“It becomes harder to live by the ‘rules’ of warfare, when the strongest weapon held by the weaker side is a willingness to ignore the rules.”
Morality in war
The Second World War was justified, in every fibre of Winston Churchill’s being, as a Manichean struggle between the civilised values and traditions of the British Empire, and the dark shadow of ruthless German expansionism. It was no longer (as it was in actuality) just another in the long-running series of European wars fought over territory, to establish German ideological and industrial hegemony in the vacuum created by the simultaneous collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and the perceived weakness of the other great European powers. It was not even a Wagnerian echo of the irresistible movement of pagan Germanic tribes south and westwards in the wake of the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century AD.
While the Nazis themselves tried to evoke memories of a mythical, heroic past, somehow struggling to remain good Catholics and Lutherans, Churchill’s brilliant masterstroke was to brand the war as a contest simply between two ideologies: Good and Evil. But in his mind was only the preservation of Empire. The liberation of France, the rescue of the Poles and Czechs and the lives of European Jews had nothing to do with it, although they should have. This was a war fought above all to keep India British and Europe in the balance.
Resistance to Nazism was successfully presented as a moral necessity – a crusade. This idea gained such traction that it helped to bring the majority of Americans into line with British war aims, just as it sustained the British people through the dark years of 1940 to ’43. Hitler’s single biggest blunder, Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of Soviet Russia – may have been motivated by the necessity to gain control of the Baku oilfields, rather than a desire to outshine Napoleon, having been denied access to Middle Eastern oil to fuel his tanks. But bringing Stalin into the conflict required the other Allied powers to forget for the time being that Soviet Russia was equally a diabolical, expansionist institution of enormous brutality, economic incompetence and State oppression: equally ‘evil’. This quasi-religious view of irreligious post-revolutionary Russia could only be revived after the inconvenience of the war was over, when the continuing struggle for global power became more political, economic.
And yet, who is to say that populist ideologies, the imposition of order through martial law, the gulags, the camps and the general slaughter of Kulaks were wrong? In what sense? We judge history, only from our own liberal, consumerist perspective; often with the benefit of hindsight. Had either of the twin evil ideologies prevailed, we might now be living in a world in which liberal, consumerist values were considered perverse, heretical – dangerous.
Nowadays, the idea of Nazi Germany as having been uniquely evil seems unquestionable. No-one in their right mind doubts that we were the good guys and the Germans (and their evil Japanese mates) the bad guys, the Other. It became, and remains probably for all time, impossible to hear the word ‘Nazi’ without a frisson of horror. Merely to question whether morality had any relevance in that conflict is to give support and approval to the undoubted brutalities of the regime, to the Holocaust of the European Jews. Not even the most counterfactual historical revisionist would dare to ponder on what Europe as ‘Greater Germany’ might look like now, seventy years on, without invoking the memory of intolerable savagery, callous indifference to life and the rights of the individual; the dead hand of trench-coated police bureaucracy.
Yet, as we know, the solution to the German problem adopted after the war was to bring them into the fold of civilised nations; rather than giving them further excuse to cause mayhem by attempting to crush them into submission, to obliterate them culturally and economically, as happened after the First World War. The starving survivors were successfully reprogrammed, detached from their Nazi past; the Allied powers declared themselves ready to show mercy, to finance prosperous decades of German political and economic expansion as a benefit to Europe and the world infinitely preferable to further costly attempts by both sides at military conquest.
Nibbling around the fringes of this colossal theme, it has become possible after so many decades to debate – not how evil were the Nazis, which is taken as read, but how good in fact were the Allied powers? For instance, while on the one hand 55,000 Allied airmen of Bomber Command bravely gave their lives trapped in freezing-cold, Spam-can deathtraps over Occupied Europe to strike at the evil (but highly productive) heart of Nazi Germany, it is relatively safe now to question whether it was an ethically acceptable or even militarily effective policy to deliberately obliterate whole cities, killing by firestorm almost half a million civilians – many of whom would not have lived long enough to vote for National Socialism. The excuse that: ‘They started it’ does not really stand up in the court of Eternal justice.
For, even amid the brutal struggle between good and evil, through the fog of countless war histories, one might still detect here and there the signs of a military code of conduct operating, bearing echoes of medieval chivalry. Such behaviour was in large part enshrined in the Geneva Conventions governing treatment of enemy combatants, prisoners and civilian populations – who were expressly not to be slaughtered wholesale. It was also encoded in the organisation and bearing of the regiment: the historical traditions attached to individual fighting units on all sides, whose command hierarchies were still largely class-based. And, of course, the higher up the social scale your officer class stood, the more obligatory the concept of Noblesse Oblige became.
Not for nothing was Hitler portrayed in the aristocratic Churchill’s inspired mythology as a jumped-up, lower-class arriviste: a failed house-painter no less! (Both men were competent amateur artists. And while Churchill was a depressive borderline alcoholic and bon viveur, Hitler was an abstemious, fastidious character with a strong moral code.) Especially in Britain, the caste system still had a powerful resonance. Chivalry on the other hand was the preserve of the knightly classes, both in Britain and in Germany; the code of Bushido in Japan had long outlasted the demise of the Samurai. In the mid-twentieth century there were still rules of warfare, even if they weren’t entirely adhered to by any side; courtly behaviour on the battlefield and in the aftermath of engagements was still seen as the ideal, especially between officers. Death came before dishonour, to a Commando.
