The first Canadian soldier to have been charged with murder on the battlefield has dodged that bullet, but been found guilty of disgraceful conduct. Why? What did he do?
Is there such a concept as a warrior code which excuses the shooting of a severely injured combatant – enemy or friendly – to put him/her out of misery on the battlefield?
The question has been front and centre in the first ever trial of a Canadian soldier charged with murder on the battlefield for allegedly shooting an injured Taliban fighter in Helmand province two years ago.
Army Captain Robert Semaru was found not guilty of murder, but the military court martial found him guilty of disgraceful conduct. Hmmm.
Various witnesses described the alleged shooting as a “mercy killing” because the Talib was so badly injured he was going to die anyway.
Whoop whoop, pull up. Shoot him because he was going to die anyway?
So much for the pesky old Geneva Convention and international laws on armed conflict relating to injured enemy combatants who legally become prisoners of war, with,whether you like it or not, medical attention and every lifesaving chance possible. They are officially out of the fight. Off the field. It is quaintly called ‘civilization’.
Otherwise how do you tell the good guys from the baddies?
If it is O.K. to just pop a few ‘mercy’ bullets into a prisoner of war, why stop at one prisoner?
But this case gives rise to many more complications than just that.
Apparently it goes to the heart of what has been termed the “warrior code”, which for non warriors is reference to an unspoken, and obviously unwritten acceptance that sometimes these things happen during war. Sometimes it really is mercy killing.
Captain Semaru aside – because he has been acquitted of the murder charge he faced – mercy killing is not part of any sanctioned soldier’s code of conduct.
The case prompted a letter to the Editor of Canada’s ‘National Post’ this week from a World War II veteran who relayed a harrowing tale of having to listen to the agonizing cries of a badly wounded German soldier left in the no-man’s-land between the position of Canadian forces and trenches the Germans had retreated to.
The screaming went on all night but the Canadians could not risk going and getting the guy for fear it was a trap. The letter writer described the night as “soul-destroying”.
He then told of how a Canadian medic crawled out the next morning only to return without a patient, declaring he couldn’t save him but put him out of his misery.
The ‘moral’ of the story: mercy killings are a fact of war.
That was sixty five years ago – not a long time in the history of humanity or inhumanity for that matter - but there certainly were no helicopter medi-vacs out of the immediate theatre of war.
Troops in contemporary combat are surely better prepared to save the lives of those injured around them, and they are surely better schooled in the rules of war, of which a very key one is that soldiers are not to play God, and there is no defence of mercy killing..
This case was complicated by a number of issues – conflicting stories from witnesses over the alleged shooting and plans for a cover-up, cell phone pictures of a dead or dying Taliban soldier but no actual body because the story that resulted in the charges didn’t come to light till two months or so after the alleged incident. There was no testimony from the accused, but two expended cartridge cases from his rifle were presented, along with evidence from an Afghani interpreter who had seen the alleged shooting. It was also however unclear if the Taliban soldier was even still alive at the time.
While this case may give soldiers a bit of a reality check in the consequences basket, arguably it has also rather perversely sent a message that perhaps mercy killing is a reality of war, and as such it is not really murder, or not something you’d lose your freedom over.
You see the problem is that Captain Semaru has been found guilty of disgraceful conduct, which begs the question of what exactly did he do that was so disgraceful?
He was not found guilty of murder. There was no evidence presented of any other sort of misdemeanor on the battlefield that day, although some witnesses as previously mentioned talked of a cover-up plan. The military jury obviously did not find that compelling.
This has left some commentators – with good reason – to deduce that the jury had to come up with something, having decided that to send an otherwise exemplary young Canadian soldier to prison for ten years or more if found guilty of murder would be too much. The penalty was out of whack with the alleged crime, but they couldn’t leave it there.
And so disgraceful conduct was a default position.
And the court martial itself? Well it was perhaps an issue of transparency given cover-ups that went on after a Somali teenage prisoner was tortured to death by Canadian forces in 1993. There is no way top brass wanted a repeat of that – it led to a full-scale government inquiry.
This court martial also hit the headlines just after two of Canada’s top military have been recalled from their respective posts in Afghanistan and Haiti for allegedly breaking the rules concerning intimate relationships while serving abroad.
If that was what Semaru had been up to, perhaps that would be more fitting for a charge of disgraceful conduct?