Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Following orders

Responding to General Sir Michael Rose’s call for the prime minister to be impeached over the invasion of Iraq, the Guardian’s leader article on 10 January 2006 draws a comparison with the recent threat made by the head of the Spanish armed forces to intervene against moves to grant Catalonia greater autonomy. “The current Spanish example”, the Guardian warns us “is a reminder of the danger that can follow from allowing the military to make its own judgements about the actions of an elected government. If nothing else, Sir Michael’s intervention dramatises the need for further thought about whether military views….should be more publicly aired as part of a democratic process”.

It is true that Sir Michael’s comments raise important issues concerning the respective roles of the armed forces and of government in decisions over military action. However, the comparison with the Spanish General’s intervention is decidedly spurious, and must be dismissed before those issues can be seriously addressed.

In the Spanish case, the national parliament in Madrid is considering a bill drawn up by Catalonia’s elected regional assembly that would grant the region greater autonomy within the Spanish nation state. This week, General José Mena indicated that if the bill were passed, the armed forces under his command could intervene in accordance with their mission to protect the “unity of Spain”.

Plainly it is not for the military to make threats against a nation’s elected government, much less to take action against it. The mission of the Spanish military is not to defend the unity of Spain against the democratically expressed wishes of the Spanish people themselves. It is for the Spanish public to define what constitutes the unified whole of Spain, and such decisions are clearly none of the army’s business.

Contrast this with General Sir Michael Rose’s comments of this week. Sir Michael is a retired military officer who, in his capacity as a private citizen, has called for a legal process of impeachment to be instigated against the prime minister. General Mena, by contrast, is the serving head of Spain’s armed forces threatening military action against his government. Sir Michael states clearly that, whilst the military has “a clear responsibility to point out when [the] political strategies [that it is asked to enact] are flawed or inadequately resourced….in a true democracy [it] must remain subordinate to [its] political masters”. General Mena rejects this subordinate role, drawing a line in the sand and challenging Spanish democracy to cross it. Sir Michael’s comments were legitimate and he was within his rights to make them. General Mena’s intervention was entirely illegitimate and, quite rightly, will probably cost him his job.

So clearly no comparison in respect of implications for the relationship between the government and the military can be drawn between Sir Michael’s views on impeachment and the views of General Mena. What then of Sir Michael’s statement that he would have resigned his position rather than be involved in the invasion of Iraq, had he still been a serving officer at the time? How does this compare with General Mena’s contradiction of his elected government’s wishes? Again, the parallels are non existent.

In refusing to serve in an unjust or illegal war, a serviceman or woman is not raising “the danger that can follow from allowing the military to make its own judgements about the actions of an elected government”, as General Mena’s intervention has done. Rather, it is a reflection of the fact that any serving member of a country’s armed forces is not only permitted but obliged to make both a legal and a moral judgement in respect of their own actions when ordered to go to war. It is to this obligation that we must now turn.

Sir Michael rightly points out that the army must remain subordinate to the elected government; the matter of concern to the Guardian. But what the paper’s leader writers fail to mention is that both the army and the government must remain subordinate to morality and to the law. The army’s subordination to the government does not relieve servicemen and women of their moral agency or their legal responsibility. Each human being is responsible for the predictable consequences of the moral choices they make. Moreover, it is well known that neither international law nor common morality recognise the following of orders as a defence against any moral or legal charge.

Nuremberg principles (which, if they are principles, must be applied universally) clearly state that “the fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his government or of a superior order does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him”. Sir Michael has alluded to the illegality of the Iraq war, saying that “soldiers must be assured that a war is just, legal and the last resort available….[but in the case of Iraq] few, if any, of these requirements were met”. It is entirely possible that Sir Michael is aware of and concerned by the Nuremberg principles’ description of the “waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties”, such as the UN Charter, as a “crime against peace” and that “any person who commits [such a crime] under international law is responsible and therefore liable to punishment”. Indeed, this concern was also felt keenly by the heads of Britain’s armed forces before the invasion of Iraq, who harboured serious doubts over the legality of military action and sought specific assurances from the Government that there was a legal case for war.

By drawing the specious parallel between Sir Michael Rose’s comments and those of General Mena, the Guardian claims that both raise the question of “whether military views….should be more publicly aired as part of a democratic process”. If this is the question that Sir Michael’s views raise then it would be interesting to hear what sort of answer the Guardian’s leader writers would propose. Is their answer that systems of authority should override individual legal and moral responsibilities? If so, then are they comfortable with the historical precedents that they would be aligning themselves with?

In fact, the question of how systems of authority relate to individual legal and moral responsibilities is a question that we are well able to answer, if we merely acknowledge the existence of principles that we have been only too willing to apply to others. But before questioning British servicemen and women on their moral choices we should go beyond the issues considered here thus far and, as citizens of the democracy that commands the armed forces, examine our own legal and moral responsibility for the disaster that is Iraq. Sir Michael Rose’s argument in favour of Blair’s impeachment – to reconnect voters with democracy by demonstrating that it is possible to hold wrongdoers in government to account – is a valid one. But ultimately the reason that we should engage actively with these issues is not some passive faith in the political system so much as an active acknowledgement of our own moral and legal responsibilities as indivisible parts of that system. Indeed, it is only through that acknowledgement – that our actions, and our acquiescence, have consequences for which we are responsible – that we can ever engage with our democracy in any meaningful sense. As Sir Michael considers what he ought to have done had he been a serving officer in the spring of 2003, so we should consider what we ought to do in the here and now about our involvement in the destruction of Iraq; a responsibility that, as a society, we have consistently failed to meet.