Illustration: Andrew Dyson- The Age
I've refrained from commenting on the current controversy about the three Commandos charged for their actions in Afghanistan for two reasons.
One is that every second blogger has already done so; the other is that I'm not sure I have anything to contribute.
Having said that, the issue nags away, and I feel very uncomfortable about the whole notion of serving soldiers being treated in this way.
My memories of service as a rifleman are also a factor. The army must be a very different organisation these days from what it was back in 69-70. The notion that soldiers could be charged with manslaughter after an incident in which they were under fire would have seemed fantasy back then. This incident was not, I understand, a situation anything like, for example, My Lai, where without question action against the individuals involved was justified.
Personal recollection of being under fire is that the last things on your mind are the legal niceties. A whole bundle of more basic emotions kick in. Funnily enough, the relevance of the identity of the person doing the shooting tends to fade - I remember being so angry that someone out there was trying to kill me, that all I wanted to do was fire back. At the time, it didn't matter to me that the people doing the firing were "friendlies". Little lumps of 7.62mm diameter lead coming at you at supersonic speeds don't sound friendly.
We didn't fire back, of course, because we couldn't identify targets, and rules of engagement demanded we were sure of our targets - very fortunately as it turned out.
My point is that individual actions in situations such as these have to be viewed through a prism much wider than the narrow legalistic one apparently applied here.
Which leads me to some questions - hopefully someone out there can answer them.
Why were reservists involved in such an operation? Were they trained sufficiently? How well were they briefed? Did they fully understand the rules of engagement? How reliable were the communications used? What were their orders? At what level were these orders given, and how specific were they? What options did they have?
And in terms of how the incident has been dealt with -
Why has it taken so long for charges to be laid? Who made the decision to proceed? Did the person/persons making this decision have experience of combat as well as knowledge of the law? Are the rumours that the charges were laid to prevent the ICC from taking action true, or a media beat-up?
And so on…..
Until these questions (and many others) are answered, the whole question remains deeply troubling, and must be doing incalculable damage to the individuals involved in particular and morale in general.
And no matter what the Court Martial outcome, nothing will bring those kids back. This is something the soldiers involved will have to live with for the rest of their lives.