming that his moral cowardice has already cost numerous Disfavoured their lives.

    Visual Novels 
  • This is a plot point in Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair: 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. This fails on multiple fronts; one, Fuyuhiko never actually gave her the order (she acted preemptively because she assumed he'd do it otherwise), and two, Fuyuhiko hated the idea that Peko was only his tool, because he wanted her to be his friend. He thus refuses to claim responsibility as the mastermind, and Monokuma executes Peko.

    Web Animation 
  • A fatal example in RWBY, as a result of Atlas's extremely mililtaristic culture. In "With Friends Like These", Ace Ops carry out the orders by Ironwood to arrest Team RWBY, JNR, Oscar and Qrow despite the fact that Ironwood is in the middle of a Sanity Slippage and the leader of Ace Ops, Clover, is helping Qrow and Robyn carry the defeated Tyrian to prison. No one in Ace Ops questions this and even those like Winter thinks that Team RWBY did something wrong. The episode ends with RWBY wiping the floor with Ace Ops, Robyn badly injured, Tyrian freed, Clover dead and Qrow framed for his death thanks to Tyrian. This continues into Volume 8 as the Ace-Ops focus on arresting Ren, Yang, and Jaune instead of dealing with the incoming Grimm and accepting what amounts to a Suicide Mission despite the hesitation. After Ironwood states his intention to bomb Mantle and later confirmed he fully intended to go through with it, most of them still go through with it except Marrow who starts realizing that they were just doing Salem's job for her at that point. Because of this, both he and Winter realized Ironwood was going too far and had to be stopped as a result.

  • Cashmere Sky: Abram states this almost verbatim during an argument with Archer regarding their previous mission that killed civilians, although he questions this mindset later on.
    Abram: If I questioned every mission we received, the stalling and inaction could create an even bigger threat. I had my orders, you had yours.
  • 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.
  • Freefall:
  • I Don't Want This Kind of Hero: Part of the reason why Guineung dislikes Orca so much is because he actively goes against his own conscience to obey Baek Morae's orders, which makes him even worse in Guineung's eyes than the rest of Knife.
  • 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-destined comic strip drawn by the devil.
  • During a Kirk Summation in Chapter 57 of Joe vs. Elan School, Gino mentions this trope by name to Joe.
    Gino: I mean, why do ya' think they make you stay up all night just watching me? Could've just locked me in a fucking windowless room, but they need the higher-ups sleep deprived. Ya' get it? Scrambled-eggs brain. Keeps you soft. Just following orders, am I right Joe?
  • 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.
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent: In the prologue, Iceland, that found an excuse to close its borders several days before the Apocalyptic Gag Order downplaying the seriousness of the Rash was lifted, eventually resorts to a form of Quarantine with Extreme Prejudice in which the rest of the world is considered a contaminated area and the country itself is safe. Circumstances also mean they are getting a lot of refugee boats that they have no other choice but to gun. The Iceland segment of the prologue focuses on a coast guard ship and on a low-ranking radar reader who decides to quit and become a sheep herder due to having Past Experience Nightmares caused by the part he plays in the refugee boats getting spotted.
  • The concept is Discussed in one strip of Tomics. During the Massacre of the Innocents, one soldier of Herod says the reason he blames society for his actions is because it's big and vague enough to project his faults onto.
  • In Weak Hero, Naksung blindsides a weakened Ben with a wooden plank and then nearly beats his friend Alex into unconsciousness. Ben flies into an Unstoppable Rage and is only stopped from beating Naksung to death by Jake's intervention. Though Jake has no love for Naksung, he nevertheless steps in because he's aware that Naksung is only following Donald's orders.

