Is criticism of servicemen wrong?

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.

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5 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, debate, Iraq, politics

5 responses to “Is criticism of servicemen wrong?

  1. Jed

    No being critical of service men is not to be discouraged, but you are correct that common sense must be applied. it is right to criticise the ‘general staff’ for not learning lessons quickly enough as Basra fell apart. It is right to criticize, investigate, try and punish any member of the armed forces who has stepped over the lines laid out by Geneva and other conventions.

    But again your right, in that ‘extremists’ desiring to protest in the very spot where young squaddies who are ‘just doing their duty’ come back in flag draped coffins is just stupid, and those calling for such protest deserve to be ridiculed.

    As to the nature of that extremism, all religion is bad in my own personal, atheist opinion, BUT more to the point, the UK does NOT have the U.S. separation of church and state, the UK is a christian state, with a national christian church. So, to those calling for Shari’a law and other such nonsense there is only one answer – you want it ? OK, go find it. I am not suggesting some racist / religionist “send them back where they came from” tirade, after all a British Muslim may well have been born in the UK, from British parents. What I am saying is, it is just not realistic that a state that is “officially” christian will convert to Islam, and go for full on Shari’a law – so if you want to live under such law, pick your preferred country, and find out what it costs to move there, what the entry and immigration criteria are, get up of your arse, stop whining and do something about it. MOVE !

    I feel strongly about this as I have done it. I have spent years and thousands of pounds and emigrated to Canada, not because I “hate” Britain, I retain my citizenship, but because I believe my new country of residence is a better place to bring up kids.

    So, should it be an offense for Muslim extremists to protest, no probably not, however if any UK politicians had any guts or integrity at all, they would stand up in Parliament, like the Aussie PM did, and make the statement – “you want a Muslim state with Shari’a law? Then move; bye bye….”

  2. James Daly

    I agree Jed, when they talk about ‘our lands’ and wanting to turn the UK into an islamic state, they’re showing a certain cowardice by not moving to one of the numerous countries that is already in that category. If I decided I didn’t like living in the UK or that I found it abhorrent, I would move. That goes for anyone, not just Muslims. You shouldn’t accept the benefits of living in a country while you’re plotting its downfall.

    But on the other hand, part of me thinks that security wise it might be better to have these kind of rotten apples here so we can keep an eye on them, rather than getting up to all kinds of mischief in Afghanistan for example.

  3. pompeydoomcrew

    Obviously you know my thoughts on religion so theres no point even going into that.. although i will say that those wanting shari’a law will never get there way because the british majority would never allow it, just for the extreme violations in human rights that come with it before you even mention religious/cultural differences.

    As for the protest i have no problem with people taking to the streets to protest their point (god knows i’ve done it, including an anti Iraq invasion protest), however they need to have a justifiable reason with evidence if necessary, aim it at the people in question (namely the govt.) and finally at a place that makes your point i.e. Downing Street, Trafalger Square etc.. the Wootton Bassett thing however was about nothing other than spreading hate and insiting public uproar, to protest those that have no say other than to follow orders is a pointless exercise. If you feel the need to make your point over the illegality of any war protest the govt. as they are the ones that make the decisions.

  4. Islam4UK and others like that are only there to upset people and try to provoke an anti Muslim backlash. They’re not interested in the average, peaceful, law abiding Muslim, whose life they make harder.

  5. James Daly

    I do feel for the majority of law-abiding Muslims. Islam4UK and their ilk make things very hard for them. I think it requires a two-pronged solution – to remedy the factors that lead disaffected young muslims to extremism. Secondly, I think ultimately the Muslim Community need to do more to deal with the problem, as any measures coming purely from the Government will be seen as repressive and just exacerbate the problem.

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