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Justice & The Generals
El Salvador
Around the World
About the Film
Photo of a child on a swing
Education - Lesson Plans
Introduction Lesson Plans Further Practice National Standards

Lesson  #2
  Printable Format


Central to the Ford v. Garcia trial was the application of the Doctrine of Command Responsibility by the defense and the plaintiff, with the former relying on the qualifier of "effective demand," an interpretation that led to the acquittal of El Salvador's former Director of the National Guard, Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, and former Minister of Defense, José Guillermo García. The law is multi-layered, requiring close scrutiny of those committing war crimes. The questions are: who is responsible in the end and how do the courts determine culpability?


Students will:
  • identify the elements of the Doctrine of Command Responsibility

  • assess the law's application in the Ford v. Garcia case

  • evaluate the law's viability in trying international war crimes
Estimated Time

5-6 classroom periods


Recommended Film Segments

Minutes 01 to 26 : ( Watch it now for T1 or 56k )
Minutes 26 to 44 : ( Watch it now for T1 or 56k )
Minutes 46 to 63 : ( Watch it now for T1 or 56k )
Minutes 10 to 82 : ( Watch it now for T1 or 56k )

Teaching Procedure

1) Distribute the CASE STUDY to the students (or create a similar scenario, making sure to build in elements of command responsibility) and have them read it silently.

Case Study

You are a member of a community youth group headed by a president who seeks to garner local financial resources to grow the group's economic base. At monthly meetings, the president reminds group members of the importance of proactive fundraising, stressing the role all members must play in building the program's monetary stability. The president requires group members to raise a certain amount of money each month, otherwise, their membership will be terminated. The president does not provide any fundraising parameters, but does have a reputation in the community for questionable money-seeking tactics. Though raising funds is a requirement, the president never asks how monies are acquired; several members turn in thousands of dollars each month, their sources or methods never questioned.

It soon comes to pass that the group comes under legal scrutiny, accused of a series of crimes that include theft and investment scams. Several members seem to be the ringleaders of these activities. Eventually, victims of the members' misdeeds sue the youth group. A trial follows. The plaintiff argues that it is not only the members, but also the president who are responsible for the crimes, as it is a group leader who oversees his or her followers' and/or subordinates ethical actions in an organization. The defense argues that only the members can be held responsible for crimes they alone committed, as they have a basic understanding of the law and a conscience that should guide ethical actions and choices.

2) After students read the scenario, give each one an index card. Ask them to write down who they think should be held responsible for the crimes, noting at least two reasons for their choice. Collect the cards. Group the cards by choice and then hang each set on different sides of the classroom. Have the students review the sets and write down pro- and con- arguments that stand out for them.

3) Invite students to discuss who they felt should be held responsible for the crime, supporting their stance with their points of view and the information they garnered from the cards. Allow students to engage in some informal debate. Ask them to identify the challenges in determining culpability in this case.

4) Explain to students that the scenario they reviewed is representative of the more challenging task of judging war crimes under the Doctrine of Command Responsibility, an international law that holds military leaders responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates. Distribute and have students read Proving Command Responsibility. Ask them to summarize what the law entails and discuss how it relates to the scenario they studied. (Optional, but recommended: Distribute and have students read Command Responsibility for further understanding of the law's parameters, particularly the relationship between a commander and his or her subordinates.)

5) Briefly describe the premise for Justice and the Generals, explaining the significance of the Doctrine of Command Responsibility. Distribute and have students read The Case of Four American Churchwomen as background to the film. Show the recommended film segments and then pose all or several of the following questions (or distribute them as a worksheet):
  • What events led to the Ford v. Garcia case?

  • Who was arrested for the churchwomen's murders? How did those charged reason their involvement in the women's deaths?

  • How was the Doctrine of Command Responsibility applied in the Ford v. Garcia trial? How did the defense apply the law? How did the plaintiff apply the law? What was the terminology the defense used that led to the generals' acquittal?

  • What arguments did the generals use to argue against their involvement in the murders?

  • What evidence was necessary to successfully argue the application of the command responsibility law? What evidence was and was not available? Explain the circumstances for the availability or lack of certain evidence.

  • What was the value of the United Nations Truth Commission and the Tyler Reports to the case? Explain.

  • Did actions of the United States government influence the case? Explain.

  • Based on the events of the Ford v. Garcia trial, what is your understanding of the Doctrine of Command Responsibility? What are its benefits and deficits?

  • Whom do you think should have been held responsible for the churchwomen's murders? Explain.

  • Do you think that military personnel in non-leadership positions must always follow commanders' orders? What is the responsibility of subordinates regarding war actions that involve torture and other human rights abuses? Explain.

  • What impact will the Ford v. Garcia trial have on the pending Romagoza trial, primarily in terms of the command responsibility tenets?
6) Instruct students to identify the key actors in the Ford v. Garcia civil lawsuit (these can include government officials not present at the trial but who played a role in the events leading to it). Divide students into groups representing the figures they have identified. Using their understanding of the case and the Doctrine of Command Responsibility, ask each group to construct a point of view reflecting their selected figure's involvement in the case and perspective on who is responsible for the murders. (It is recommended that students conduct additional research; the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights' Web site contains the trial's declassified documents, excellent for specific details and evidence.)

7) Divide students into groups comprised of representatives from the respective groups established in Step 6, making sure that each group has an equal number of actors. Tell each "actor" to present his or her case in the voice of the represented figure. After each student has presented, instruct the groups to debate their stances. Bring the groups together to discuss the various arguments presented and the questions these arguments raised about the Doctrine of Command Responsibility. What challenges does the law present? Is the law enforceable in all cases? What implications does the Ford v. Garcia trial hold for similar cases?

Assessment Recommendations

Assessment should be informal and focus on student contributions to group and class discussions, participation in group projects and presentations, interaction with group partners, and capacity and willingness to negotiate controversial and complex subject matter. Keep in the mind the challenging topic, allowing students to work at their knowledge and skill levels. Assessment may be rubric-based or students can use journals to document their understanding of the materials and topic and assess their involvement in projects and discussions.

Extended Activity

  • The Doctrine of Command Responsibility is at the core of many past and present war crimes, committed not only by foreign nations --Argentina, Chile, Rwanda, the Philippines, Bosnia-- but even by the United States at war in other countries, such as Vietnam (My Lai, for example). Invite students to work in small groups to research a particular nation's war crimes and related investigations, trials, and legal decisions centered on the command responsibility law. Have each group presents its findings to the class. Invite the class to discuss similarities and differences among the cases.
  • Students can contact members of the United States military in their community to learn how the Doctrine of Command Responsibility influences Americans in combat.
Related Web Sites

The Brutality of War

Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights

The American Society of International Law: The Contemporary Law of Superior Responsibility

Crimes of War

Academic Info: Human Rights

Command responsibility and omission

Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador

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