Thursday, July 21, 2005

Cloudy Lemonade

Tim Collins has an article in the Telegraph, attacking the charges against British troops for war crimes.

It seems to me that what we actually have here is a conflation of a number of different issues.
  1. What should be considered worthy of legal action in a war zone.
  2. The legal and bureaucratic mechanisms via which legal investigations are pursued.
  3. Precisely which crimes should be considered "War Crimes".
  4. What - rightly or wrongly - the implications of the emerging culture are going to be.

I have sympathy with some of what Colonel Collins is saying. It seems to me that the mechanisms may well be deficient. Two years is a hell of a long time for the wheels to turn to completion. I also wonder whether what the British servicemen in question are alleged to have done should really come under the category of war crimes. Certainly that's an open question that bears consideration.

On the other hand, we have one key fact to play with - a man is dead. He died in British custody. This is something that deserves - no, demands - investigation and action (and is of a different order of magnitude altogether to what Colonel Collins was accused of) to be taken according to what that investigation discovers. Colonel Collins seems to assert that the Army should be largely permitted to police its own behaviour and can be trusted to do so. History indicates that this is simply not good enough. The overwhelming majority of British squaddies and officers, like their Americans counterparts, are honourable people who try to play by the rules. None of this alters, however, the fact that the Army is a relatively closed institution with institutional interests and that closed institutions do not have an enviable record in the matter of being prepared to expose those among their number who cross the line (though internally administered honour codes and rough justice may be another matter).

In broad terms, the performance of the British Army in the post-war period (and before) is largely - overwhelmingly, even - admirable, in both absolute and relative terms. Enough unpleasantness has taken place, however (in Palestine, Kenya, Ulster and other places), for it to be clear that some form of outside scutiny and oversight is necessary. Quite what form that should take, however, is entirely open to debate.


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