If we must fight wars, we must stick to the rules

November 24, 2016 23:13

As a sergeant in the SAS, Colin Maclachlan has survived ordeals that would humble the strongest man. Now he faces a very different kind of battle - an investigation by British military police for war crimes.

Sgt Maclachlan's offence? In an early draft of his memoir he says he was involved in a "mercy killing" on two or three critically wounded Iraqi soldiers in 2003, finishing them off as they lay bleeding on the ground. His supporters (serving members of the military) claim that this kind of thing - though strictly banned under British army rules and the Geneva Convention - happens all the time in the heat of war.

Several of the 42-year-old's SAS colleagues have since told The Times that none of it ever actually happened. One source described him as "a Walter Mitty" fantasist, exaggerating these and other tales to sell his book. In a series of text messages, Sgt Maclachlan fiercely stood by his story.

True or false, the investigation continues in the wake of the claims. And, regardless of whether his alleged actions were borne out of compassion, most senior military figures have little sympathy. "The law of armed conflict and the Geneva conventions would be broken by such an act, whatever you think, whether you think it was a mercy killing or not," said Captain Doug Beattie, who served in Iraq.

So-called battlefield "executions", and strict army codes of conduct, are a big deal for many Western militaries. For our forces, already held under massive suspicion by much of the Muslim world, "playing by the rules" on the battlefield is a hugely important way to win hearts and minds on the ground. This is critical in the era of social media, where atrocities spread round the world in seconds.

Being seen to play by the rules wins hearts and minds

In Israel a not-too-dissimilar incident, propelled around the globe on Twitter, recently drove a huge wedge through that country's military and political establishment. It concerned Corporal Elor Azaria, who shot and killed an incapacitated Palestinian named Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, in Hebron. Al-Sharif had just carried out a stabbing attack on Israeli troops, but no longer represented a threat and was lying on the ground. Cpl Azaria was charged with manslaughter and put on trial.

As was the case with Sgt Maclachlan, much of the military establishment approved of the probe. However, many right wing politicians and the media vigorously opposed it and thousands of Israelis signed a petition calling him a hero. Benyamin Netanyahu, as ever, vacillated. Moshe Ya'alon, a decorated war hero, resigned as defence minister.

In Britain, as in Israel, the army's rulebook is increasingly under threat, as investigations into our soldiers' battlefield activities become a source of tabloid and populist rage. At present, there are hundreds of hugely controversial investigations proceeding into the conduct of our troops, instigated mainly by Iraqis represented by British law firms. Many may be proved to be utterly without foundation, and place huge pressure on military resources. However, despite the protests, the investigations must not be tossed into the bin. Let the military police probe and pass judgement, to show the world we fight clean and fair.

The alternative to an accountable military is one that fights wars without rules. Wars like these are waged by dictators such as presidents Putin and Assad. Their armies actions ultimately shame their militaries as a whole, irreparably damage their governments' reputations and cause lasting damage to their country's standing.

The British and Israeli armies desire to question and self-examine isn't an act of self-flagellation or weakness. It demonstrates moral strength and integrity. More than anything, it separates us from the tyrants we seek to destroy.

November 24, 2016 23:13

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