“Commander, I find myself in a very difficult situation,” was the opener, and I think we can agree he was pretty much stating the obvious.
Folding his arms, Matt scowled, “Major, I think that might be the most political way to put it.”
Wang-Roth paled somewhat, and apparently looked rather ill. He took a deep breath, then moved over to the nearest line of crates and found one that was jutting out enough for him to perch on.
“I’m an officer, Commander. So technically, what happened here could come back to me. But you have to understand, I wanted nothing to do with any of it. And my men the same – these here, they weren’t all my men originally. But we were all brought together by our common refusal to be a part of the atrocities.”
Matt’s reaction to this explanation was lukewarm. He was willing to listen, which is a sign of his open-mindedness, but at the same time, this argument could very easily turn into whining and pleading. And none of that would be stomached from any blockhead on this rock.
“If you didn’t want to participate in their crimes, why didn’t they send you to Mercury?” Friendly’s Commander asked that pointed question, drawing on the interrogation skills he’d developed over many years as our security chief.
Wang-Roth looked up at Matt, eyes slightly wide, then hung his head, “They wouldn’t let us go. They feared that we’d report them.”
At first blush that seemed pretty flimsy, considering the ease with which the rumors of the atrocities had spread in the Venus hospitals. But it was conceivable that those who resisted were perceived to be a greater threat – more likely to actively seek out the Military Police or the Shore Patrol and report the incidents.
And, of course, the fact that it had taken our very best – Charlie – so long to piece together the real story about Egesta also suggested that the army leadership might have been right in assuming word wouldn’t spread easily, even with rampant rumor…
Nevertheless, the validity of the excuse wasn’t Matt’s to decide. He knew, as we all did, that some sort of trial or inquiry would hear the evidence.
Wang-Roth still wanted to talk, though, and he continued: “Listen, Commander… I don’t know how it is in your service. But there’s a culture. You must understand that. There’s an expectation in our army that you are one of the team. That you do everything together. You are comrades, and you stick up for each other. You watch each others’ backs, you don’t go against the current…”
It sounded to Matt like an avalanche of clichés was about to come, so he cleared his throat. That noise stopped Wang-Roth, and looking up at Matt’s disinterested glare, the Major decided the Commander got the point.
“It took a lot for each of us to step out of line. Many of us had our lives threatened for doing it. We’re not involved with the people who committed the crimes. We’re not.”
It sounded self-serving now, and Matt didn’t appreciate that. Though he did understand, at least in intellectual terms, what Wang-Roth was trying to get across. The notion of turning against your comrades was no more popular in Defense Command than it was in the army… we just had (and have) very different expectations for behavior.
Matt considered swelling up with some DC pride, and giving the army Major a lecture in what the culture of an armed force was supposed to be, but he decided this wasn’t the time. Not yet. First he needed to give the blockhead a bit more rope – see whether he’d hang himself.
That meant demanding more information.
“You wear uniforms, and you carry weapons. You could have protected the people here.”
A massive oversimplification – Matt knew it couldn’t have been so easy – but one being used judiciously. Again, Matt had tricked many pirate prisoners into giving up information back in the pre-war days, and though his skills were a bit dusty, they were still sharp enough.
Wang-Roth shook his head in a rush, his expression revealing both frustration and anxiety, “No… I mean. What could we do? Could we try to overthrow our own chain of command? These orders came from the Brigadier! If we tried to defend anyone, to stop someone looting or bayoneting… or raping… we’d have been traitors. They wouldn’t have just confined us, they’d have killed us, and blamed the Guild. We’d be risking our lives!”
As you can see, Matt’s prompting and Wang-Roth’s undisciplined answer had opened up some threads that could be used. Our British interrogator went with the last one first.
“Isn’t your job to risk your lives?”
Wang-Roth’s eyes shot wider, “For citizens of the Empire! And for the Emperor!”
Matt had him exactly where he wanted him – it was like pulling puppet strings, “So you don’t have a conscience. You couldn’t take the initiative and see what was right. Just the letter of your duty… they’re not citizens, so you stand by and do nothing?”
Again, he was purposefully oversimplifying. There were, in fact, cases where Defense Command would have to sit by and not help non-citizens too. It didn’t happen often… and honestly, I can’t think of an example right now… but it’s conceivable. But in this context, the implication was all that Matt needed.
“What could we have done?” Wang-Roth almost yelled, but it came across as pleading instead of angry. “My job is to keep my men alive. They refused to rape and murder, and so my job is to make sure they get home to their families, so they aren’t punished for doing the right thing!”
That’s what Matt had been waiting for. That was the argument – the only argument – that really would have any traction with him. Because this was a good point: as an officer, your responsibility is to the people you lead, as much as it is to the mission. As we talked about a lot back in The Forge Fires, sometimes those responsibilities clash – sometimes you have to sacrifice your people to complete the mission.
But never can you forget the gravity of that sacrifice.
Now, in the midst of a terror like Egesta, it’s still a pretty inadequate argument (at least by my reckoning) to say that you didn’t try to save lives because it would have put your own people at risk. They should have been willing to take the risk, and to right the wrongs that their comrades were undertaking.
