Q. What is the Jewish approach to the “I was only following orders” excuse used by soldiers (and others) who commit abuses?
A. In Judaism the first instance of the problem arises in regard to Abraham, to whom God says, “Your descendants will be strangers in a strange land and they will enslave and oppress them (but) the people who enslave them will I judge” (Gen. 15:1-14).
The question is, if the suffering is ordained by God, why should He punish the Egyptians for bringing it about? Couldn’t the Egyptians retort, “I had no say in the matter”?
Maimonides (Hil’chot T’shuvah 6:5) says that there is a difference between the individual and the nation. Though God said that the nation would oppress the Israelites, individual Egyptians could have opted out of the evil-doing, even though resisting orders might have made life difficult for them.
Nachmanides asks a different question: “Why did the Egyptians persecute the Israelites – because of their own evil policy, or because they knew this was a Divine destiny? If it was because of their own policy, they had no right to blame God.”
The Nachmanides view seems to say that if the troops acted cruelly because it gave them pleasure, they deserve blame; if it was merely because of orders from above, the higher officers who gave the orders should be blamed.
According to the Maimonides approach, if the troops could have refused to act, regardless of the difficulties this might have caused them, they should have opted out and left the framers of official policy to face the music.