Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Non-civilian disobedience

It was with a degree of astonishment that I was jolted out of my slumber on Monday morning by General Sir Michael Rose calling for Tony Blair to be impeached on the Today programme. You may remember the general from back in the Nineties where he was in charge of operations in the former Yugoslavia for a while, and in that capacity used to appear on the news with some regularity, although I personally can't remember whether he was any good. I don't think that anyone was really very effective in that sorry episode, but that's not relevant here. What surprised me wasn't the call for Tony Blair to be held accountable for conning the UK into the Iraq war, that sort of demand has been quite common over the past three years. No, the interesting part was when he said that he would have refused command of such an operation, although he is now retired, and that active commanders should do the same by resigning, if not by simply refusing to follow orders.

Refusing to obey governments for ethical reasons is nothing new, it's just civil disobedience, but in the military this has traditionally been called insubordination, desertion or even mutiny. They used to shoot people for it. Civil disobedience is a vallid means to reassert the electorate's power over the State, but in a democracy it's generally assumed that the military is subservient to elected politicians, doesn't express opinions, it just acts as a tool of the State to defend its' citizens or implement various aspects of foreign policy. The military is the means by which the State exercises its' monopoly on violence. It's not supposed to do politics, that's what happens in countries with the sort of regimes that we don't approve of.

But at a more shall we say philosophical level, what Sir Michael proposes makes sense. After all, the military is composed of a lot of men and women who are expected to get themselves killed if the government asks them to. Let's also not forget that by and large, before this happens, they will have killed a lot more people on the other side, and these days those are mostly civilians rather than enemy combatants. So one way or another, democratically elected governments distribute a lot of death all round when they send the military to war. The same democratically elected governments wouldn't usually openly consider so much as giving one of their citizens a mild kicking, and that includes members of the armed forces, until such time as they are sent into a conflict.

The usual justification that is given is that members of the armed forces have volunteered to expose themselves to mortal danger whenever they are told to by their government. Which strictly speaking is true. But I think that in return, it's only fair to make sure that governments don't do that without a damned good reason, which doesn't include made-up scare stories about WMDs. So although it's often held as an incontrovertible truth that normal assumptions about the rights of the individual don't apply to the armed forces, actually, why shouldn't they? What's the worst that can happen if soldiers say no? People won't be killed? Damn. Since the Nuremberg trials, soldiers have no longer been able to use the fact that they were following orders as a defence against accusations of war crimes. They have a duty to disobey immoral orders, to act according to their conscience. Well since their supreme commander is in effect an elected politician, there's no reason why a soldier should have to put his life and that of the "enemy" in danger if he or she doesn't consider the justification compelling enough. I'm not actually calling for all the armed forces in the world to operate independently of their governments, there are after all plenty of examples of that being a pretty undesirable thing, but generally trouble results from armies doing things that they haven't been told to do, rather than not doing things. For instance, imagine of in July 1914, the Czar's heads of staff had just said "You know what, Nick? I don't think so. Niet. We're off for a think about agrarian reform instead".

The Militant Pine Marten is no great fan of the military: it's the whole suppression of the individual, unquestioning obedience, authoritarian killing machine aspect of the military that doesn't agree with me. To the extent that I refused to join the Mustelid Scouts when I was just a martenet - why on earth would anyone want to spend their spare time in a uniform doing what the older kids tell you? But if the military are going to openly recognise their duty not only to obey their political masters, but also to subject orders to the judgement of their consciences and to act on it, then I think that things are looking up.

During the enquiry following the sinking of the Titanic, most of the surviving steerage passengers testified that the scarce places in the lifeboats had been given to First Class passengers in priority. Amazingly, because of the society in which they lived, they found this to be perfectly normal. Hopefully in the near future, the idea of unquestioningly killing others and allowing yourself to be killed unquestioningly on the instructions of someone else will come to be seen as just as absurd.


The Pedant-General in Ordinary said...

"But if the military are going to openly recognise their duty not only to obey their political masters, but also to subject orders to the judgement of their consciences and to act on it, then I think that things are looking up."

As you rightly say, this has been the case certainly since the Nuremberg Trials. It has been the case in the British forces for much longer than that.

As a very very junior officer (say a 19 year old Second Leiutenant), you are made well aware of the concept of an illegal order and that it is your DUTY to refuse one when you see it. If your higher commander persists you retain the option to resign your Commission.

Further, you have a duty to the men under your command to protect them from such orders. This can apply at a very high level indeed. Admiral Boyce, as the Chief of the Defence Staff, threatened to resign unless the Attorney General's advice on the legality of the Iraq war was reduced to a single word: "Yes" or "No".

He was not prepared to commit his men to battle and find that they did not have legal cover - in effect that they could find themselves in front of a war crimes court because Bliar did not have the balls to take the responsibility.

The lack of trustworthiness is not a problem with the armed services: it is a problem with our politicians. The armed services would fall apart in seconds without the integrity of every single officer at all levels. If an officer has lost the trust of his men, he becomes completely operationally useless: he cannot lead men into battle if they do not trust him.

Pine Marten said...

Whereas I doubt that every single officer in the British armed forces is of unimpeachable integrity, since there's really no reason why Squaddies and Ruperts as a professional class would not follow the same bell curve as the rest of humanity, it's always a pleasure to see evidence that someone has not only bothered to read this, but has actually thought about it too. Do you by any chance have knowledge of this that comes from a source closer to the horse's mouth than from the mustelid's bottom?