Upstanding conservatives believe that each of us must take personal responsibility for our actions – with one exception. Soldiers, it seems, can flout the law, because their job is so uniquely stressful. This was the argument put forward by lawyers for Sergeant Alexander Blackman, who in 2011 shot dead an injured, unarmed Taliban fighter, with the words: “Shuffle off this mortal coil, you c***.”
Thanks in part to the energetic campaigning of the right-wing press – his murder conviction was reduced to manslaughter, and his prison sentence slashed. It’s not just “lefty civilians” who feel “squeamish” about this judgment. As I discovered when I taught a course in leadership ethics for the British Army, most soldiers take the law very seriously indeed. They know that “it is precisely the law, and its underlying morality, that distinguishes soldiers from murderers”. Turning Blackman into a “poster boy for military honour” is an insult to the vast majority of those who serve their country without crossing that line. “Everyone in Helmand was stressed. Not everyone shot their prisoners.” (Giles Fraser, The Guardian)
When I myself was in the British Army no time was given to teaching us what we could or couldn’t do. It was left to the individual, specifically the officers, to say what was acceptable when dealing with the local population (in my case the Cypriots). We were 19 yesr olds, thrust into a dangerous place where you could be killed by a bomb or injured by demonstrating school children throwing bricks. The temptation to respond in kind was considerable. No one mentioned the law or even told us to “win hearts and influence people”, and yet my men never fell legally or morally out of line in respect of the Cypriots. Moderation was the watchword. Epicurus might have been proud of us, I hope.