Monday, 7 January 2013

Soldiers to secure peace? Time to learn a lesson

‘From the nature of things, soldiers quartered in a populous town, will always occasion two mobs, where they prevent one. They are wretched conservators of the peace.’

Interesting observation. Soldiers may not be the best people to help make or keep the peace. Curious, actually, that we even need to be told that: after all, we train our soldiers to be as good as we can get them at waging war. So why should they be all that good at quelling disturbances? Their specialty is creating the biggest disturbances of all.

It’s not just mobs, of course, but the equation applies in other areas. Take ‘Improvised Explosive Devices’ (don’t they sound much less unpleasant than roadside bombs?): for every one an occupying army defuses, it usually provokes the planting of two more.

The Western Nations bringing peace to trouble communities

That would be a lesson we could do with learning, as we blunder around Iraq or Afghanistan or, who knows, perhaps Syria next. Britain and America, in particular, would do well to take heed, since they seem among the most inclined to wander in first and worry about how their military will be received afterwards.

To keep the lid on civilian trouble you need the police (and to be honest they’re not always as good at it as we might like), not the army.

It may amuse you to know that the words I quoted were spoken by a lawyer who was defending a group of soldiers who had fired into a disorderly crowd – in his terms, a mob – and killed five of them. The victims were the lawyer’s countrymen; the soldiers were part of a foreign occupying force.

You’ve got to admit it was a brief that took courage to accept.

And to general amazement, in front of a jury also made up of his countrymen, he got all the soldiers cleared of murder (two were found guilty of manslaughter and received relatively minor sentences). Lawyer and jury showed a commendable, not to say exceptional, preference for the rule of law and natural justice over their political inclinations.

A great story though, sadly, not a very recent one. The civilian deaths occurred in 1770, in what came to be known as the Boston Massacre. The soldiers were British. The lawyer for the defence was John Adams, later second president of the (independent) United States.

The British and the Americans. Them again. Sad, isn’t it? The British clearly never learned the lesson Adams tried to teach them. And though he had obviously got his mind around the idea, Adams’ countrymen seem to have forgotten it.

The consequences are tragic for the servicemen and women we send out to wage our wars. They’re even more tragic for the civilian populations on which we descend.

And yet we were warned nearly two and a half centuries ago...

The young John Adams. He knew a thing or two...

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