What has happened to change all that is simply that warfare has become increasingly asymmetrical. The idea of a conflict between equal powers has faded into the historical background. Wars are increasingly policing, or ‘peacekeeping’ actions involving major power commitment to propping-up clients against local insurgencies. With this massive technological disparity between combatants comes a distancing between the rival forces. Their war aims differ; their ideologies and cultures are more alien to one another. It becomes harder to live by the ‘rules’ of warfare, when the strongest weapon held by the weaker side is a willingness to ignore the rules. No system of morality can govern warfare in which one side only possesses the technology to kill at long-range, impersonally and without compassion: guns and bombs versus clubs and swords. Drones versus suicide vests.
Two men battling hand-to-hand, face-to-face, still have what one might term the ‘mother’s son’ option, to recognise one another’s common humanity. The victor has the opportunity to spare the loser’s life, and may calculate that, in doing so, he gains greater power and advantage than by callously terminating his opponent on the spot. There is less of a moral compass when one of the combatants is a starving peasant farmer armed with a bashed-up AK-47, while the other is a well-paid college graduate sitting in a bunker six thousand miles away at a million-dollar computer interface, remotely operating an unmanned drone armed with Hellfire missiles as if it were a game, going home at night. Drones cannot (yet) take prisoners, however useful prisoners may sometimes be. But drones can, and daily do, kill innocent women and children; which, in my book and, amusingly, also under the Geneva Conventions, is murder.
And so we come to the case of ‘Sergeant A’, who has this week been convicted of the crime of murder by a military tribunal in England. It is an extraordinarily difficult situation. On the one hand, the evidence is incontestable: ‘Sergeant A’, a veteran Royal Marines commando who had completed three terms fighting in the front line in Helmand, was filmed on a fellow marine’s helmet camera dispatching with a single pistol shot, a badly wounded Taliban opponent. This happened in the aftermath of a lethal firefight, in which two other British marines had been killed. Crucially, it did not happen during the firefight itself. The view of the tribunal was to agree with ‘Sergeant A”s own words, recorded at the scene, that he had just broken the Geneva Conventions, which propose that an enemy who is hors de combat should be considered a prisoner deserving of capture, rather than summary execution.
On the other side of murder, stands the military code of honour which, I would argue, was indeed observed by both parties.
This soldier of the Taliban – a poorly armed political and religious insurgency opposed to Western intervention in Afghanistan – knew when he signed-up to fight, that there was a very good chance he would be killed. For the Afghan warrior class, by both tradition and religious belief, and for Muslims in general, death on the battlefield while fighting the Infidel is an honour. To portray such young men as ‘terrorists’ is a gross insult, but we do so in order to bolster the belief that our side are the good guys. Whether we like it or not, whether or not it accords with our squeamish, civilised modern values, every armed man, good or bad, fights in the knowledge that he (or she) is being asked possibly to sacrifice themselves; and, perhaps harder, to sacrifice the lives of others.
There is a long and, in some part, honourable tradition of dispatching combatants to their own Valhalla who, for whatever reason, cannot continue making war, if it is not considered feasible, or if it would be prejudicial to the mission, to spare them. Soldiers have performed this service for one another for centuries. The principle is accepted by every combatant, whether a trained soldier or a dirt-farmer’s son, that the enemy has a duty to take your life; but so does your comrade, as a military necessity. It is accepted too by every pet owner and racehorse trainer, that suffering should be ended as quickly and painlessly as possible. Ending suffering may involve medical treatment leading to recovery, or it may involve a kindly bullet in the head. In times of war, normal morality – the biblical injunction: ‘Thou shalt not kill’, the social compact – can become an unaffordable luxury.
And as the ‘good’ guys, our claim to having a greater moral concern than the enemy for the lives of innocent bystanders is not always an honest one, is it? ‘Collateral damage’ is a pretty disgusting euphemism, under the Geneva Conventions, for the State-licensed murder our heroes practise daily in the pursuit of the bad guys. In wartime, ‘the greater good’ takes precedence.
Being thus dispatched by your enemy and fellow combatant, however, does not normally take place – at least, one assumes it does not – to the accompaniment of quotations from Hamlet. As he fired the fatal shot, ‘Sergeant A’ was heard to hastily mutter, in a rather selfconscious way, and somewhat out of context: ‘Shuffle off this mortal coil!’ It seems more like a benediction than an expression of murderous intent.
Whilst deprecating the act of shuffling another human being for any reason at all, I’d prefer to think of our Muslim insurgent – as he would think – as having been martyred honourably on the battlefield, resisting the enemy with his life as he was bound to do, with the witty rejoinder on his lips: ”Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!’ But then, I don’t suppose Shakespeare gets much of a look-in at your average madrassa.
The marine’s option, of course, would have been to save the prisoner’s life somehow, possibly at the cost of further lives in his own unit, only to see him disappear into some rat-infested Afghan police shithole to have whatever tiny amounts of useful info he might still know tortured out of him. Anal rape and partial drowning or electrocution would, I suppose, be the more moral alternative to saving him from either bleeding to death in pain, or allowing his own comrades to administer the coup de grace, as they undoubtedly would have.
As it is, locking Sgt Blackman up for life for the ‘murder’ of this anonymous insurgent has effectively handed a victory to the enemy.
Perhaps the lesson of this tragic episode is that headcams are not such a good idea in war.