Just Following Orders: Leadership Lessons from Argentina’s “Dirty War”


Many military pilots can empathize with what Navy flier Henry Saint George went through on a Wednesday in mid-December 1977. He most likely woke up in a start, worrying he had overslept. Then he remembered the flight schedule: “I’m instructing a night hop tonight.” He tried to go back to sleep but could not, instead enjoying breakfast with his wife and children during their Christmas vacation from school. After lunch, he put on his flight suit and headed to work to catch up on some paperwork. He ate the sandwich he packed for dinner as the sun started to set, all while listening to a quick preflight briefing with his two copilots and enlisted mechanic. They discussed the mission: night navigation and proficiency, designed to keep their instrument skills sharp in the different world of flying in the darkness. Soon they were in the aircraft starting the two turbo-propeller engines. They took off from the joint military/civilian airport at 2130 via a “course rules” departure, following the river to Indian Point. Within 45 minutes they were out to the sea and away from the bright city lights.

It is here where the routine devolves into surrealistic horror, where the professional empathy ends. Allegedly, it was then that Henry gave the order to open the Skyvan PA-51’s aft cargo door. One pilot and the mechanic then threw three bound, naked, and sedated women out of the back of the plane to their deaths in the dark sea below.

“Vuelos de Muerte”

Henry Saint George is actually Enrique José de Saint Georges, a former Argentine Navy pilot who awaits final judgment more than 38 years after his last mission for the service. The trial is slated for February 2016. The flight in question was logged as three hours and 10 minutes, without passengers or intermediate stops. It originated and ended at the main airport inside Buenos Aires, the same place where tourists leave for vacation and the Argentine head of state boards the presidential jet, “Tango 1.” That’s right — one of the nation’s busiest airports, right in the middle of its largest city, was the launch and landing point of countless “vuelos de muerte,” or “death Flights,” as they are now widely known. The victims in the specific December 1977 case above are believed to be social activist Azucena Villaflor and the French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet.

I took an interest in this dark chapter of Argentine history while living and working there as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Olmsted Scholar Program. I am a U.S. Navy pilot of large, land-based multiengine turboprop planes, one of which is the cousin to those models used in Argentina to carry out some of the death flights. At first, I couldn’t believe the sickening accounts. As I walked through the haunted military torture centers that now serve as memory museums, I wondered: How could these military men do such a thing? These were not the nightmarish Gestapo from the 1940s that we only see in movies, but men only one or two decades removed from the Latin American officers I have worked and flown with over the past eight years. How could men like me, doing the same job I did, do something so unspeakable? I believe the answer lies in the psychological underpinnings of moral decision-making in war, and it contains an important lesson for all military professionals.

A Nation at War

Only one military officer has ever publicly acknowledged his personal role in the death flights. Retired Argentine Navy Cmdr. Adolfo Scilingo admitted in the 1990s: “I am responsible for killing 30 people with my own hands.” Scilingo is now serving a sentence of 1,084 years in a Spanish prison for crimes against humanity, but is not a typical confessor. “I would be a hypocrite if I said that I am repentant for what I did. I don’t repent because I am convinced that I was acting under orders and that we were fighting a war.”

A military junta ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 after admirals and generals overthrew the democratic government. Deep societal divisions remain today in the nation, even 33 years after the return to democracy. The media and human rights groups dispute the history and statistics of the junta’s rule, creating a cloud of confusion of how many really were kidnapped, tortured, and killed. But there are indisputable facts. In 1977 and 1978, bodies began washing up around the shores of Buenos Aires, naked and bound with wire at the hands and feet. Autopsies indicated “fractures consistent with a fall and impact onto a hard surface,” which water becomes after a free-fall of thousands of feet. The corpses were quietly buried in beachside towns where they were later found under headstones marked “NN” for no name. It wasn’t until 2005 that human rights investigators began DNA tests on the unknown graves. The bodies were those of alleged terrorists, activists, journalists, students and their spouses — all of whom somehow opposed the junta or got in its way. They were kidnapped in unmarked cars, secreted away to hidden prisons for torture or interrogation before their final transfer to the airport. Some were leftist guerillas that surely placed bombs in civilian centers. Others were nuns. None ever faced a trial.

