The Bujold Nexus

Criminal Orders
by Meredith MacArdle

In an interview for the Internet Book Information Centre, Lois McMaster Bujold commented on The Warrior's Apprentice: I recommend it unreservedly as the best book for most readers to start with to get into Miles's adventure series.

Circumstances dictated that that would turn out to be the last Bujold book I read. Courtesy of my public lending library's pathetic stock, I started with The Vor Game. I was partly drawn by the glowing comments on the back, and partly by the cover - it was the paperback Baen edition - showing this little dwarf, handcuffed to a huge goon, being dragged past snarling men in uniform. It looked different enough from most other science fiction books to be worth trying.

However, I certainly wouldn't recommend starting the way I did. I read most of The Vor Game in happy confusion. Happy, because the writing was good. Confused, because although some background was explained, it still wasn't quite clear why Miles was so driven and hyper. I missed many nuances of Miles's various relationships - with his father, with Simon Illyan, with Elena, with Gregor - and the appearance of the Dendarii in an already complicated plot was just too much. I gave up expecting to understand and just sat back to find out what happened.

I stuck with it and was sufficiently impressed by the writing, characterisation and sheer story-telling ability to look out for others by LMB. (In fact, I only got the Dendarii properly sorted last year, when I finally got a copy of The Warrior's Apprentice, long after I had read all the others).

Apart from the writing, the other thing which stayed with me from The Vor Game was the concept of criminal orders. The Barrayaran military not only acknowledge their existence, but actually go to the trouble of advising recruits how to disobey illegal orders. Aral himself visits the military academy to take the mandatory seminar, which is so shocking that he has to make sure he has got space in his diary soon after, so he can come back and counsel some disturbed cadet out of dropping out...

Aral obviously has a bee in his bonnet about this topic because he was accused of ordering an atrocity - the Solstice Massacre - during the Komarran conquest. We await the new book showing Komarr in more detail, but it is clear that his enemies have never let Aral live down the epithet Butcher of Komarr . In Shards of Honour, even Cordelia, and her fellow prisoners of war on what became Sergyar, knew of his reputation. No wonder Aral is sensitive about it. Now in a position of power, he was fortuitously able to indoctrinate the younger generation of Barrayaran military on one of his favourite hate subjects.

What a wonderful idea! I started to wonder why in real life we couldn't have people like General Colin Powell, or Prince Charles, the head of some UK regiments, reviewing the troops and slipping in a few test questions about how to avoid giving or following illegal orders. "How long have you been in the army, Private? Very good. And do you know how to disobey an order to shoot unarmed civilians in the back? You do? Very good, carry on."

Then I realised that of course, in real life we do already have a half-cocked concept of criminal orders in the military. At the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, the defence of: I was only obeying orders was thrown out of the window. One of the basic foundations of the trials was "Any immoral law must be disobeyed".

But, what has happened in the decades since? War crimes in Vietnam; barbarism in Bosnia: revenge massacres of the Hutu and Tutsi populations of central Africa, none of which can be adequately policed - let alone prevented - by even the United Nations.

Since I incline towards pacifism, and am lucky enough not to live in one of those countries like Rwanda or Bosnia, I am glad to say that I have no personal experience of war. But nowadays, we cannot avoid it. With our shrinking world and growing communications network, the full details of war are being brought home to all of us in our cosy armchairs. And it seems to me that rules, law and order are amongst war's first casualties. The only guidelines for those on the ground are to survive, and win. To achieve those aims, human beings will do things that all the demons in hell probably have never dreamt of.

I'm not saying that I am a total pacifist. If I had been alive during the Second World War, I would probably have supported war against Hitler, as the last ditch defence for our lives and way of life in Britain. But I am basically uncomfortable with the whitewashing and hero worship of our side - any side - in a war. All sides commit atrocities, and there simply are no brakes, not even the moral niceties of a commanding officer. I think we ought to recognise this, disturbing as it is. Although I shy away from the ethical implications, I also think we ought to recognise the paradox of encouraging our soldiers to do our viciousness for us, then turning round and saying they went too far.

I just don't believe that violence in a war setting can be controlled. To pretend there are rules controlling it is part of humanity's continuing flirtation with war as a game, a conceit which is reflected in real life and in fiction.

As usual, Bujold saves the day by introducing some gritty reality, when rules are broken in the heat of the moment, or by people who simply won't play the game properly. In Barrayar, when discussing units which are supporting Vordarian's Pretendership, Aral admits that the ideal doesn't always happen. When the going gets rough, stick to your unit is literally drilled into them. So the unfortunate fact that their officer is leading them into treason makes clinging to their squad-brothers even more natural. Metzov in The Vor Game shows that bad apples can still sneak through, and also that sticking to your squad can lead people to condone worse than treason.

Perhaps Aral's lecture system has improved matters: certainly he seemed to have no trouble in discharging Metzov. But he still didn't feel Miles could counter public charges of mutiny with the defence of doing the right thing. Perhaps it needs another generation of lectures? Perhaps it is just wishful thinking?

I like Bujold's concept of a structure to enable soldiers to recognise and disobey criminal orders. It s one of her nicer fictions. But, sadly, in my opinion, that's all it will ever be.

© 1997 by Meredith MacArdle, London, England
Added to The Bujold Nexus: June 13th 1997

Webpage design by Michael Bernardi,

[ Home Page | What's New | The Author | The Books | Mailing List | Inspired | Nexus Specials | Links ]

All comments or queries about this Web page to:

Last updated: November 20th 2002