However, there is a kernel of legitimacy in the argument. The dilemma is one I can recognize, and that Matt could afford some respect. It was a purer motive for inaction than, say, simple fear for one’s life. Or worse, fear of getting caught.
If Wang-Roth had said, ‘We had to stay out of it… we knew you’d be coming back, and we knew there’d be consequences’, that pretty much would have ended the conversation.
Now, the talk could go on.
“You were in a difficult position, I’ll grant you,” Matt changed tacks to let Wang-Roth cool. Now was time to give a little understanding – a little more rope – and to test to see what the Major did with it. If he started feeling like he’d gotten through to our Commander, and if he even so much as joked about behaving in this way to dodge the consequences, the show would end.
“Major, our military culture in Defense Command is similar. It’s true that you should never be put into a situation where you have to clash with the women and men you’ve trained with… who you’ve fought a war with.”
That was the slack, and Wang-Roth let out a sigh of relief, nodding, “Exactly. It’s impossible. My men didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know. Making an example out of some of the hardest troublemakers, right at the beginning… I could be talked into that. They were setting off bombs, they were still trying to continue the fight. We had to show them there’d be no mercy…”
He trailed off there, hoping Matt would say something helpful. Our Commander remained silent – this was one of those times to leave an uncomfortable void, and to let the nervous prisoner fill it.
“…but it got out of control so quickly. Reinforcements arrived… men had needs and there were no garrison towns around where they could satisfy them. They should have just handled it. But they didn’t, and nothing I said resonated with my officers. Eventually I made a nuisance of myself. We all did. We were ostracized. We weren’t men, so we were sent here.”
Some interesting admissions, and nothing that contradicted Wang-Roth’s statement that the well-being of his men was his priority. Matt started to get the sense that the Major was indeed genuine in that statement. He was clearly misguided… but he was also caught in a difficult situation, as a result of the military hierarchy of which he was a part.
Because, as the Inquiry would ultimately find, a lot of the blame here did belong right at the top, with those who decided that the blockheads should not only be ‘granted these privileges’, but that they should be expected to take full advantage of them, to improve their abilities as fighting men.
After all, there’s nothing like rape and murder to hone your skills as a solider.
Good luck explaining to me, or to any civilized person, how that works. I’m sorry, but knowing how easy it is to bayonet a guy you handcuffed to a post wasn’t going to help anyone disarm a hidden bomb, or out-shoot a Martian marine who was running to cover and returning fire.
So yes, the rot in the army started right at the top, which made it impossible for those who disliked the orders lower down to do anything substantial about it.
But there would have been ways for those who were innovative, and who had courage enough to try. Hiding people, even befriending people. Making a pact with your unit to stay away from some folks… doing something distasteful, like claiming some people who needed your protection as your ‘personal’ victims. There could be no fair solution. There could be no protection of the group. But trying to save someone, by any means, would have been better than sulking about your inability to save anyone.
Or so I would have thought. Come to think of it, that would have just been a smaller scale version of what we’d done in The Independent Squadron, and what Andrea had done before we arrived.
But that was the difference between our military cultures. I’ve talked a lot about this over the past books, I think, but it’s worth really driving home now. Different armed forces have different expectations, and different ways of training and encouraging their people. As two sets of parents might raise their kids differently, Defense Command and the Imperial Army were vastly divergent.
And we were much, much superior to the blockheads.
Yes, there’s some professional pride – even hubris – in that statement… but after Egesta, could you really argue?
Matt couldn’t. Instead, he’d finally heard enough to allow him to deliver the lecture that he’d wanted to give earlier.
“Disobeying an unjust order from the top is never simple,” the Briton said dryly. “But the difference between your service and mine is that our Admirals would never order us to commit a crime like has been done here. Because they know we would not comply. Defense Command’s ‘culture’, as you put it, is one of protection, Major Wang-Roth. We fight wars and we kill pirates, but our purpose is always quite clear. We are here to serve the Empire, and to protect its citizens and its resources. And it is only right that we extend the same courtesy to neutral powers when the opportunity arises. Only enemies need feel our wrath, and even then, we give them respect.”
Wang-Roth’s head hung a bit as he listened, and Matt wasn’t done.
“We kill. We make mistakes, Major. But we never set out to do prejudicial harm to those who cannot defend themselves. And if somehow we found ourselves in a situation like this one, it would not have been so difficult for our junior officers, and our spacers, to stand up to those in command, and to make it clear these actions would not be carried out. So we’d be luckier than you were. I’m sure a tribunal will take that into account when they judge you. But for now, you must live with your conscience, Major. We cleaned up this mess once, when it was created by criminals who wore our uniforms. As you know, we hung those bastards. Now we will clean up the mess that your army has made. And you’ll simply have to wait to see if you and your men swing along with Brigadier Azuma.”
Not to put too fine a point on it.
Commander Matt Baxter was finished with this conversation. He’d been a little bit generous to Defense Command, but not too much. Because, as he said, we ultimately existed to defend. It’s right there in the name, and though we can’t always follow that doctrine, we take it very, very seriously.
Wang-Roth returned to his men, and Matt continued to wait for Colonel Ronald.