Sunday, 17 November 2013

Rules of Engagement - open letter to Colonel Tim Collins

Dear Colonel Collins,

I am writing to you in response to your commentary in the Daily Mail on Armistice Day. Before I do so, I would like to emphasise that I have the highest regard for you - for you as a man, and for what you stand for. This is about a difference in opinion. I would also like to point out that I am fully aware that I owe it to men like you than I can have a blog and express my opinion freely - without fear of repercussions. I am making use of this right for which so many lives have been sacrificed.

A lot has been said and written this week about "Marine A" - too much, one might say. You are very critical of the "PC brigade, to whom the very existence of the British Army seems to be an affront". And you ask for mitigating circumstances to be taken into consideration. Though I think I agree with your conclusion, I would like to point out a few dangers in your line of argument.

Firstly, though I am a civilian, I am by no means "blissfully ignorant of the horrendous realities of combat". Strangely enough, when I first heard of the case of Marine A (and the others), my immediate thoughts were: 'Of course, it is impossible for me to fully grasp what these men have gone through.' And, naturally, I was happy to accept a whole range of possible excuses. Little was I prepared for what happened next.

I have spent the last three years talking to men (and a few women) who are in their process of leaving the Armed Forces, and to an increasing number of veterans. Some of them have become very dear friends. Naturally, the topic came up in conversation. One said "I think, we need to talk!". One or two nearly jumped at me - a figure of speech. They were very angry with me at the suggestion that Marine A shouldn't face the full consequences of his actions.

These friends have all been in command during combat - or in conflict. They have seen action in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan and some of the places in Africa which seem to have been all but forgotten. No, I don't know the details of what they encountered. But they explained to me in no uncertain terms that never, under no circumstances, must a soldier threaten or kill an adversary who no longer poses a danger. There are no exceptions.

Marine A knew that he was in the wrong - he rejected the idea of first aid; he made sure no senior officer was around; he dragged the prisoner out of sight; and he gave orders to remain quiet. This was not a spontaneous action - like not having heard the call for cease fire. This was a deliberate action. Some of those friends of mine went as far as to say that the men who were with Marine A would have had a duty to stop him.

It is me, the civilian, who didn't understand this at first. But Marine A is a senior NCO in an elite unit - he failed his profession. He failed all those who were in similar situations and who did the right thing. I have read your speech. (I have also read your book.) Those friends of mine can quote from your speech even today!

It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly. I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts. I can assure you they live with the mark of Cain upon them.

We will never know how many will have felt the temptation to pull the trigger. And who is to blame them - after they have scraped body parts off the streets in Northern Ireland; after they've seen comrades mutilated by IEDs. But they withstood. I know of no soldier who enjoys the act of killing. Occasionally - and within the narrow constraints of the rules of engagement - it is a necessity. Like all the others, Marine A will have had those ruled read out to him time and time again. He will even have reminded others of those rules. There can be no exception.

Our soldiers (airmen, sailors, and the women, of course!) don't deserve our respect because they go out and shoot people. Not even because they get shot at - that is an occupational hazard (as they tell me). And, yes, of course we owe them the best of equipment, training and support! But they well and truly deserve our respect because, despite all of this, they uphold the principles of civilisation! We cannot allow them to become like the forces they are fighting.

Yes, there might be mitigating circumstances; maybe Marine A will be released early on parole. I wish this had never been dragged into the media the way it has. I know that the Marines are looking after him and his family - who are badly affected by the incident, made even worse by all the media attention.

No, maybe we cannot always trust our judges to make the right decisions. Then there are appeal processes. Those are the systems in place in this country. People make mistakes - that is only human. But they have to own up - especially when the mistake has cost a life. I am worried to read your casual statement - regarding the accusation you had to face yourself - that "yes, he did suffer a small cut to his head" (though "no one died"). This seems to imply that you did, indeed, cross the boundary. Whether or not this interpretation is intended, it has no bearing on the current case. Every suspected breech of the rules needs to be investigated. I read your book; what you had to go through all those years ago must have been a terrible experience. But this is not about setting an example - this is about taking those rules seriously, rules which, in many cases, distinguish us from our opponents.

I am painfully aware that I can lead a relatively ignorant life thanks to men like you. You go out, you see and do horrible things, so that I can live in peace. I also understand enough to know that the atrocities you are confronted with will often leave a mark. We need processes in place to intervene before this leads to a breech of the rules of engagement. Those rules have not been written by civilians. Yes, they might be the result of the work of desk jockeys. But they are your rules. Those friends of mine who I hold dearly and respect would not hesitate to defend those rules. Not just because they are rules. But because they believe in them.

One of them used to say "as long as there's life, there is hope" - when I tried to make a case for "a fate worse than death". But it is he who knows what he's talking about - what ending a life is all about; while for me it is an intellectual exercise. He did what was necessary, and I think he is still paying the price, without complaints. He has just said to me: "What would have happened had Marine A instead done everything in his power to try and save that man's life - captured on camera? Imagine the message that would have sent out." We will never know the answer.

Instead, we are now going down a very dangerous path. A court in America has ruled that a soldier has become a threat to society because of his service in Iraq. This soldier had asked for help and wasn't listened to. Our soldiers are no threat! By far the majority come back and reintegrate into civilian society. In fact, they are among the most peaceful people I know because they are trained in restraint as much as in fighting. And they understand the value of life. At the moment, the public debate seems to indicate that because we send soldiers into combat, we need to be prepared for fallout. (There's less agreement whether this would be in the form of PTSD or anti-social behaviour.) I would have happily signed up to that not so long ago. But now my friends would turn round and rightly ask "have you learned nothing from us?"

Let us leave it to the court now and the due processes. Let us focus on ensuring that our soldiers are adequately equipped, and that those who cannot cope with what they have to deal with get the right help and get it quickly. I pray that whichever soldier finds him- or herself next in a similar situation will make the right decision.

And I hope that we can engage with each other in a way that is rational, and that shows respect and compassion. Let's not think of our servicemen and women as either villains or heroes. Because that's not how they think of themselves. They do a job; and they do it well - often under difficult circumstances. When they come back, let's accept them for what they are. We are all part of the same society, and we can learn from each other. Men like you have an important role to play if the Covenant is to become reality. The public debate should not be about Marine A - this is about all our (present and past) servicemen and women.

Very sincerely yours

1 comment:

  1. A thought provoking reflection on a difficult topic, many thanks, Chris