Thoughts on sentencing for battlefield crimes

The remarks by the Chief of the Defence Staff in respect of sentences not taking circumstances into account were surprising, not in what he said, for this would be the line straight from Anonymous in Downing Street, but in that he spoke at all when his words might be heard as an intervention in the due process of law.  However, his point that while retired officers might ask for leniency in the sentence, serving officers could not, is valid.

The relevance of this to the blog is that today I read the foreword to an anthology of articles published in the blog last year.  The foreword’s author, writing as Heraclitus, saw action as a battalion commander in World War II and thus earned the right to speak on battle stress and its effects.  The anthologist has suggested that part of what he wrote should be published now, before the book appears on Kindle next week.  Here is the extract.

“My one criticism of this book’s choices and comments is that the anthologist has paid insufficient attention to MORALE, the second of the classic Principles of War, this being prompted by Friday’s newspaper reports of the court martial verdict on the Royal Marine who killed an insurgent wounded during a Taliban attack on his unit and subsequently captured. Whether it was murder or a coup de grâce (and it should be remembered that this same sergeant, even if in this incident he appeared to show no evidence of grace, if faced with the certainty of one of his own men falling, badly wounded, into Taliban hands, would have administered to him also a coup de grâce), the deed was not done in an English garden on a quiet afternoon in a heavily-scented early June with cucumber sandwiches and Pimms on a tray.  It was done on a bloody battlefield light years from home, in a different universe far from loving and supporting families, and utterly remote from his earlier life’s frame of reference.

“This is not irrelevant. All who have been under direct fire know that feeling of sudden personal isolation when the mind recognises for the first time that there is someone out there “who seriously wants to kill me.” The world then changes; it is now a small globe with fuzzy edges, and the sharpest entities within it are friends and foes; the acutest memories are of disciplines, drills, and loyalties; and the only aim of importance is the survival of those mates who are fighting for your survival. That situation on the battlefield is driven and sustained by MORALE.

“These thoughts were triggered by this sentence from the Daily Mail report:

The key concerns were their limited numbers, their lack of air support, and overwhelmingly a feeling of isolation.’

“In that isolation will be found the answers to many mysteries the civilians lurking in Whitehall will not understand unless they study Field Marshal Viscount Slim, who wrote, on the basis of his brilliant and astounding triumph in Burma:

‘It is not that conditions are bad that upsets men so much as delay or failure to recognise that they are, and to take steps to improve them. For example, few things are so discouraging as to ask men to work with obsolete or worn-out equipment – yet if it can be shown that there is a good reason why it cannot be replaced at the moment and that at the same time everyone above them is going all out to get them better tools, men will come to take a fierce pride in overcoming their difficulties.’

“As all who have interviewed men and women returning from Afghanistan know well, the MORALE that sustained them was generated within their units, and the prevalent belief that those above them in Kabul and Whitehall and Westminster had betrayed them is a sentiment unaffected by a Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, assuring them that they were all showing the same bravery as were our athletes in the Peking Olympic Games! (Mr Brown, readers may remember, is recognised as an expert on courage and has published books on the subject.)

“These three concerns emerging in the evidence at the court martial should be the concerns of everyone, not just of the Royal Marines whose MORALE, and thus their fighting ability, was shaped by them. The ‘limited numbers‘ problem, owed initially to flawed MoD policies directed more by financial criteria than by rational appreciation of the military, political and economic situation in Helmand, emerged from the Director of Operational Policy who was “the policy lead ….. for the UK’s military engagement in Afghanistan” and a senior civil servant wholly devoid of military experience. The politicians involved, as still today, just did not understand.

“The ‘lack of air support‘ was well known, both by the MoD and the public.  Promises were made but not delivered, and the desperately needed Chinooks that were promised by the present Prime Minister are for 2015, after the withdrawal is complete. His predecessor, the expert on courage, refused the continually requested extra helicopters because, it has been reported, a woman at the FCO advised him that they were unnecessary, and thus the resupply convoys rolled out each day to play at Russian Roulette on mined roads decorated with daisy-chained IEDs and flanked by snipers. Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, who was killed in this way, was one of the officers whose regular reports on the absence of air power were ignored, as described in this book, and was one of the officers whose character – leading from the front, as he was when the IED exploded beneath him – fostered and then sustained the MORALE of his men on which his own commanders depended, and which Whitehall and Westminster fail to understand.

“The third concern, ‘a feeling of isolation‘ (which is primarily mental, and not just physical), is reinforced by every manifestation of failure in the ‘Duty of Care’ (which existed for centuries before the meretricious ‘Military Covenant’ was invented as an election aid). The limited numbers, the lack of air support and the feeling of isolation are all linked. Inadequate numbers needed force multipliers to compensate, most obviously in the form of Persistent Surveillance by the type of small military aircraft (SMAs) available in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and in British colonial wars such as the Malayan Emergency. As explained in this book, there were none in Helmand and many lives were needlessly lost in consequence. Without the SMAs the resupply convoys were increasingly necessary and limited by their vulnerability, rendering remote bases occasionally short of important items such as ammunition and batteries, and often, as Prince Harry reported, without the regular delivery of mail so crucial to the maintenance of MORALE. There is the key to isolation – no friendly movement to be seen, no convoys and no SMAs, and no one caring about the mail. They are quite alone! No one sees them, so no one cares!

“And then when the attacks come, the air support is late, buddies get killed, and their bodies, if not recovered, are mutilated and displayed as trophies to taunt the survivors. That is a different world, and those who sit in judgement on what happens there have a duty to recognise that. And the politicians have a duty too, to acknowledge the responsibility of those who left our infantry to fight without the numbers and equipment they need, without the air support they requested, and in isolation from what Whitehall thinks is normal. Part of the guilt for the crime for which this sergeant has been found guilty lies in Whitehall with those who created the isolation in which he lost his frame of reference.”

Author: WF

Editor and Archivist for the Autonomous Research & Assessment Group (ARAG)

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