I never thought I’d have the opportunity to agree with a Left-wing Labour backbencher, especially on a matter related to the conflict in Iraq. But I do.
Recently, the British government re-affirmed life sentences for soldiers who desert or shirk their duties in Iraq. John McDonnell, a rebel Labour MP, called the law “inhuman and barbaric.” McDonnell is right in his assessment.
On May 22, Parliament voted 442-19 in favor of keeping the penalty for refusing to serve at life imprisonment. Welsh Labour MP Chris Bryant said that shortening the penalty would “undermine many of our operations,” as well as “bring ethical chaos” to the British armed forces.
Bryant is not wrong in his assessment, that those who try to dodge their duties in Iraq will bring about chaos in the armed forces. Still, does that mean we lock a solider up for life for conscientious objection?
Left-wingers in Parliament, including John McDonnell, tried to get the punishment down to two years. I think it should be five, maybe even ten, years. Still, I am with McDonnell when he describes the imprisonment-for-life penalty for desertion as inhuman and barbaric.
Some kind of penalty is necessary. After all, when you join the military, you should never assume that your service would be strictly limited to peacetime operations. You should always anticipate the possibility of being sent to conflict. The government makes the decision for war, regardless of whether the soldiers agree with the decision, and it is their job to serve wherever they are sent. Essentially, you give up your civilian right to objection and protest the moment you join the armed forces.
The precedent for conscientious objection in the British military was set by Malcolm Kendall-Smith, a lieutenant who told his commanding officer that he refused to serve a second stint of duty in Iraq. He is the first British officer to face charges for questioning the legality of war.
I have no love for Kendall-Smith. He has compared the occupation to Nazi war crimes. He claims he was happy to serve in Iraq in 2003 until he learned more about the “illegality” of the war. Kendall-Smith was court-martialed and sentenced to eight months imprisonment. Under the law passed by Parliament, however, Kendall-Smith’s punishment could be extended to life behind bars.
Many see this as a crackdown by the British government on anti-war sentiment. As if the life penalty wasn’t enough, police forces recently cracked down on perennial protestor Brian Haw. Haw, a peace activist in his 50s, has camped down on Parliament Square in Westminster since 2002, when he opposed the Afghanistan effort. As a result of the raid, Haw has vowed to launch a hunger strike.
Personally, I think Haw is a silly ass who should seriously consider the possibilities of having a bath and getting a job. He is a glorified panhandler. Nevertheless, the Metropolitan police forces snatched what was essentially Haw’s personal property. That cannot be right. Also, during the four years he has camped down in Parliament Square, he has never threatened ministers or anyone else. Haw may have his head up his ass, but he has lived up to his peace-loving philosophy and Christian beliefs.
I feel uneasy at the thought that a gentleman like Haw should suffer for his beliefs or that a soldier should spend the rest of his life behind bars for objecting. Again, a solider should expect a suitably lengthy jail term for deserting and helping to foster resentment and demoralization in the ranks. But life?
Britain doesn’t hand out life sentences for rapists and murderers. Its Home Office has let thousands of criminals onto the street again to re-offend. And they still won’t get life — or in the case of foreign criminals, deportation. And yet, we will lock a solider away for life because he was feeling frightened or seriously believed the conflict he was being sent to was wrong?
We should question what this says about a free society.Powered by Sidelines