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Should we be free to criticise serving soldiers?

Members of Islam4UK with a banner
Islam4UK has been pilloried and banned

For many the plan to have a demonstration by an Islamist group attacking the actions of soldiers in Wootton Bassett, where the bodies of servicemen are received, is offensive and should be stopped. But should there be a level of protection for soldiers that trumps freedom of speech, asks moral philosopher David Rodin.

Many people believe that the invasion of Iraq was unjust and a growing number question the legitimacy of the war in Afghanistan, yet many of those same people passionately hold that those who served in those wars should be honoured as heroes.

The controversy over Islam4UK's criticism of British soldiers in their aborted Wootton Bassett march challenges us to consider whether these two views are really coherent.

David Rodin
Just because soldiers have legal impunity does not mean they should be exempt from moral evaluation

Going to war without sufficient reason is a terrible crime because it involves killing and maiming people - both civilians and soldiers - who have done nothing to deserve this. That is why debates over the justice and legality of war are among the most important any democracy can have.

We have no problem criticising particular wars, or governments that declare them. Yet when it comes to serving soldiers, there is an extraordinary taboo against criticism. This is peculiar because the guns and bombs that kill in an unjust war are not fired by politicians, but by soldiers. Why should they escape responsibility or criticism for their actions?

In one sense, this reluctance is entirely understandable. Soldiers undertake great hardships and make extraordinary sacrifices in our names and for our benefit. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they serve with honour, courage and in good faith.

It is natural that we feel deep emotions of respect and gratitude for these men and women, especially for those who are injured or killed.

And yet if the war itself is unjust - as many people believe of the invasion of Iraq, and a smaller number believe of Afghanistan - then those soldiers have participated in the killing of people for no good reason. Ordinarily we would take such action as an occasion for critical reflection, not veneration.

Of course even if these wars are not just, ordinary soldiers may have a good excuse for participating. A soldier's access to information is limited, and arguably he should be entitled to rely on the judgement of his government and its legal advisers.

A crowd in Wootton Bassett pays its respects
Wootton Bassett has become a focal point for grief over soldiers

Besides, soldiers exist within a powerful chain of command and don't get a choice as to which wars they fight. In a sense they act under duress. Yet these considerations go only so far.

Individual freedom of action is greater in a professional army like the British Army than in a conscript army, and the internet has brought considerable access to information, commentary and debate, even in the field.

For many British people, one of the tragedies of the Blair government's action prior to the Iraq war is that it has eroded our sense that the government can be trusted to make decisions over war soundly and on proper grounds.

It is true that soldiers break no law by participating in an illegal campaign. International law states that as long as soldiers follow the rules on the conduct of war, they do not act unlawfully by participating in an illegal war.

But just because soldiers have legal impunity does not mean they should be exempt from moral evaluation. Ideally we should have the opportunity for serious and sensitive reflection, both in public and private, on what it means morally for a soldier to fight in an unjust war.

Such reflection might cause us to reconsider provisions for selective conscientious objection in the forces, and assist servicemen in coming to terms with the burden of killing in wars of ambiguous legitimacy.

Does this mean that Islam4UK were justified in their proposed march through Wootton Bassett? Not at all.

Many will judge their motives as disreputable, and their proposed actions designed to cause maximum offence, not least to the bereaved families of deceased servicemen.

A group that praised the 11 September attacks and mocks the basic liberties of our democracy, can hardly claim to be engaging in an honest and constructive debate on the moral responsibility of serving soldiers.

But the manifest defects of the messenger, shouldn't blind us to the possibility of a kernel of truth in the message.

David Rodin is co-director the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Although I disagree with those who direct criticism and allegations at soldiers, I think that it is necessary for freedom of speech that they should be allowed to do so. It seems very strange that the government apparently believe it is acceptable for soldiers to face bullets and bombs, but not verbal abuse.
Dominic Houghton, Northampton, England

With the enormous amount of effort going into the discrimination laws, there can never be freedom of speech. For one group of people to complain against service personnel, sent by their governments, that same group would complain if anyone spoke against them for doing what they believe.
Peter, Canada

