Making war a war crime

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on the strange case of Colonel Tim Collins.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics World

The notion of a British army colonel being accused of war crimes once seemed as unlikely as the UK scoring nil points in the Eurovision Song Contest. The strange case of Colonel Tim Collins confirms that, victory in Iraq notwithstanding, our disoriented military no longer seems certain in which direction it should be marching.

Those up in arms because Colonel Collins has been accused of war crimes for allegedly mistreating Iraqi detainees might recall the warning issued early in the war: ‘People who mistreat prisoners will be treated as war criminals.’ These were the words of President Bush, after American prisoners of war were shown on Iraqi television.

If our leaders have so debased the language of atrocity that televising interviews with PoWs constitutes a war crime, they should not be surprised when others claim that pistol whipping and kicking an Iraqi detainee (an allegation Collins strenuously denies) is also a crime against humanity. It might seem ridiculous to investigate Collins for shooting a carpet -another allegation -but it is the Western authorities who have shot themselves in the foot.

In the past ‘war crime’ was generally understood to mean the horrors of the Holocaust. More recently, however, American and British authorities have expanded the definition of war crimes, to help legitimise interventions from Kosovo to East Timor. What were once considered acts of war can now be deemed crimes against humanity. As Kirsten Sellars documents in The Rise and Rise of Human Rights, war crimes tribunals have been deployed as political weapons -or as America’s former war crimes supremo said of the new International Criminal Court, as ‘the shiny new hammer’ in ‘the civilised world’s box of foreign policy tools’. It is inevitable that this promiscuous use of war crime allegations should raise questions about the behaviour of Western governments and soldiers (even though there is little chance of them being hauled before the ICC).

The Collins debacle focuses attention on wider doubts about the military’s mission today. The US reservist who reported him has been attacked as ‘a social worker in uniform’. Yet, arguably, all soldiers are now trained for that role. Recent British army recruitment campaigns focused on saving children rather than winning wars. Even the allegedly gung-ho American military has added ‘consideration of others’ to its ‘bedrock values’ of duty, honour and country. The problems start when you are asked to show consideration for others at the same time as occupying their country.

Colonel Collins’s famous speech revealed the tensions inherent in making war under the banner of human rights. He effectively told his troops their job was both to respect Iraqis and to kill them, while warning that ‘you will be shunned unless your conduct is the highest’. Now he has found, like Tony ‘whiter than white’ Blair, that the sword of righteousness can be double edged.

Behind this case lies a deep uncertainty about how armies should behave in these feminised times. Collins’s Royal Irish Regiment is also under investigation by the Ministry of Defence over its ‘military environment’ and alleged ‘culture of bullying’. Recent reports have talked about banning the word ‘punishment’ as ‘no longer appropriate’, and suggested that terms such as ‘manning’ and ‘our boys’ reveal an unhealthily macho culture.

The aim of reforms such as these, as articulated by new Labour ministers, is to make the Armed Forces better reflect the values of the society they serve. Yet to fight effectively, an army has always had to be separated from those civilised norms and values, so that soldiers might be taught to kill without any qualms.

Those who would treat members of the Armed Forces like the staff of Islington Council are storing up problems. Even those of us who did not support the war in Iraq should be concerned about the can of worms opened by the Collins case. It reveals a society uncertain of what it stands for, and uncomfortable with fighting all-out for anything much. Ours is a society where soldiers will sue the Government for sending them into a war zone, while the Government will investigate soldiers accused of being unpleasant to the enemy.

Colonel Collins’s defenders insist that he should be treated as a war hero. In reality, Collins is more a hero of the modern propaganda war, promoted by the media not for daring deeds but for stirring words. In the event, like the rest of the coalition forces, his regiment did little serious fighting in Iraq. Yet he is now embroiled in a bitter conflict with his American allies and senior officers, over shooting a carpet and kicking a Baathist’s backside. It makes you wonder what kind of a mess they might all have got into if they had come across an enemy that actually wanted to fight.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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