Certain witnesses assert there was a death flight every Wednesday for two years, disposing of between 1,500 and 3,000 prisoners in total. Apparently military leaders wanted to avoid the “mistakes” of Franco in Spain and Pinochet in Chile, who simply shot dissidents in the head and received international condemnation. They are accused of consulting with military chaplains and doctors to determine a plan that wouldn’t “go against the Pope,” creating a systematic and nationwide solution for their opposition. Blindfolded prisoners would be brought by bus to the airport and told they were being transferred to another prison. They were informed they needed a vaccination, which was in reality sodium pentothal, before the trip. After an injection by a military doctor, they quickly slipped into unconsciousness. Their clothes were removed. They were tied up with wire and sometimes weighed down with concrete. Soon, they were ready to be dropped from the plane.

Aircraft crewmembers did not know the prisoners or the details of their alleged crimes. They were told they were terrorists, the same enemies of the state that attacked military installations. If they ever questioned their leaders, they were assured that the executions were approved by the chaplains, administered humanely by the doctors, and considered a “good, Christian” method compared to the guerillas’ barbaric tactics. As one officer justified, “we are at war. We have to go down to the subversives’ level in order to defeat them.”

It was understandably physically and mentally disabling for many who took part, and some new pilots who didn’t know what they were about to do broke down when the truth became apparent during their first mission. One enlisted man recounts confessing the horrendous acts to a military priest who replied, “Do not fear, my son. We are at war, and you are helping separate the wheat from the chaff.”

Why Tyranny Flourishes

John Stuart Mill said, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” But what confused and shocked me is that so many men within the military forces across several nations — Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay — didn’t just look on and do nothing. Through a scheme called Operation Condor, they took an active role in the torture or execution of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who had not been legally tried or convicted. Men just like me knowingly flew the aircraft. They injected the prisoners. They threw them to their deaths. Then they covered it all up. There is anecdotal evidence that some men balked at the horrific duties at first, but there is not a single one publicly known to have defied orders or refused missions. Of the hundreds of men who likely participated or knew of the process, only one — Adolfo Scilingo — has ever confessed to helping “disappear” enemies of the state. How can this be explained?

It helps to understand the unthinkable with the help of professional psychology and the recent work of Professors Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam. In their own 2002 follow-up to the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, Reicher and Haslam discovered “the fundamental point is that tyranny does not flourish because perpetrators are helpless and ignorant of their actions. It flourishes because they actively identify with those who promote vicious acts as virtuous.”

In the case of the Argentine death flights, officers and enlisted men were told by their superiors that they were killing enemies of the state, and that by carrying out these executions they were doing their job to support and defend their homeland. Some of their trusted supervisors, clergymen and medical personnel were allegedly justifying the executions as virtuous “Christian deaths” compared to the random barbarity of the bombings or terrorism that the subversives carried out.

According to Haslam and Reicher, discussing the Nazi Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann, “what was truly frightening was not that he was unaware of what he was doing, but rather that he knew what he was doing and believed it to be right. Indeed, his one regret, expressed prior to his trial, was that he had not killed more Jews.” The same sentiment shone through in the Stanford Prison Experiment, where researchers found that those who participated in acts that they believed were severely harming others “could be led to construe them as ‘service’ in the cause of ‘goodness’ rather than being distressed by their actions.”

The research also reveals something even more disturbing, shown clearly in practice by both Nazi concentration camps and the alleged death flights. Reicher and Halsam conclude, “those who do heed authority in doing evil do so knowingly not blindly, actively not passively, creatively not automatically. They do so out of belief not by nature, out of choice not by necessity. In short, they should be seen — and judged — as engaged followers not as blind conformists.”

Lessons for the Future

The wounds of the Dirty War still fester today in Argentina. Despite revelations, investigations, trials and commissions, many still cling to the belief (on both sides) that what was done “needed to be done” — means justified by the ends. I am sure many of my Latin American counterparts (and especially the Catholic Church) will take issue with some of the facts presented as propaganda from one side or the other. One accused general officer pilot close to the case has said publicly that “Fifty percent of what has been said about the Death Flights is true and the other fifty percent is fantasy.”

What I find relevant is not whether it was 1,500 thrown from planes or 3,000. My interest lies in the generic officer — the pilot — like me. Maybe he only flew on one such mission, and knew little of what happened. But how would history have been different if he listened to the sick twang in his gut instead of putting trust in the justification of evil put forth by his superiors and peers?

It is useful for military leaders to examine such cases in order to steel their own moral leadership skills for times of similar extremity. While a leader may believe “I would never do something like that” or “that could never happen here,” it is only through study and preparation that leaders can ready themselves for the unknown. Often, however, such examination creates more questions than answers.