    Web Videos 

    Western Animation 
  • Arcane. A variation in "The Monster You Created" when Jasper agrees unanimously to all of Silco's demands regarding independence for Zaun, on the sole condition that his Psycho for Hire and surrogate daughter Jinx be handed over for her crimes. Silco protests that Jinx was just following his orders (ironically this isn't strictly true, as the murders the Council want her for were done on her own initiative). Jayce agrees that Silco should be held responsible, but as they need him to enforce the peace deal Jinx has to become The Scapegoat instead.
  • Carmen Sandiego: Shadowsan discusses this topic with Carmen in regards to his own life choices. Despite being a thief and helping run an organization of powerful and dangerous thieves for twenty years, he always saw himself like a soldier following orders and not an evil man.
  • Played for Laughs in Disenchantment when King Zog has been captured by some hillbilly Dankmirians who are bitter about the canal Dreamland had built, which drove them and their kind off of their land. King Zog offers a somewhat slight variation of this one, which somehow doesn't manage to convince them:
    Zog: C'mon! It wasn't my fault! I was just giving orders!
  • 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.
  • The Hollow: In "Home", Mira attempts to use her ability to Speak Fluent Animal to try and negotiate with Mabel, the giant monster chicken and embodiment of Kai's worst fears, and offer it food or "a nice coop" in exchange for not attacking them. Mabel shrugs off her offer not only because "it's just following orders" to attack them, but also because it really hates Kai.
  • 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.
  • Justice League:
    • Deconstructed in "The Enemy Below". One of Orm's followers tries to offer the "just following orders" excuse to Aquaman, but the latter doesn’t accept it and has all of Orm’s followers charged with high treason. Aquaman is still the rightful king of Atlantis and all the defectors violated their oath of service by conspiring with a usurper against him, so the justification does not hold at all.
    • In "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).
  • In the Oh Yeah! Cartoons short "Super Santa: Vegetation", a potato minion of Dr. Carmine Miranda's pleads to Santa that he's only following orders.
  • In Rick and Morty, when Morty got injected with the blood of a warrior's arm, Morty's arm was possessed by the memories of the severed arm's owner, which by random coincidence, also remembered the guy who killed him when he was alive and unfortunately was there watching Morty's matches. In a pathetic attempt to save his life, the guy tried to blame his boss for his actions, but Morty's arm went to burn him for revenge anyway.
  • The Simpsons:
    • Parodied in "Bart the General". After being defeated in a water balloon war, one of Nelson's goons says they were just following orders. Bart spares them and pelts Nelson with the extra balloons instead.
    • "Puffless": Cletus' dog says this when attacked by an army of animals led by Maggie when trying to save a possum from being eaten by Cletus and his family. They continue attacking him anyway.
      Cletus' Dog: [subtitles] Give me a break, I just work here.
  • Star Wars Expanded Universe:
    • Star Wars: The Clone Wars: "The Unknown", when clone trooper Tup's secret control chip malfunctions, his "Order 66" programming activates too early, forcing him to kill Jedi General Tiplar and constantly repeat the phrase "Good soldiers follow orders."
    • This also continues in Star Wars: The Bad Batch, where the Clones' Order 66 programming kicks in at a more perfect time...around the same time as Revenge of the Sith after General Grievous is killed by Obi-Wan and the Jedi tried to overthrow Palpatine after he revealed that he was Darth Sidious to Anakin, but he murdered them because he didn't want a new Chancellor to ruin his hard work of stamping out corruption. The titular Batch themselves are immune to the Order due to their mutationsnote , except for Crosshair whose inhibitor chip works, albeit with limited effect. Regardless, he still follows the orders of the new Empire to chilling efficiency, such as murdering Jedi, civilians, and/or surrendered enemies just to keep the peace Palpatine achieved by the Clone Wars' end.
  • In the episode "Give 'Em the Air" from their 1975 TV series, Tom and Jerry are in an aeroplane race where German pilot Spritz Von Spritz ("The Purple Baron") and his flunkie Otto resort to Dick Dastardly Stops to Cheat. Spritz secretly boards Tom and Jerry's plane in a sabotage attempt, but when Tom confronts him, he goes to his knees pleading "I vas only following orders!"

