An Unlawful Order………Part 2

July 17, 2016

Any chance of a silent approach to the kraal in the small hours of the morning had well and truly evaporated.  The sound of the shot behind us had made sure of that.  Clearly someone had discharged a firearm negligently or as we termed it in the Rhodesian Army, had an Accidental Discharge (AD), not to be confused with nocturnal emissions.

Chris and I had gotten into the best cover we could find, but were by now very close to what we believed to be the targets hut.  Among all the negatives, a number of positives flashed through my mind as wet grass tickled my nose and ears:

  1. There had been no screaming after the shot went off.  This probably meant no one had been hit by the stray round.  It could also mean whoever was hit died instantly and never had a chance to cry out.  A grim possibility.
  2. There was no return fire, meaning it was not an ambush.
  3. No gooks came screaming out of the huts with AK’s blazing, possibly meaning there were none of them about.  They could of course be lying low and waiting to get us into a killing-ground.
  4. No one was shooting at me which was always a good sign.

The best tactic in this situation is to lay low for a while and not attract attention to oneself and that is exactly what we did.  As no one from the back-up force had contacted us we assumed the mission was still on.

As we were lying in wait for any developments, a door to one of the huts was opened and a tall African man emerged into the gloom.  A could hear a child crying from somewhere within the gloom of his home.

Someone approached from behind us, a dangerous thing to do under the circumstances and I reached into my pocket and felt reassured by the warm metal of the Browning.  The man coming towards us called out softly to us in English.  We could see he was African and dressed in civilian clothes.  I vaguely recognised him as being from the group of policemen who were to give us support in the case of trouble.

He motioned us to follow him and we approached the man standing outside the hut, who had up to now made no attempt to flee.  Speaking in the native tongue our new companion asked the man from the hut a number of questions that he answered calmly and without the quiver of someone who was anxious or afraid.  The conversation continued for some time until the policeman began to raise his voice.  Things seemed to be getting a little stressed.  I figured that if the man being interrogated was a gook sympathiser then he was a cool operator in the face of the enemy.  Looking at him he just did not strike me as being off-side, but one can never tell.  It was clear the policeman was not satisfied with the answers he was getting.  He pointed to the hut and apparently told the suspect to get his family outside which he hesitantly did.  His wife and a young boy of about 5 stood in thin clothing in the cool evening.  They were clearly scared.  The questions continued and the wrong answers were still coming leading to even louder rebukes.

By now a number of other huts had opened and instantly the situation changed.  The three of us found ourselves outnumbered quite nicely by kraal dwellers and it made me a little uneasy.  I could see that the policeman was becoming more and more pissed off and loud and said to us that he believed the man was lying and we should become tougher on him.  That’s when Chris ordered me to hold my Browning against the little boys head.  Clearly he thought this would encourage the suspect to talk and at the time he probably believed this was the right thing to do.  With instinctive discipline I removed the pistol from my pocket, and it was then the man from the hut looked at me directly and I saw something in his eyes.  He was pleading with me silently, tears in his eyes, and somehow I knew we should never have come here.  Sometimes we have to trust our instincts, and mine were now screaming out at me that this was all wrong.  The pistol was in my hand, my arm down my side, the barrel pointing at the dusty earth.  Chris stared at me urging me to carry out the order.  I looked at him for a few moments, and slowly shaking my head I returned the pistol to my pocket, out of harms way.  I was not going to do anyones dirty work that night and walked away towards the rest of the policemen who had now joined us.  For me the mission was over.

Soldiers are trained to observe a number of golden rules.  One of these is never to point a weapon at anyone or any creature unless you intend to kill them.  I had no intention of killing that young boy and I felt disappointed that we might stoop to such low tactics.  Now I know there may be some sage-like commentators who read this account who find justification for bullying a five year-old by shoving a weapon in his face quite acceptable.  To them I say we are all entitled to have our own set of principles and traumatising a child just out of nappies is not one of mine.  And indeed there may be a situation where I might agree this type of interrogation method would be acceptable, but this was not one of them.  I have been present during a number of interrogations including electric-shock via wind-up telephone and waterboarding.  It is not pleasant to witness or take part in unless you are a psychopath.

My thoughts are that this whole mission was badly planned and poorly executed.  Piss-poor briefings and even worse inter-service co-ordination.  I still do not know to this day who arranged for Sappers to be involved but one thing is very clear and that is that it was not very well thought-out.  Chris may well have known the background to the mission but I was the mushroom.  I don’t like being a mushroom especially when asked to take a life.

In times of conflict there are indeed many shades of grey and I will leave you with the following three scenarios to think about while you ponder lawful and unlawful orders and my actions:

“Shoot that boy”
“Shoot that boy who’s handcuffed and unarmed”
“Shoot that boy who’s about to fire an RPG”

Ultimately, it’s not whether or not I thought the order given to me was illegal or unlawful, it’s whether my military superiors(and courts) thought the order was illegal or unlawful.

So do you obey, or do you not obey? Military personnel disobey orders at their own risk, as I did.

They also obey orders at their own risk.

Strangely enough I never heard another whisper about this mission.  No reprimands and no questions.  In fact I was promoted soon afterwards.  This makes me think it was unauthorised and arranged without the authority of my Commanding Officer at the time.  A “jolly” thought up by a couple of cowboys that could have ended very badly indeed.

Please also have a look at my website dedicated to Rhodesian and South African Military Engineers.  Join us on the forums by using the following link:


© Mark Richard Craig and Fatfox9’s Blog, 2009-2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

14 Responses to “An Unlawful Order………Part 2”

  1. Tom Waugh said

    Great storytelling Mark. I enjoyed reading your thought processes during this event.

  2. michaelvan said

    Salute you. Respect

  3. Ray Farrell said

    An excellent read Mark, thanks. The MDC, (and I’m sure all Western disciplinary codes as well as common law) clearly states, in one of its contraventions: “Disobeying a LAWFUL command” (own accentuation). If a command is not unlawful and you carry it out you are guilty of a crime.
    Great post again Mark!

  4. Brilliant telling, Craig! If it wasn’t Rhodesia, I would have asked you to add it to War In Angola as well! 😉

  5. don said

    Good story again thanks Mark.

  6. fatfox9 said

    Thanks Don……

  7. Thanks; I enjoy these entries, they often make me think – and that’s no bad thing..

  8. troyxx81 said

    very interesting read. The other thing of course if you had threatened the boy (or if another villager had been shot, say), whatever political feelings those folks had before would probably have morphed into solid support for the Communist side. A lesson the Americans for example had trouble learning during the Vietnam war.

  9. fatfox9 said

    Very true…….thank you troyxx81

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