Say what you will about the failure of our public education (I know I often do), but in isolated instances it can boast of impressive results.
Occasionally it produces an amalgam of erudition and slight roughness around the edges. Both were evinced by a Royal Marine sergeant who, along with his two comrades, is facing court martial for murdering a Taliban prisoner.
Sweeping up a field in which a Taliban attack had been stopped in its tracks by an Apache attack helicopter, the three soldiers found a badly wounded Taliban fighter.
After a brief discussion of how to deal with the dying man, the sergeant in command of the party put a 9mm round into his chest. In doing so he delivered himself of a Shakespearean quote, offset by a word more commonly used in our schools.
“There you are. Shuffle off this mortal coil you c***,” said the sergeant. “It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.” Turning to his men, he added, “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas. I’ve just broken the Geneva Convention.”
The incident was captured by the soldiers’ helmet cameras and later downloaded by an investigator who then informed the authorities. Now the three men are on trial for their lives.
There’s no doubt they behaved in a beastly fashion, and it’s not up to me to pass judgment on the minutiae of the legalities involved. The sergeant himself knew he had violated the Geneva Convention, and he should know. He may well have broken, as the prosecution states, the rules of war.
My contention, however, is that in this day and age it’s utter hypocrisy to insist that any war, and especially counterinsurgency, can be waged to a set of immutable rules. Just look at some of the offences proscribed by the very same Geneva Convention the defendants self-admittedly broke.
Some of the gravest breaches of the Convention include:
Wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health
Presumably this refers to inflicting such things on those not directly engaged in battle, especially civilians. Out of interest, how does this tally with carpet bombing of inhabited areas? The answer is, it doesn’t. Such bombing may be dictated by military necessity and, much as we all regret that civilians have to die, we accept it – Geneva Convention or no Geneva Convention.
Taking of hostages
How else can a regular army protect itself when fighting against guerrillas supported by practically the whole population? Let’s say an army occupies a town, where women and children, not to mention the men, routinely carry out terrorist acts, killing soldiers in all sorts of savage ways. How many corpses with their genitals stuffed in their mouths will it take for the army to start taking hostages – and carrying out retaliatory executions if the murders continue? How likely will the occupying force be to stick to the letter of the Geneva Convention, not to mention the ethos of human rights?
Extensive destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly
Was the destruction of Dresden justified by military necessity? Dropping A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? A sustained bombing attack on Belgrade, when no war had been declared? How much property was destroyed (if not appropriated) when the bombs hit the Chinese Embassy there? Was it militarily necessary? Or was it unlawful and wanton? Western forces fighting against Taliban insurgents routinely bulldoze houses from which shots have been fired – even if the snipers have already been killed. What does the fine letter of the law have to say about that?
This isn’t trying to justify what the defendants did. It’s just that we have to accept that the same behaviour that’s unquestionably criminal in peacetime isn’t always so unequivocal in war – especially when fighting against an enemy that wears no uniforms and perpetrates unspeakable atrocities not only on the occupying force but also on its own people.
The Marines shot the terrorist at a time when Taliban was conducting an indiscriminate bombing campaign of both civilians and Western forces in Helmand.
The sergeant’s own Commando Brigade had lost seven dead and 42 wounded. The insurgents had dismembered some of the dead (possibly before they died) and hung their body parts off trees, for the delectation of their surviving comrades.
Soon thereafter three of the survivors, including the Shakespearean scholar, shot one of the presumptive dismemberers. The sergeant may well be convicted by the court martial, and this may well be just, but I doubt he will be blamed by his comrades who know that any day their own body parts may be found dangling off trees.
Stating the case for the prosecution, David Perry, QC, said that the victim “was entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.” Well, respect is a two-way street. Expecting soldiers to respect those who butcher and carve up their comrades is presuming too much on human goodness.
Personally, I hope the judges will find mercy in their hearts, while the defence will blame it all on Shakespeare so beloved of the defendants:
Oft have I heard that grief softens the mind,
And makes it fearful and degenerate;
Think therefore on revenge and cease to weep.