David Rodin neglects the most basic reason why soldiers should be exempt from criticism. Whilst he tries to make a distinction between conscript and professional armies, the fact is that once a soldier is serving he must obey lawful orders, and not doing so is itself unlawful. As an ethicist he should appreciate that it is unfair to criticise someone for doing what the law says he must. Living in a democracy we have the means to change the law if we disagree with it. Change the law so that soldiers can decide individually where, when and how to serve and then criticism would be fair. Responsibility for the law lies with voters and politicians, not with soldiers. In any event, using Wootton Bassett and by association soldiers who are dead, to make a political point is simply abhorrent.
Steven Palmer, London, England

Surely soldiers are given their duties and have to do what they are told, who are we to criticize them for a mistake made higher up?
Andy Welsher, Bath, UK

My immediate, emotional response to Islam4UK was that of many, "This is disgraceful and should be stopped." But even a little thought added in the comment, "so what other expressions of dissent are you going to ban, because they distress someone?" Should we ban all criticism of anyone who died recently because it would distress grieving relatives? Hardly. Or what about banning all demonstrations that might distress a government in difficulties? Absolutely not! We think that demonstrations are one legitimate way to harry obdurate governments, or to make people think about the way society as a whole works. Perhaps in the end we have to tolerate inconvenience and even distress, if the alternative is shutting down freedom of speech and freedom to protest. All the same, I think I would ban it at funerals and repatriation ceremonies.
Philippa Suton, Newcastle

I hate to say this but I feel people do have the right to criticise soldiers. This may be an illegal war and that in itself gives the right to protest. The wider point is that despite my abhorrence of their comments they have a fundamental right to say what they think. To stop them is to betray the values we are supposed to stand for.
David Lightowler, Gravesend

A very welcome reflective piece. It is heartening to see someone brave enough to bring this up. I believe that regardless of how advanced we claim ourselves to have become, we are still very tribal, and our tribal 'patriotism' and allegiances still get in the way of what we believe to be right. Seeing it objectively, if a soldier is fighting (the more accurate description for the PC term 'serving') in an illegal war, occupying another's land and killing and imprisoning its people, then he is to be condemned and criticised for that. Moral obligations are not removed simply because one has a job to do, and if we were on the receiving end of an illegal occupying force imprisoning and killing our families and friends, we would not excuse them on this basis at all. But people will be afraid to go against the tribal 'patriotism' of the majority for fear of the consequences of breaking such a major convention, even if it is wrong. But we pride ourselves in 'freedom of speech and thought', and we pride ourselves in being champions of justice and liberty, so let us be honest about this matter and stop playing hide and seek.
Daniel, London, England

Many years ago, Caroline Stephens, the great British Quakeress, wrote about the choices we make in life. She believed, as I a modern Quaker, that everyone takes different paths. These brave young men and women made the decision that they could best serve their country and their people by placing their lives on the line. They do not have the luxury of considering the validity of the war. When they return, I assure you they are emotionally and psychologically torn over their war experiences. They do not need civilians making them feel guilty. We all owe a debt that can never be fully paid. Free speech is one thing. However, I would hope that good sense and a modicum of decency will prevail.
Shelia Bumgarner, Charlotte, North Carolina

It is always great to see an armchair evaluation of the situation, one of the many joys of living in a free society. However the case is simple when you join the army and your country goes to war so do you regardless of whether it is against global terrorisms or the Teletubbies. The chain of command issues orders and you carry them out. Life on the streets of England is very different and I feel people often struggle to understand the fact you don't have a choice, of course some people will take the view that you always have a choice. How wonderful their lives must be! How about the view that if you vote for a government and that government forces the country in to an illegal war you are an equal party in that war and must take responsibility for your vote. The main point to remember when discussing the morals of a soldier's participation in any war is that their sacrifices enable us to have the freedoms to question them. And therefore they should never be questioned past the matter of whether they stay inside their rules of engagement.
Chris Kenny, London

Soldiers have access to information and could form an opinion on the rightness of a particular military action but I doubt they are encouraged to express that opinion. Most are recruited too young to have developed any critical thinking abilities. And once in, there is no dignified way out (I believe). The modern soldier is tied to the Army by a 'mutual obligation, [...] an unbreakable common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility'. The option to opt in/out of moral/immoral military actions is not given.
Teea, London

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