Military ethics and the "Marine A” case

As polls show public support for leniency, it's possible to argue that the Marine A case shows there are more positives than negatives about our military ethics

Royal Marines in Afghanistan
Richard Elliott
On 17 November 2013 09:25

A shadow was cast over Armistice Day this year by the case of “Marine A”, the now infamous Royal Marine, whose name cannot be released for legal reasons, who was convicted of murder for the shooting dead of a wounded captive suspected of being an “insurgent” (the ‘politically correct’ word for an Islamic militant) in Afghanistan.

Amidst all the light and heat created from the press commentary on the subject, one fundamental consideration has not been made; what would we be saying if we turned the tables, and were talking about an insurgent shooting dead a Royal Marine in cold blood?

Much moral theory has been advanced from the simple and easy to imagine thought experiment of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. From Confucius, to Jesus, to Kant, to Rawls, philosophers have utilised the attempt to try and envisage someone else’s state of affairs as an effective means for discussing ethical issues.

In the issue at hand, the Royal Marine convicted of murder did wrong, no doubt; but even by his immediate afterthought for the Geneva Convention, ‘Marine A’ showed a respect for international law, even if only because it was violated by his own hand.

The question to ask in this context, then, is, would an Afghan insurgent, acting against the interests of the Afghan people and the international community, have considered the Geneva Convention if they shot dead a NATO soldier? Would an insurgent take note of a universally held norm during a situation of war, like this?

It is this kind of inversion that destroys all examples of moral equivalence between British soldiers and the insurgents they oppose. We hear bleating that “Oh, they wouldn’t be killing our soldiers so cruelly and coldly if we hadn’t dropped bombs on Afghanistan and invaded in the first place”, and other such reductionisms and fallacies.

In truth, even when an atrocity from a NATO soldier like this does occur, there is an open discussion by politicians, the military and the press about the seriousness of it, and the impending punishment. And, the bottom line is that there will be a punishment of Marine A. How many insurgents are punished for the same offence by their superiors?

Crude as ‘Marine A’s epitaphic phrasing was about mortal coils (and other more expletive laden phrasing), the accompanying comment of “It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us” rings pragmatically true.

In fact, this one heinous slip of protocol at the hands of a Royal Marine is small fry compared to many of the actions committed by Taliban insurgents, Al-Qaeda operatives and members of other such Islamist factions to soldiers, journalists and others, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

I am not condoning the actions of Marine A; far from it. I think it does a lot to undermine the efforts Britain makes to aid in stabilising a democratic Afghanistan.

However, these exceptions to the norm shouldn’t be stretched across the actions of the entire British and American military effort, which many pacifists (masochists) on the Left often look for excuses to do. The fact is, no matter how far the stereotypical view of the macho, dumb squaddie carries the day, soldiers fighting in Afghanistan uphold scruples and standards from both a moral compass and the view of international law. Whatever you think of such conflicts, you have to concede that much.

Marine A expressed regret for his actions, putting it down to a “lack of control” and “poor judgment”. He faces sentencing for his conviction. When courts organised by the Afghan ‘insurgency’ start reciprocating this kind of protocol, in accord with internationally recognised standards, that’ll be progress of a kind.

(NB: A poll published by the Telegraph suggests 47 percent of the public do not think Marine A should get a full life sentence as a opposed to 35 percent who do.)

Richard Elliott is a writer and a journalist. He is a regular contributor to The Backbencher and an irregular contributor to many others

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