    Real Life 
  • The notion of superior orders being an invalid legal defense is, in fact, Older Than Steam. In 1474, German governor Peter von Hagenbach was tried for crimes in office, and tried to pin it on his superior the Duke of Burgundy with the defense, "Is it not known that soldiers owe absolute obedience to their superiors?" The court ruled this was not, in fact, known, and von Hagenbach was convicted and executed.
  • 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. Critics have also pointed out a hypocrisy in this, as many Union prison camps were also hell holes, but naturally the commanders there were never punished for mistreating POWs.
  • Famously used by Nazi defendants during the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials, which gave us the term "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-Nazis, 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. For instance, in Shoah, one former concentration camp staffer still remembers a song that his coworkers used to sing and proudly claims that "no Jew knows that song today." 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 soldiers 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 Hitler hated 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 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 percentage 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.
  • 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. Only extreme coercion from the commanding officer can possibly be an exception.
  • 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.
  • For most UN member nations and all NATO countries without exception, soldiers refusing an order can't be punished beyond being suspended with pay until a tribunal actually rules on the legality of the order. Superior officer retaliation is often functionally impossible and usually illegal under national-level law, too. Essentially, modern law is specifically designed with averting this situation in mind.
    • If a soldier does injure or kill the commanding officer in charge though, they can usually be cleared simply because those orders don't put you in a good position, and doing the right thing helps everybody else when the military court will agree it was the right thing.
    • A cynic might observe that war criminals aren't really punished for what they did; they are punished for losing the war.
  • 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 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 next year, the respective armies were ready to punish soldiers if they tried it again, but by then, the soldiers were ready to fight, since the mood was darker as the war went on.
  • 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."
    • More recently, Milgram's results have been cast into doubt however, and it's possible that the results were misinterpreted and that some of the subjects only continued because they knew or strongly suspected that the shocks weren't real anyway.note 
    • 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.
    • Those Wacky 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. Of course, this also seen as playing a major part in why they were ultimately Fascist, but Inefficient.
  • Another famous experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, appeared to demonstrate that even ordinary people given authority over their peers can 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, a low-level security guard at an airport, 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.
    • In places where the business owners hire all sort of illiterate goons as bouncers or security guards, they quickly become textbook examples of this. Usually the patron or client is a guy or girl with money, schooling and appropriate appearance and knows he or she faces a semi-literate goon, so consciously or not will treat him with contempt. When the said bouncer or guard has reasons to employ his power, things get ugly.
  • 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."
  • 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 S-21 prison 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.
  • James Fred Blake was only a bus driver in Alabama. One day in 1943, a black woman named Rosa Parks boarded the bus and paid the fare. She then moved to her seat, but Blake told her to follow city rules and enter the bus again from the back door. Parks exited the bus, but before she could re-board at the rear door, Blake drove off, leaving her to walk home in the rain. Understandably, Parks didn't like it. On December 1, 1955 they encountered each other again when Blake ordered Rosa Parks and three other black people to move from the middle to the back of his Cleveland Avenue bus in order to make room for a white passenger. Rosa Parks defied his orders, prompting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Commenting on the event afterwards, Blake stated:
    "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."
    • The whole idea of buses forcing black passengers to the back was an example as well, and more sympathetically. Most riders were black and the bus companies didn't want to offend their primary ridership. They only started enforcing the rules once Alabama police began boarding buses and arresting drivers for ignoring it.
  • 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.
  • This was the defense line of the soldiers and officers implicated in the Malet coup of 1812. For instance, Captain Borderieux stated:
