The Daily Telegraph’s Con Coughlin writes today about the terrible incident in Afghanistan where a US soldier went on the rampage in an Afghan village, killing sixteen civilians, including a number of children.
I read the piece with interest, but the author makes a couple of throwaway comments that I found quite disrespectful. At one point Coughlin writes:
“We all know that soldiers, without the proper training and discipline, can easily degenerate into a murderous rabble that terrorises the local population. We have seen this happen hundreds of times in Africa where armies are no different from the militias who rape, murder and loot at will.”
This is unnecessarily harsh language to use with respect to the armed forces. Are there countless cases where this has happened in various conflicts around the world, yes. But to suggest that the only thing separating the British or American armies from being a ruthless militia with no morals is essentially a PowerPoint presentation on coping under stress is rather glib. He then follows this up with the following:
“After six British soldiers were murdered last week in southern Afghanistan when they were blown up by one of the Taliban’s roadside bombs, it is easy to imagine the murderous thoughts of revenge their fellow soldiers are today feeling towards the Taliban. But the reason they don’t pick up their guns and walk into the neighbouring village and massacre every Afghan they can find is the strict training they receive before they are deployed.”
Excuse me? I’m sure that the fellow soldiers mentioned here are full of many feelings of sadness and anger following the deaths of their colleagues, but I would submit to Con Coughlin that as well as the fact that they received strict training before they were deployed, another reason that they don’t “pick up their guns and walk into the neighbouring village and massacre every Afghan they can find” is because they are decent human beings with the intelligence to understand not only that the general civilian population was not responsible for the deaths of their comrades, but that to do so would make them no better than the forces that they are fighting. To say otherwise, and to suggest that there is little to separate the vast majority of soldiers who are decent and brave individuals from the deranged Staff Sergeant who perpetrated this massacre is not only wrong, but frankly offensive too.
I also don’t think I am imagining things when I detect undertones of class-based superiority from the author, that maybe he views the British soldiers as slightly dim and uneducated, less capable of reason than the average, middle-class Telegraph reader, and therefore in need of this strict training to ensure that their baser, more violent instincts do not come to the fore under stressful circumstances.
It amazes me to observe the difference in tone in terms of how the armed forces are talked about in Britain compared to the United States. Such an article would never have been written by a commentator in the United States, where even President Obama’s apology to the Afghan people for the accidental burning of the Koran by US forces was met with strong criticism, so above reproach is the US military to some on the right.
Honestly, I don’t believe that either country has it quite right. In the United States, I admire how serving soldiers and veterans are acknowledged and given respect in public places such as airports (where they are allowed to stay in USO club lounges while they wait to board their flights) and sports games, where they are frequently applauded before the game. However, sometimes I feel that the almost-worship of the armed forces goes too far, with all returning soldiers being labelled “heroes” whether or not they have seen active combat.
In Britain, on the other hand, I don’t think that we do nearly enough to acknowledge the contribution that our military servicemen and women make for our country, projecting our nation’s force to implement our foreign policy objectives. Hence we see serving soliders being refused permission to stay at an hotel because of an unbelievable “no military” policy, and London’s most sacred war memorial being desecrated by the spoiled, self-entitled son of a rock musician.
But while both of our countries may have some way to go in terms of striking the correct balance in terms of how we view, treat and discuss these topics, I would hope we can all agree that there is a lot more preventing the good men and women of our nations armed forces from becoming mass murdering militias than the training that they receive, important though that may be.