Those who are given powerful weapons, and the authority to kill with them, must be subject to the law. Forget that all-too-common Hollywood trope in which the brave combatant is held back by the petty restrictions of armchair lawyers. “Shit, charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500,” remarks Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now. No, soldiers should be grateful for the law because it is precisely the law, and its underlying morality, that distinguishes soldiers from murderers. The law is the soldier’s friend.
That is why it’s not just lefty civilians who are morally squeamish about a sergeant of the Royal Marines shooting dead an injured and unarmed Taliban prisoner in Helmand province in Afghanistan. The military are too. Marine A – or Alexander Blackman as we now know him to be – received a dishonorable discharge and a murder conviction – now reduced to manslaughter – after film footage was discovered of him shooting the prone Taliban fighter with the words “shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt”. The Daily Mail led the campaign to have his sentence reduced. And those who would normally insist upon the importance of personal responsibility spoke instead of the mitigating circumstances of combat stress disorder. But whatever the stresses under which he operated, he shot an unarmed man and he should not become the poster boy for military honour.
Compare the Blackman case with that of Sergeant Elor Azaria in Hebron last year. Like Blackman, Azaria shot dead a wounded semi-conscious enemy combatant who posed no threat. Both incidents would not have come to light had a bystander not filmed the event. And it was the senior military leadership, like IDF chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot, who condemned Azaria’s actions the most clearly with rightwing politicians and press leading the charge to declare Azaria some sort of national hero abandoned by his senior leadership. Within days of the Azaria shooting, Eizenkot wrote to his troops: “We shall not hesitate to exercise the law with soldiers and commanders who deviate from the operational and ethical criteria according to which we operate.” That seems entirely measured and sensible. Yet for talking such a stance Eizenkot was widely condemned as a traitor.
The mood in Britain has not been so very different, with the author Fredrick Forsythe, who also campaigned for Blackman’s release, accusing the army’s top brass of betraying him, and now issuing dark threats that those who were responsible for Blackman being in prison are the next to be targeted. Listening to Forsythe, it is the lawyers who should be locked up and a disgraced killer who should be garlanded with gratitude.
No wonder it was so hard for someone like the human rights lawyer Phil Shiner to get a fair hearing in the court of public opinion. Shiner clearly cut corners in seeking to bring those who broke the law to justice. He exposed the torture and death of hotel receptionist Baha Mousa at the hands of British soldiers in 2003, and, yes, he lost his way in the desire to expose other such abuses. But do we really think they didn’t happen in other dark corners or distant fields where there were no cameras to record the event? But the glee with which many greeted Shiner’s fall – this February he was struck off as a solicitor over misconduct – reveals the extent to which we have so little time for those who would fight to bring to light the injustices perpetrated by our own soldiers. No one is interested in hearing this sort of stuff any more.
I used to teach at the UK’s Defence Academy in Shrivenham, Oxfordshire. The course was leadership ethics for newly promoted majors about to take up their first command responsibility in hell-holes like Helmand. It was an intimidating gig, with a few hundred soldiers staring down at me, all in uniform. And we all knew that what we were discussing might mean the difference between life and death, to shoot or not to shoot, in some corner of a foreign field. This ethics wasn’t something distant, academic or abstract. To them and to me it felt terrifyingly important. And we do the vast majority of these soldiers an injustice if we refuse to distinguish between those who break the law and those who do not. Everyone in Helmand was stressed. Not everyone shot their prisoners.