There is an interesting article on the BBC News website’s Magazine series discussing whether it is acceptable to criticise soldiers. This comes after an Islamist Group planned to protest in Wootton Bassett, and a group of Islamic extremists were convicted of offending public morals after protesting at the homecoming of the Royal Anglian Regiment from Afghanistan.
Many people question the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. This debate falls on a number of levels: whether and when it is acceptable to intervene in another state, what the motivations for that might be, and whether those motivations are justified. Clearly in hindsight the justifications for the war in Iraq – at least those that were advanced publicly – proved to be false. Iraq is probably the most divisive issue in civil-military relations in recent years. The war in Afghanistan is more clear, although still controversial.
The armed forces are the servants of the Government, who in turn are elected by us, the general public. The armed forces are given their orders by the Government of the day, and then down their chain of command. Clearly it would be very dangerous indeed for servicemen to take lightly the refusing orders that they disagree with: this would undermine authority and command. But the Nuremberg war trials established the precedent that ‘I was only following orders’ is not sufficient defence against allegations of wrongdoing. But, by and large, the major decisions about going to war are taken by the Government. If anyone deserves criticism for going to war, it is the Politicians. And the Iraq war has eroded public confidence in the ability of the Government to use our armed forces properly.
The public is – quite rightly – reluctant to criticise servicemen. In particular, people are hopefully wise to the fact that a Private on the ground in Afghanistan is not to blame for the UK being at war and has no leverage over higher strategy. You do not have to agree with the war to wish our troops well and hope that they come home safely. But there are some cases where I believe criticism is justified – in the cases of strategy, for example. This has historical parallels. For many years it was taboo to criticise a senior General, no matter how incompetent they may have been. But if there is overwhelming evidence that something or somebody was wrong, surely it is only right to make that case, for the sake of learning lessons? It is very damaging for a democratic society to have subjects that are off-limits to discussion and debate.
But there is a big difference between arguments made on sound principles, with reasoning and supported by evidence. And there is nothing sound or reasonable about any of the Islamic extremist groups that we have seen recently. To call British soldiers ‘babykillers’, or ‘rapists’ without a shred of evidence is wrong in the extreme. And talking about ‘our lands’ while also calling for Sharia law in the UK is not protest, it is grossly provocative and dangerous. There are broader themes here, in that religion – any religion – is not evidence, it is only opinion. It is a very personal thing, and in that sense should not be imposed on anyone else. If you are aware that your opinion may offend the vast majority of people, and that there is no basis for it, you are entitled to it – but keep it to yourself.
Proection for soldiers should not trump freedom of speech, but at the same time ill-founded and dishonest opinions should not be allowed to masquerade as well-reasoned criticism and debate.