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Has It Gone Too Far?

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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.

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  • Clavos


    I agree with you about Mr. Haw. The authorities should have left him alone.

    I partially agree with you about the penalty for a soldier refusing a lawful order to serve in combat. Life in prison is too harsh, but the five to ten years you suggest is too little, IMO.

    The necessity for obeying lawful orders in the military transcends the indivdual soldier and his conscience. Refusing lawful military orders weakens the disciplined cohesiveness of the entire unit, and in battle, can endanger lives further and unnecessarily. Punishing such refusals too lightly sets a dangerous precedent and encourages further refusals.

    Please note I’ve stressed lawful orders, not all orders, so I trust no one will throw Nuremberg at me.

    What constitutes a lawful order in the US military is spelled out in the Universal Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions and is taught to soldiers in their early training; I assume the same is true in the British military.

  • ibemee

    …PS— remember that when most of these guys enlisted, they had NO IDEA they’d be losing their lives and limbs for the repulsive BUSH/CHENEY thugs who use Blair as a willing, creepy little lapdog!

  • ibemee

    This surely cannot be true???? Sounds more like a Karl Rove planted fake-news-story for propaganda against the internet………..???
    We know that the PNAC’s hate and fear the internet for giving us an uncensored view of the news…
    SURELY Britain wouldn’t be so uncivilized and inhuman!! I’d expect as much from the hideaous PNAC’s…. but Britain???

  • Guppusmaximus

    Is that right Bliffle?? Why? Because you believe in what The UN says..

    Anyways, Desertion isn’t the same as disobeying orders.

  • Bliffle

    “Nancy – Remember 9/11?? What the F*ck was that??
    You wouldn’t sacrifice yourself even if you thought we had been attacked.”

    Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

  • So what would all of those saying “soldiers should just obey orders” have said at the Nuremberg trials?

  • Guppusmaximus

    That’s the great thing about this country…If you don’t believe in the war then don’t sign the F*cking Contract!!

    Nancy – Remember 9/11?? What the F*ck was that??
    You wouldn’t sacrifice yourself even if you thought we had been attacked.

  • MCH

    Dittos, Jet!!

  • Absofuckinlootly MCH… except it’s spelled Bushit

  • MCH

    Umm, how about a bullshit war, then…

  • Joey

    Nancy… you may call it a “fake war” but the troops over there in harm’s way… it very real indeed.

  • Nancy

    Unless the US (or Britain) were under direct attack (instead of a phony war for oil & ego aggrandizement, a la Iraq), no soldier should have to serve more than one rotation or at most, two. I completely sympathize with those servicepersons who refuse or resent being sent back for a 3rd, 4th, or 5th tour of duty fighting Bush’s fake war.

    As for Bush’s much-vaunted concern for Iraqi freedoms, Fuck Bush & Fuck the Iraqis. If he’s so goddamned concerned about Iraqi freedoms, he should have become an Iraqi citizen & run for Prez over there. I don’t give a damn about Iraqis or their freedoms, and I suspect most other Americans don’t care anymore, either.

    I will use this Memorial Day to say, Shame on Bush for sacrificing American men & women to a vile, stupid war based on lies, pretensions, his egomania to be a “War Prez” like his poppy, & his mindless willingness to give his billionaire buddies in Big Oil and other ventures whatever their little black hearts demanded for buying him the White House, even at the cost of American Lives. Their blood is on his head & his hands. I hope he & his coterie burn in eternal hell for it. They are traitors to the US, every one of them.

  • Joey

    The United States will take them. Look at the record and tell me otherwise.

  • Britain has stopped even arresting people for most crimes, so this isn’t a surprising development.

    I think the deserters ought to just have their citizenship revoked and their passports taken away. Let them go live in a country that will have them.


  • Guppusmaximus

    Very Informative….

    If Britain doesn’t hand out life sentences for murderers or rapists then that’s irresponsible and an injustice to their citizens. Just like deserting your post and fellow troops during their time of need. Desertion can lead to the death of the people you serve with. That can be viewed as Voluntary Manslaughter. So which is worse? A Murderer or A Deserter? In the US, you can be shot for desertion. Not that they do it but it is legal under the U.C.M.J. Your basic job in the service is a rifleman and if you can’t understand that when you enlist then you shouldn’t sign the contract. I think they should raise the age of enlistment to 21+.