Magazine article The Spectator

Is It Ever Possible to Fight a War in Full Accordance with the Human Rights Act?

Magazine article The Spectator

Is It Ever Possible to Fight a War in Full Accordance with the Human Rights Act?

Article excerpt

The ghost people, the letter people.

The ones we hear about in court but never call by their real name; instead, Baby P and Girl A. And now Marine A.

They remain hidden from us for reasons which are, one supposes, rational and sensible, but somehow this non-naming magnifies our shame or abhorrence at whatever has befallen them, or what they have done.

It must be bad if we're to strip them of their identities, no? Eventually they shuffle off the stage, after some sort of justice has been dispensed, still in some cases anonymous, shrouded.

Shuffle off, indeed. Marine A dispatched a Taleban insurgent with a bullet to the chest and a quote from Shakespeare which he had usefully expanded and modernised: 'Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt,' he said as he pulled the trigger. Marine A's job was to dispatch Taleban insurgents with or without recourse to Hamlet; but not, of course, when the insurgent is a prisoner of war, which this one was. If he had been shot in the chest by Marine A in the battlefield, then that's a different thing, we are all agreed. But not when he is shot away from the battlefield in that other thing, 'cold blood'. Then, instead, it's an act of savagery and for a moment, back home, we are no longer able easily to differentiate ourselves from the enemy, people whom we are habituated to see as medieval savages, with some justification.

This, after all, is why we are in Afghanistan: to civilise these people, in effect. Immediately after the murder the soldier issued a plea of mitigation to someone - his comrades, the dead man, the helicopter circling overhead or a still higher authority: 'It's nothing you wouldn't do to us.'

As an excuse, an alibi, it could scarcely be worse: that's the point, soldier. That's precisely why we don't do it. Or don't let on that we do it, at least. Because in watching the clip of the insurgent being killed, you do get the feeling that this action might not have been a singularity; there was a fairly casual discussion with his two colleagues (Marines B and C, subsequently cleared of murder) about what should happen.

There was no screaming psychotic rage or other demand for vengeance on behalf of Marine A. He did not go berserk, like you see GIs doing just before they do something deranged in American films about how horribly brutalising the war in Vietnam was.

Quite the reverse. Nobody seemed terribly shocked or worried that he'd killed the jihadist, or remonstrated with him about his behaviour in even the mildest tones: 'Hang on, that's a bit rich, old boy...'. Instead the enemy combatant was sent shuffling from his mortal coil in a rather matter-of-fact manner and with the simple injunction, from Marine A to his fellow soldiers, not to tell anyone about it. …

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