As we've been commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, many people have lamented those grand days when the nation pulled together behind God and the King.
In those noble times, a recruiting officer would arrive at a school and say "Remember, God is with us in this, our hour of need. And right now God is particularly keen that a 300-yard stretch of mud in Belgium should be under British control. So he'll look very kindly on all those who nip out there to get blown up."
But, with perfect timing, there's now a chance to honour a modern war hero, Flight-Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith, who refused to fight in Iraq on the grounds that he was convinced the war is illegal. And, under the principles established during the trials of Nazis at Nuremberg, "I was only following orders" isn't much of a defence.
Kendall-Smith's reward for obstinately refusing to break the law was to get three months in jail, which is a novel twist to the way the law's supposed to work. It's like the Government is being run by extreme anarchists, whose motto is "People who obey the law need locking up. It's the only language they understand."
The military establishment who jailed him claim he betrayed the duty that was part of his job. But your duty in any job can't extend to doing things that you're sure are illegal. What if you got a new job and were given a letter that said, "Congratulations on your appointment as clerical officer, where your duties will include filing, responding to customer applications, and walloping old-age pensioners for £3.50 and their fish and chips."
Last week Kendall-Smith was released from jail, but with two wonderful clauses. To start with, he's subject to a 6.30pm curfew. That must be in case he does his crime again at night. Let him stay out and he might spend every evening not going to other wars. Next thing he'll not go to Afghanistan, not go to the Congo, not go to the Battle of Hastings - he'd be a bloody menace. Or maybe they're just concerned that without this stipulation he'd miss an episode of Hollyoaks.
Or - the curfew has come about because the department that dispenses military punishments has got mixed up with the people who give out Asbos. And there's some other poor sod going, "That seems unfair, I set fire to the rubbish on my estate and I've been sentenced to a firing squad."
But the other condition is more imaginative: he mustn't speak to any section of the media, otherwise he'll be shoved straight back in jail. That's not a misprint, that's what they've done for real. Perhaps they're concerned he'll try and make money out of his sentence by using his position as a minor name in the news to go on Celebrity Fat Club.
More likely, they're so paranoid that they've brought in this rule to stop his case getting any publicity. Preventing someone from explaining why they refuse to take part in killing Iraqis must be essential to providing democracy and security to the people of Iraq.
But some good could come of this. Because Kendall-Smith could do what Sinn Fein used to do, and get someone to voice his words for him. Not only would he get his point across, but it would provide work for the poor bloke who used to do Gerry Adams, who probably hasn't had a part since the ceasefire.
And there's more. The Government is now proposing new legislation which states that any soldier who refuses to take part in a "military occupation of a foreign country or territory" can be jailed for life. They're really going for it aren't they? Next they'll make the Army bring in the schemes companies use for salesmen. They'll have "occupation drives", with prizes for the regiment that occupies most places, and articles in the British Army magazine that begin "Congratulations to Sergeant Wilcox who is July's Soldier of the Month! In a 28-day period, he occupied no fewer than seven territories, and is seen here receiving a trophy and vouchers for a fitted kitchen!"
All of this runs directly against the Geneva Convention and the Nuremberg Charter, of course, but - just like all those other weedy documents knocked up by big fairies in those days - they need replacing, because today's world is far more dangerous than it was when they were written, in the sedate, harmonious serenity of the 1940s.
I mean, imagine if soldiers had always refused to obey their superiors. They'd never have gone to the Somme to capture three miles of Belgium at a cost of more than one million lives - and then where would we be?Reuse content