Mercy Killing in Modern Warfare

Obscured by an endless discharge of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford “updates” or the ongoing hypocrisy on Parliament Hill, the recent audio footage of a British Marine who shot a wounded insurgent in Afghanistan has generated a fierce debate in the United Kingdom.

The alleged “execution” took place in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand Province in September 2011 and was recorded by a helmet-mounted camera. While the video footage has been removed from YouTube and other sources, the audio recording of the event went viral just as Canadians and Britons prepared to commemorate Remembrance Day. The recording reveals a discussion between Marines “A,” “B,” and “C” about how to deal with the wounded individual. After some deliberation, the Marines allegedly dragged the insurgent to a field where Marine “A” shot him in the chest. In the recording, just before a shot is fired, Marine “A” says “there you are. It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.” Following the shot, the marine mentions, “this doesn’t go anywhere. I just broke the Geneva Convention.”

The British Daily Mail called the audio “horrifying” and suggests that all these marines are complicit in the murder of the insurgent. Another British newspaper, The Telegraph, offers a more prudent look at the issue. In his recent article, Boris Johnson calls for a reassessment of the murder charges laid on Marine “A.” Johnson writes ‘Murder?’ people say. This didn’t take place in some suburban living room. This was on a field of battle, and the man who died was an enemy combatant, a jihadi who would almost certainly have rejoiced to blow the whole British patrol to smithereens. Some people will be indignant that lawyers in some courtroom in Wiltshire can hope to adjudicate on the swirling emotions of the men on that mission.”

Some commentators maintain that the marine in question should be sentenced to life imprisonment. It might be easy to pass judgment on a case such as this from the comfort of your own home, far removed from the threats of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), “small arms” fire, and ambushes.

The application of the Geneva Convention, which even Marine A mentioned after firing the shot that allegedly killed the insurgent, is a very curious way of measuring the actions of military personnel fighting in today’s world of asymmetrical warfare. Aside from several amendments, the basic premises of the document governing warfare originate from the Geneva Convention of 1949. That the treatment of Taliban insurgents would fall within the purview of the Convention ignores the fact that the Convention applies to those states or bodies that have ratified the Convention (or at least one of the states). While the United Kingdom operates under the regulations outlined in the Convention, does this suggest that international law governing warfare needs to be revised according to the contours of asymmetrical warfare and the opponents against which the West wages war? Like any historical document the Geneva Convention is a product of the period in which statesmen and diplomats produced it.

This is certainly not the first time a soldier in Afghanistan has been accused of and tried for murder. In 2008, former Canadian infantry officer Robert Semrau headed an OMLT (Operational Mentor and Liaison Team). In August of that year, Captain Semrau’s small team—along with personnel of the ANA (Afghan National Army)—were ambushed by a far superior Taliban force. After a distress call up the chain of command, a NATO helicopter gunship intervened and shot bursts of 30mm rounds—“the length of a beer can and the diameter of a large carrot—which were delivered at a rate of over ten rounds a second.” This intervention destroyed an integral part of the Taliban force. As Semrau and his team arrived to assess the situation, one mortally wounded Taliban, who was “for all intents and purposes, cut in half with a hole…Blood and what was left of his internal organs were splattered on the ground around him. To add to the man’s agony, another round had shattered one of his legs.”

In his book, The Taliban Don’t Wave (2012), Semrau recounts in detail his experience on that tour. He does not, however, dwell too much on what came after the incident. Following assessing the wounded insurgent and after some deliberation, Semrau shot the insurgent twice, which later became dubbed in international media as a “mercy killing.” As a result, Semrau was arrested and charged with second-degree murder—an unprecedented charge in the Canadian Forces. After a year, the military court acquitted Semrau of the murder charges, but found him guilty of disgraceful conduct for shooting an unarmed, severely injured Taliban fighter.

Semrau’s case is almost identical to that of the British Marine in a number of ways. Both cases have generated a great deal of attention in the media. In the UK, the released audio of the incident has provoked discussions about the mental state of coalition forces in Afghanistan, while in Canada Semrau’s case led commentators to see continuity in Canadian attitudes towards prisoners—some have compared Semrau’s case to the so-called Somalia Affair in 1993, when Canadian troops killed a Somali teenager.

Among authorities at the Department of National Defence in Ottawa, Semrau’s case has had considerable consequences on how the Canadian Forces teach military ethics. In a recent article appearing in the Canadian Military Journal, Rémi Landry argues that Canada’s mission in Afghanistan has taught Ottawa that the CF needs to integrate operational contexts into the decision-making environment of military personnel in order to relativize their ethical conduct. Military ethics are—and were historically—developed within the Canadian context, and not that of another foreign service or nation. Personnel of the CF working alongside ANA are told to respect their cultural practices and not to interfere with an “Afghan way of war.” Among other things, this includes consuming narcotics before patrols. Landry raises a number of apt questions: “And what happens if those foreign mores and cultural practices are inconsistent with our own, and are incompatible with the CF Code of Conduct and Canadian ethical principles? What must the soldier do: disobey a legitimate order from a Canadian superior, which has been approved by the Canadian authorities, and refuse to serve in an arbitrary and possibly unethical context?”

The court martial of Marine "A" in the UK will likely foment similar reassessments among British authorities. At the core of the debate lies the realization that the war in Afghanistan represents something unfamiliar to an older generation of CF personnel. As Semrau suggests in his book, CF troops serving in Afghanistan experienced more combat and trauma in a four-month period than many Canadian soldiers had in a 30- or 40-year career.

In the end, these two recent cases highlight the extremely difficult decisions soldiers must make in warfare. Importantly, however, we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming “mercy killing” is a new phenomenon. Surely, access to social media and audio-visual content has brought war closer to non-combatants, but the idea is an old one. The biggest challenge, however, lies in reconciling the theory of rules governing warfare and the application of death in battle.