Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Semrau case: seminal in war serving two mutually exclusive masters

By Richard J. Brennan, Ottawa Bureau, Toronto Star, October 5, 2010
Former Canadian military Captain Robert Semrau was described Tuesday as a “warrior” who wanted nothing more than to serve his country and for Canadians to support their troops.

Semrau was dismissed Tuesday from the army and his rank reduced to second lieutenant for shooting a severely injured Taliban fighter in Afghanistan two years ago in what was described as a mercy killing.
Along with military historian Jack Granatstein, I suggest that this sentence was far too harsh.
While Semrau may be able to re-apply for re-admission to the Canadian Forces (there is some question about that likelihood), he should not be punished for doing what a civilized human being would do to another human being, who faced certain death and who was in excruciating pain. And he is punished because the rules of war do not permit such action. Perhaps it is the rules of war that need amending, especially in this war made much more complex by the accompanying goal of "winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans."
This second goal is hardly included as one of the rules of military conflict.
We are trying to serve two mutually exclusive masters: 1) the rules of war
2) the campaign to win the hearts and minds of those we consider "the enemy"
The closer we come to the former goal, and its achievment, the farther removed we are from the second.
The closer we come to the latter goal and its achievement, the father removed we are from the fomer.
Oscillation, in this case, is nothing more than a mixed message and anyone responsible for  leadership of the forces under their command has to understand the implications of this reality, as s/he does his/her own reasons for volunteering to serve in the first place.
Semrau's case brings this oscillation to the front of the Canadian debate over the "orders" under which our troops must serve.
And, the military mind-set, as revealed by the judge presiding over the court martial, is incapable of reconciling the reality that it is asking our forces to serve those two mutually exclusive masters.
Surely, in the case when the military tradition (adherence to the strict rules of war) is being challenged every day by the encounters and the motives to "win hearts and minds" in the war zone, with those same people who are the enemy, clemency would be the appropriate verdict, if for no other reason than to provide time for the military leadership to bring into focus their oscillating message.
Even a statement that one of these conflicting goals takes precedence over the other would be some help and guidance for the officers in the field. That is the least that we might expect, as citizens supporting both our forces and the mission in which they risk everything.

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