Pardoning WW1 soldiers, and military attitudes

News yesterday that 300 soldiers executed during WW1 are to be pardoned. These are people who were shot for cowardice / desertion. A relative of one of those shot said:

We were determined for my mother’ sake because she always said he was no coward, he was a very brave soldier and he fought for his country and he died fighting for his country.

Apparently you should only be pardoned if you weren’t really a coward. The government last looked into this in 1998, but made no decision on blanket pardons:

The reason given was because it said it could not “distinguish between those who deliberately let down their country and their comrades and those who were not guilty of desertion of cowardice”, he said.

Clearly if you ‘let down’ the random patch of land you happen to be born in you deserved to die, rather than just be kicked out of the army.

This time the Defence Secretary said:

I believe it is better to acknowledge that injustices were clearly done in some cases, even if we cannot say which, and to acknowledge that all these men were victims of war

In some cases? People refused to put themselves in a position where they would likely die as nothing more than cannon fodder, so they shot them! How could there possibly be any justice in that?

I hate the word ‘coward’. It’s entirely reasonable not to want to put yourself in harm’s way (not to mention not wanting to kill other people). If you do – fine, you’re either very brave or unaware of the reality of warfare. But there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to do that. I couldn’t be a policeman because the idea of dealing with violent criminals scares the hell out of me. Other people are far better suited to the task. Am I a coward? Why does it make a difference if ‘my country’ is involved?

Can’t we just agree that this was an abhorrent thing to do? Or does that suggest military leaders can be flawed? The Defence Secretary said:

I don’t want to be in a position of second guessing the commanders in the field who were making decisions

Why not? They thought it was ok to kill people who were no threat to them! You can acknowledge that it was a different time and a highly stressful situation, but it’s still reasonable to take the moral high ground.

Even today you can get prison time for refusing to follow orders. Prison time! You should likely lose your job, but prison? Maybe that’s reasonable if your actions directly put other people in danger in a combat situation, but just for refusing to go to Iraq? How can that be reasonable? Something’s messed up. Except you can’t say that, because they’re the military and get special treatment.

We’re all meant to fawn over the armed forces, and it gets in the way of reasonable discussion. For example, from the outside it looks very much like the entire culture of the armed forces is one of bullying and pathetic macho bullshit. Almost all the people from my school who went off to join the army were brainless, violent thugs who thought guns were cool. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that this kind of attitude, coupled with this kind of person, is hardly conducive to producing honourable soldiers. This could well not be the case: it’s possible the people I knew were unrepresentative, or maybe the army training process magically turns them into decent people, or maybe that’s just what’s necessary if you want soldiers willing to put themselves into the path of bullets, but when soldiers commit atrocities in foreign countries even the suggestion that the system churns out anything less than Steve McQueen-figures is met with horror, because ‘they’re incredibly brave and deserve our respect’. They can be both. But even if this is untrue, I want to be able to discuss it without being met with disapproving looks.

Yes, I’m sitting here in my comfortable flat making suggestions about people who routinely put their lives at risk, who defend the way of life I enjoy. What arrogance! How dare I! Of course I don’t deny that soldiers can be entirely decent people, and anybody willing to put themselves in harm’s way is by definition very brave, and has my admiration, but so what? There can still be problems. Being brave doesn’t make you right. As long as you stay polite and reasonable I don’t see why people like me can’t discuss this. The taboo against critical discussion of the military doesn’t help anybody, including the soldiers themselves.