The morality of war

Flight Lt Malcolm Kendall -Smith, a doctor in the Royal Air Force was found guilty by a court martial for refusing to return to Iraq. The doctor’s commitment to the RAF and his bravery cannot be in doubt since he has already served in this futile war twice before deciding after much soul-searching that the war and the conduct of allied personnel in Iraq was illegal and immoral under international law. After arriving at this conclusion he realised he could not serve again and tendered his resignation, refusing to serve in any capacity to further the war while awaiting the acceptance of his resignation.

Instead he was court-martialled and found guilty – he now faces prison and a dishonourable discharge for following the dictates of his morality. While I understand the requirement of any military force to maintain discipline and the chain of command we recruit well educated, intelligent officers so that they can make informed judgements. If orders are illegal then I cannot see how any officer or enlisted personnel can be expected to carry them out unquestioningly. Indeed both UK and US forces have taken personnel to courts martial who committed crimes while serving in Iraq, personnel who often claimed they were merely following instructions from higher sources which therefore meant that they were not legally responsible for their actions. They were rightly prosecuted for this, that feeble defence spurned.

Now the authorities flatly contradict this and seem to expect all orders, however immoral, to be followed without question. The phrase “I was only obeying orders” is one which haunts the memories of humanity and has been used all too often by individuals to avoid personal responsibility for their actions. It would have been simpler for the doctor to keep his head down and just follow these orders but he showed great courage in standing up for his principles. A man who will not stand by his morals is not a man and he is now suffering for this. It is no surprise since neither the armed forces nor the Blair government would approve of the doctor’s moral stance since it calls into judgement their own lack of morality and the dubious legal status of the war (which Blair continues to confuse by refusing to publish the full text of the attorney general’s legal judgement on the war). If he were found not guilty the spotlight would swing even brighter upon Blair’s war crimes, so the doctor is made to suffer doubly to cover these men with no morals and no honour.

All in all the entire fiasco made me think on Shakespeare’s Henry V act IV, before the battle of Agincourt where Henry in disguise walks among his men in the camp to take their measure before the desperate fight that will come. Some old soldiers seem to believe that they will not have to make a final reckoning with God if they fall on the morrow because it matters not if the cause is ill or good – if they are following their king then it is the king who must answer the final judgement for his actions and the actions of the men under him. Not so, points out the disguised Henry, for each must answer for his actions in life and before God in the final judgement. In other words, many centuries ago Shakespeare took the “I was only obeying orders” arguement and demolished it. Senior British officers of the type who sat in judgment are fond of quoting from Henry’s speech before the battle in Henry V “he who sheds his blood with me today will be my brother” and so on; perhaps they need to read more of the Bard then reconsider their actions: Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own. “. A British officer should maintina the chain of command, but they are not automatons or robots and every person must be repsonsible for their own morals. If only our leaders had half the insight and courage of the doctor.

I dare say you love him not so ill, to wish him here
alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s
minds: methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.

That’s more than we know.

Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of

So, if a son that is by his father sent about
merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the
imputation of his wickedness by your rule, should be
imposed upon his father that sent him: or if a
servant, under his master’s command transporting a
sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in
many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the
business of the master the author of the servant’s
damnation: but this is not so: the king is not
bound to answer the particular endings of his
soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of
his servant; for they purpose not their death, when
they purpose their services. Besides, there is no
king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to
the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all
unspotted soldiers: some peradventure have on them
the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder;
some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of
perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that
have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with
pillage and robbery. Now, if these men have
defeated the law and outrun native punishment,
though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to
fly from God: war is his beadle, war is vengeance;
so that here men are punished for before-breach of
the king’s laws in now the king’s quarrel: where
they feared the death, they have borne life away;
and where they would be safe, they perish: then if
they die unprovided, no more is the king guilty of
their damnation than he was before guilty of those
impieties for the which they are now visited. Every
subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s
soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in
the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every
mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death
is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was
blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained:
and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think
that, making God so free an offer, He let him
outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach
others how they should prepare.

‘Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon
his own head, the king is not to answer it.”