What is the definition of murder
on a field of battle in which combatants are deployed for the express purpose
of killing each other?
The thorny question arises
because last week a British military court sentenced a soldier – a Royal Marine,
no less – to a long prison sentence for murdering a wounded Taliban
prisoner. The subsequent taproom
discussions about the verdict have focused on two aspects of the case.
First, was the soldier entitled
to kill? In other words, were there
extenuating circumstances? Was he
threatened? Or did he kill in cold blood? And second, having found the soldier guilty,
did the court impose a sentence commensurate with the crime, or was it
excessive, given the intense pressures borne by soldiers in combat?
A video tape of the incident
recorded by cameras attached to the helmets of the soldiers involved offers damning
evidence that the defendant was not acting in self-defence. The prisoner was prostrate on the ground,
wounded and helpless, and was killed with a shot to the chest. Furthermore, and even more damaging to the
soldier’s defence, in the recorded conversation that took place among the
members of the patrol before the lethal shot was fired, they had first discussed
how they should dispose of him. Worse,
the marine who pulled the trigger was plainly aware that he had acted
illegally, under the rules of the Geneva Convention, which he demonstrated by urging
his comrades to keep quiet.
My own position is that the
defendant committed a war crime, was properly represented in a court of law,
and could therefore hardly expect leniency.
Easy for me to say, one of my
companions said. I’ve never served in
the armed forces, let alone been subjected to enemy fire. The gist of that argument is that I couldn’t
possibly recognise the strain under which the defendant had been placed at that
moment, and therefore couldn’t possibly know how he might have been affected.
Well, all that is perfectly
true. I can’t imagine what it’s like to
trudge through a field in an alien landscape far from home, under fire from an
enemy that probably wouldn’t have hesitated to commit the same atrocity had the
situations been reversed. It’s not
something I wish to experience. It’s
beyond my imagination.
The argument proceeds from
there. In a newspaper article today by
the mayor of London,
Boris Johnson, it is assumed that the Americans “would not dream of exposing
their soldiers to this kind of judicial second-guessing. They whacked Bin Laden without a second
thought; they execute whole families in drone strikes”.
Those facts are undeniable. And it’s debatable whether taking out a known
terrorist leader in a calculated operation amounts to the same thing as killing
a defenceless wounded prisoner. But I’m
not sure the one can be equated with the other.
Allied soldiers in the Second World War probably killed in commando
raids countless German officers who might have, in less frenetic
adrenaline-fuelled circumstances, been taken prisoner. As for the drone strikes
that kill innocent civilians, do they represent a worse crime than the Allied
bombing campaign that killed millions of German civilians? Should the crews of RAF Bomber Command, or
for that matter the Luftwaffe, have been prosecuted?
The Royal Marine’s act was on a far
smaller scale. But it was a personal and
premeditated decision, which he knew, by his own admission, was specifically
prohibited by the Geneva
rules on how prisoners should be treated.
The key words here are ‘personal’ and ‘premeditated’. I’m reminded of an earlier infamous case,
back in the Seventies, involving one Lieutenant Calley, a US marine, who murdered innocent people in a
village in Vietnam. The debate which attended that incident is
being repeated now.
Admittedly an element of hypocrisy
attends all wartime killing. But there
is also a measure of self-interest in adherence to the Convention: we don’t
kill or otherwise mistreat prisoners because, if we do, they will kill or
mistreat ours. Are our murders to be
considered justifiable while theirs are called atrocities?
Johnson argues that “if every act
of war is subject to legal challenge, then we will not only lose our ability to
fight a war. We will lose our
instinctive understanding of what a war crime really is”.
That statement is certainly
debatable. But in the final analysis I
think we have a very good idea of what constitutes a war crime, whatever the
scale. And the convicted marine’s
execution of a prisoner meets those criteria.
What the appropriate punishment for
the convicted marine should be, I’ve no idea.
I can even admit to some sympathy for the vile predicament in which he
found himself on the battlefield.
But when the evidence is
reviewed, his was an act of murder. And
British military men, no less than those of other countries, must be held
accountable to a universally accepted standard of behaviour.