    "Adjutant Limouzin gave us a series of actions to carry out (...) and brought orders, not from Malet, but from Colonel Rabbe, to follow his instructions. At once, I gathered my company and marched it to the Luxembourg. One hour later, I was told that the orders given to my colonel were illegal and I was told to go back to my barracks; I did so at once. How am I responsible?"
    • It should be noted that more than one century before Nuremberg, the military court took the defendants' age, experience, and degree of information into account, thus acquitting all those under the rank of lieutenant while giving a death sentence to the senior officers who should have known better.
  • The first recorded instance of a "just following orders" defense being used by US military personnel was relatively mundane but still legally important. In 1799 the US was involved in an undeclared war with the French Republic, and Congress passed a law allowing the Navy to seize ships bound for any French port. President John Adams issued an executive order to the Navy that exceeded this authority, telling them to seize vessels traveling to or from French ports. Under these orders the Navy seized a Danish merchant ship, the Flying Fish, whose owners then sued the Navy in US court and won. The Supreme Court even weighed in, declaring that Navy officers "act at their own peril" when obeying illegal orders, even when those orders come from the President.
  • In the aftermath of the My Lai Massacre, one of the most heinous atrocities during the Vietnam War where between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians were butchered by US forces, Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader, pleaded he was just following the orders of his commanding officer, Captain Medina. This defense was rejected and he was sentenced to life in prison for 22 counts of murder. Then the sentence was commuted to three and a half years under house arrest at Fort Benning, and no one else was convicted of any charges in relation to the massacre.
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a survivor of the Soviet Union's gulags and a Nobel Prize winner, once reflected on who was a true believer in Communism's cruel ways, and who was merely complying out of fear.
  • John Oliver never comes out and says the exact words, but this is the heart of his defense of the IRS on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: everyone hates the Intimidating Revenue Service for being Obstructive Bureaucrats who take everyone's money, but he sees them as an underfunded, understaffed, overworked group of Beleaguered Bureaucrats who are Just Following Orders — and not orders from their superiors in the IRS, but orders given to them by Congress; orders that they are constantly changing, with the IRS mostly just trying to do an unfortunately necessary job under stupid orders and belligerent citizens who do things like sending them checks soaked in mustard.
  • This trope is the cause of almost all programming/user errors. Computers follow their orders to the letter, exactly as written. They have no common sense at all, and so rely entirely upon their given orders. If those orders end up causing a system freeze or loss of data, it's not the computer's fault, as it's just following the directions given in Exact Words. This is also why developing A.I. is not just a case of Instant A.I.: Just Add Water!: turns out that giving a computer foolproof orders which boil down to "learn from experience" is actually really hard. As Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal put it:
  • Employees that have a Mean Boss or an incompetent one may do exactly what their boss orders them to do on the letter, even if it won't produce good results or have good efficiency. This is known as malicious compliance where employees will do exactly what their boss tells them to as a form of a passive-aggressive protest. After all, you can't be fired if you're just doing what your superiors were telling you to do. There's also a similar action called "work to rule" where workers will not work more than the minimum time and/or effort needed to complete the tasks assigned to them. In fact, this is in and of itself a separate trope: Bothering by the Book.
  • A rare heroic variant of this trope: during the Chernobyl disaster, it was discovered that there were tanks full of water directly under reactor 4, which was melting down slowly but surely towards the water, where the corium (nuclear lava) would flash boil it into steam, causing another explosion scattering radioisotopes everywhere note . Three plant employees, Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bespalov and Boris Baranov went into the power plant, in pitch black darkness note  wading through radioactive water to manually open the valves and drain the tanks. Although commonly portrayed as a Suicide Mission, the three men survived (though they required hospitalization). Boris Baranov died in 2005 of a heart attack (very likely caused by his radiation exposure) while the other two men are still alive as of 2023 (and received well-deserved medals by the USSR and Ukraine). When interviewed however, Alexei Ananenko say he just did his job and what was asked of him (because nobody else knew the plant as well as he did) and he remains humble about his service.


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Alternative Title(s): Nuremberg Defense, Nuremberg Defence, Just Doing My Job, I Was Just Following Orders


Sheriff of Nottingham

Big Bellied Bully picked the wrong day to piss off Friar Tuck. Too bad the sheriff wins this fight...

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

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Main / FatBastard

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