The letter below appeared yesterday in the National Post and was the subject of spirited discussion in the intermediate ethics course for chaplains I’m currently taking here at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa. It offers a balanced and thoughtful attempt to situate the alleged actions of Capt. Semrau in the context of the grey area where ethics meets the battlefield. If you don’t know about Capt. Semrau, read this piece published in Maclean’s Magazine today. As the Maclean’s piece puts it, Semrau “is the first Canadian soldier in the history of combat to be charged with homicide on the battlefield, and his ordeal has triggered a fierce debate—in the ranks and out—about what happens to the law of war when it comes face to face with the reality of war”.
One issue I would take with Thompson’s piece is his claim that in deciding whether to aid the wounded Taliban soldier, Semrau had to weigh “as a foreign expert attached to the Afghan Army, his credibility with these rough men fighting a vicious enemy”. The implication is that if he had sacrificed the mission and tried to call in medevac for the wounded soldier (assuming that was an option), Semrau would have also sacrified his “credibility with these rough men”. As I understand him, Thompson is suggesting that a display of ethics on Semrau’s part would have been seen as weakness. Without wanting to judge the case one way or another, I would ask Thompson, are we not expecting that when we assign Canadian soldiers as mentors to foreign armies, we are asking them not only to teach effective tactics, leadership and soldiering, but we are also asking our soldiers to mentor in ethics and the military virtues of the honourable warrior? We expect these values of our own soldiers, are they not worth teaching to “rough men” of other armies? MP+
John Thompson: Judging Robert Semrau
Posted: May 17, 2010, 8:15 AM by NP Editor
In October 2008, Captain Robert Semrau of the Royal Canadian Regiment was commanding a “mentoring team” of four Canadian soldiers operating with a company of Afghan National Army troops engaged in fighting Taliban insurgents in Helmand Province. Taliban insurgents opened fire on this force and were engaged by a supporting U.S. Apache gunship. The Taliban promptly withdrew, leaving one of their gunmen dead and one severely wounded.
The Afghan Army troops did not treat the wounded Talib, who had one leg shredded off and a foot severed, and may have also been wounded in the torso. Instead they apparently kicked and insulted him and then moved on. This created a dilemma for the Canadians.
The textbook on modern ethical warfare would advise immediately halting the Afghan troops; treating the badly wounded prisoner (who was apparently dying in great pain); calling for a medical evacuation; then, and only then, continuing with the mission. But textbook solutions are one thing; reality on the ground is something else.
The Afghan Army troops obviously showed no interest in the well-being of the badly wounded Talib — the Taliban themselves have shown little respect for any laws of war. The Afghan National Army is poor and short of resources and may not have had a means of evacuating a wounded prisoner in time to possibly save him. Moreover, the sweep for the enemy had to continue.
Captain Semrau had to balance resources, time, the rules, the mission and, as a foreign expert attached to the Afghan Army, his credibility with these rough men fighting a vicious enemy. Evidently, this badly wounded Talib would not have survived long enough to reach effective treatment. So which was the right action: Prolonging the Talib’s pain to no purpose, or ending it?
From what we know so far, Captain Semrau’s decision was to fire two bullets into the wounded Talib and end his suffering.
Strangely, while the central act of war is homicide and there is no end to histories, commentaries and studies of almost every facet of war, the shelves of material are slender when it comes to issues like this. This is something veterans seldom talk about.
That war is homicide is a point that needs no debate. War revolves around killing people, but in a manner that most of us sanction in one way or another.
We have laws, rules, customs and unwritten practices to outline what forms of homicide are acceptable during warfare, yet there is a substantial grey area between some of the absolutes. It is acceptable for a soldier to kill an enemy who is shooting at him. It is unacceptable to execute unarmed prisoners in a safe area in the rear. The grey areas lie between, shading from light to dark according to circumstances and situations. The customs and unwritten practices of combatants remain an ambiguous and largely unexplored territory, although they go far toward defining what is permissible according to men in battle.
One grey area concerns the killing of badly wounded personnel– especially those of the enemy.
As an infantryman in the Rhineland offensive in February 1945, my uncle was involved in such a dilemma with a German fallshirmjaeger. Another veteran once told me of a night in Holland where a badly wounded enemy soldier was alternatively screaming and wailing for his mother in the deadly ground between two fiercely held positions, until a grenade was tossed into his hole by a Canadian medic. Barry Broadfoot’s Six War Years contains an anecdote of a Canadian slitting the throat of a badly wounded soldier in a dark night between the lines in Italy — without checking which uniform he wore.
There are some accounts of regret from soldiers in many armies who killed their own badly wounded or those of the enemy, and regrets from those who did not. The morality of every incident is disputable because the circumstances are always different, but the choices are always the same absolutes. This aspect of warfare is seldom discussed. It happens and veterans reserve their judgments to themselves; some remain untroubled by their choices, some are haunted by them.
Captain Semrau was charged with second degree murder for killing the wounded Talib and has been in a court martial. These charges never should have been laid.
The only people who can properly judge Captain Semrau are his true peers — veterans of combat. The only person who can truly condemn or reprieve him is himself.
John Thompson is president of the Mackenzie Institute. He has studied warfare all of his life, but his own years of military service were entirely peaceful.