The U.S. Law of War Manual states that service members, “absent specific knowledge to the contrary, may presume orders to be lawful.” Subordinates are required to carry out orders unless the “order is one that a person of ordinary sense and understanding would, under the circumstances, know to be unlawful (e.g., to torture or murder a detainee).” This refers verbatim to situations like the death flights, so their illegality seems to be abundantly clear to the “person of ordinary sense and understanding” in the light of day. But in the midst of the fog of war, service members must consciously filter orders they receive in order to ensure they pass moral muster.

Some of the darkest stains on American history, like internment camps for Japanese-Americans and the use of napalm in Vietnam, illustrate that we are no different than the Argentines and also capable of large-scale, systematic barbarism. Recently, we’ve kept atrocities and collateral damage at a lower level — the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales’ Afghan civilian massacre, unintended civilian casualties during drone or other air strikes — if such suffering and death can be ever be minimized. Today the United States and its allies face increasingly brutal but intelligent enemies like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. At one moment they publicly burn hostages alive in cages while in another, they use marketing and Internet savvy to recruit new followers in Paris and California. Will we ever be tempted to “stoop to their level” in the name of protecting ourselves and our interests? Will we make different decisions than our South American counterparts did decades ago in the name of stopping revolutionary communism? With the advent of new technologies like remotely piloted aircraft and cyber weapons, will we find ourselves asking if we should silence the activists or terrorists because they threaten our cause, much as our neighbors did with students, journalists and clergy?

If you found yourself in a counterinsurgency similar to what American forces faced in Iraq, would you arrest an improvised explosive device-maker after you stumbled upon his bomb factory and he surrendered? Would your decision be different if you lost one of your soldiers the week before to an IED known to have been made by the hands of the man now in your custody? If you were assigned as part of a special force in today’s battlefields of northern Iraq and Syria and found “Jihadi John” or one of his successors alive, would you treat him with Geneva-Conventions dignity or be tempted to give him what he ultimately deserves? Based on the exemplary conduct of the average American serviceman or woman that do the right thing thousands of times per day around the world in difficult ethical situations, it would seem the majority is beyond reproach. But these are clear-cut cases where there is a known “bad guy.”

The true moral leadership challenge lies in the nuance, where civilians are accused as combatants, and the distrust of a population creeps into the treatment of those who are innocent. If a family is found to be hiding a suspected jihadi, should they too be taken into custody or beaten for lying prior to the search? What if you were driving a Humvee and a handcuffed, blindfolded and bleeding woman is thrown in back by your team after a firefight you did not witness. Once told by your superiors that she might have shot at your troops, a trusted teammate suggests driving slowly back to base to ensure medical attention is delayed and that she doesn’t make it back to the battlefield. How would you respond?

It may take months or years of vicious acts by two sides to reach the point of throwing accused civilians out of the back of a plane — and we hope we never reach the point of such atrocities. But incremental creeping distrust of a civilian population that is infiltrated with the enemy combined with the degradation of the respect for the laws of war can insidiously erode the moral high ground. Soon you could find yourself in a situation where the “ends justify the means.”

As we enter a heightened political season, military professionals should reflect on both our own grave errors and those of our neighbors and allies. Should we back those who talk of automatically choosing war over diplomacy, those who paint our enemies with too broad a brush, and those who propose to “make the sand glow in the dark” with carpet bombing? How would the professional military force respond to a commander-in-chief’s orders to detain a certain demographic of the American citizenry based on nothing more than their race or religion? In the age of unprecedented political polarization, can we afford to let the politics of fear triumph over wisdom?

It is apropos that Reicher and Halsam begin their work on the “‘Nature’ of Conformity” with a quote from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant: “If men make war in slavish obedience to rules, they will fail.” Contrasting examples, like the death flights, prove that discarding the rules during war will bring doom as well. I suppose, then, that it is those of us in the middle of it all that must decide how close to the rules we will remain. I hope we are ready.


Lieutenant Commander Jared Wilhelm is a U.S. Navy P-3C Orion Instructor Pilot currently stationed in Argentina. An alumnus of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and a Spanish linguist, he is dedicated to innovation and learning something new every day. The views expressed are his own and do not represent any other organization or entity.

Medium Blog: https://medium.com/@JaredfromOhio
Twitter: @JaredWilhelm


Photo credit: Pablo D. Flores

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