John Hughes-Wilson: Shoot first, replay the tape later

Share
Related Topics

The German machine gunner blasted away at the Australians. The advancing infantry fell down before the murderous fire until finally the survivors hurled themselves against the sandbags. The machine gunner finally raised his hands in surrender: "Kamerad!"

The German machine gunner blasted away at the Australians. The advancing infantry fell down before the murderous fire until finally the survivors hurled themselves against the sandbags. The machine gunner finally raised his hands in surrender: "Kamerad!"

"Too late, chum!" replied the enraged Australian infantryman as he plunged his bayonet into the German's stomach.

The above story - apocryphal or not, it has the ring of truth - has been taught to generations of graduates of the British Army Staff College as an object lesson in three things: first, how difficult it can be to surrender; second, the realities of men in battle; and last, the niceties of the law of armed conflict.

This issue has been brought sharply into focus by the extraordinary camera footage of what appears to be a US Marine shooting a wounded Iraqi. Civilian reaction has been mixed from "disgraceful" to "what do we expect in a war?". Military reaction has generally been one of defensive embarrassment.

The propaganda victory for the enemies of the coalition is theoretically immense.

And yet we have seen nothing new. For centuries men have been casually slaughtering each other on a thousand battlefields. What is different here is that for the first time since Vietnam we can see the reality of war via the "embedded" front-line cameras of both commercial news teams and military combat cameramen. The military realises that the presentation of combat is far too important to be left to the media, even though it has no control over what goes on in the editing suite.

The irony is that, by revealing the awfulness of the legalised killing that we call combat, the networks have done us a favour. They have forced us to confront the key problem of battle: at what point does the "fighting" end? It is a very grey area. While all training manuals are agreed that an attack takes in several phases, "fighting through the objective" is by far the least well-defined, even by the US Infantry's Field Manual 7-8. For this is the endgame of battle, the brutal teamwork by small groups of soldiers trying to kill their enemies at close quarters without getting killed themselves, a bloody mayhem of screams, smoke, explosions, terrifying noise and, above all, bowel-watering fear. A moment's indecision can spell mutilation or death.

And when the objective has been taken, it must be "consolidated". Who knows when a wounded man may rise up and fire into the backs of the advancing troops? Who knows when a wounded man may roll over to reveal a lethal grenade and kill his rescuers? FM 7-8 is clear: "Treatment of casualties normally begins at the conclusion of the engagement..." But who decides when the fighting is "concluded"?

We have already entered the lawyers' pedantic clutches in the issuing of little yellow cards to soldiers setting out their "rules of engagement" on what a soldier may or may not legally do. However, such bureaucratic niceties have little place in the mind of a frightened young man clearing a house full of suicidal Islamic fighters, dangerous as snakes in a pit. Battle is legalised killing. In such circumstances the rule is "Shoot first and ask questions later" - and always has been.

Embedded cameras have allowed us a peek into this brutal world. Our liberal civilian instinct is to reach for the courts. Ironically, that is the correct decision in this case: not to protect the fighters of Fallujah, but to protect the hapless soldiers fighting in our name in an unpopular war.

For the key question in that soldier's mind must be clarified once and for all in law. Was he an enraged Marine out of control and taking revenge for the slaughter of his comrades by "ragheads"? Or was he in genuine fear of a suicidal grenadier and protecting himself and his comrades?

Only a court martial can rule in a test case. The civilian legal apparatus should then confirm that ruling under the Hague Conventions and national laws. Then, finally, our soldiers will be sure that they are protected by the law and "obeying the rules" in the butchery and mayhem of "clearing the objective". But of one thing today's soldiers can be certain: there will never be human rights lawyers or health and safety executives in the front line. It's far too dangerous.

John Hughes-Wilson is an author and broadcaster. He served as an infantry officer in the Sherwood Foresters before transferring to the Intelligence Corps. His latest book is 'Puppet Masters: the Secret History of Intelligence'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Exhibition Content Developer

£19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in South Kensington, this prestigi...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established managed services IT...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Advisor is r...

Recruitment Genius: Plant Fitter - Construction Industry

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This well established construction equipment d...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bahrainis on an anti-government protest in May  

Hussain Jawad's detainment and torture highlights Britain's shameless stance on Bahraini rights

Emanuel Stoakes
August 1923: Immigrants in a dining hall on Ellis Island, New York.  

This election demonises the weakest

Stefano Hatfield
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003