As we get to within two weeks of the centenary of the end of the First World War, and what stand to be the biggest Armistice Day celebrations since the 1960s, it is also a time to recognise and consider the problematic moments in British military history. The recent call by 150 Conservative MPs to stop a new Historical Investigations Unit into killings committed by the British Army in Northern Ireland and other conflicts reveal a deep desire to keep British soldiers from prosecution for past offences and keep British history patriotic and unblemished. This author believes that only when historical military crimes are recognised and prosecuted, can we ever actually come together as a nation to mourn the fallen and commemorate sacrifices made by regular soldiers.
The Conservative MPs, in alliance with fifty members of the House of Lords (including four former Chiefs of the Defence Staff), have called for the suspension of historical investigation, due to it putting “service and security personnel at an exceptional disadvantage,” but have also gone further in demanding that the Government “put in place a lasting legal protection” for servicemen “wherever and whenever they serve”. Thereby the protest stretches further than solely the crimes committed on British soil, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but also those committed previously, in colonial conflicts like the Kenyan, Malayan and Cyprus emergencies and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Justifications for their call concentrate on it disadvantaging soldiers currently in conflict, discouraging recruitment and would involve devolving regulation of the armed services to the bitterly divided partisan concerns of Stormont and especially Sinn Fein.
However, while these concerns are valid to an extent, if the May government is cowed into conceding to these hawkish demands, it will set a terrible precedent vis-à-vis the relationship between the military and wider society in general. Using this period in the year when British patriotic fervour is at its highest and the army as an institution becomes an exclusive icon of national spirit and pride, the MPs are attempting to shut the door on a decades-long enquiry that has been critical to the peace process in Northern Ireland specifically and to the evaluation of recent British military history more generally. Allowing victims, survivors and family members to demand justice from individuals that broke legally-binding codes of military conduct is critical not for vindictive purposes, but for purposes of reconciliation. Northern Ireland and none of Britain’s recent conflicts saw anything close to the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions of South Africa, East Germany or Chile, which have allowed for significant closure for victims and a genuine public inculcation of the crimes and complexities of a past conflict. Allowing for a proper historical reckoning between perpetrators and victims on all sides, as happened in these countries, can only ever lead to a more pacific future, however tough this process may be while it happens.
On a wider cultural front, it would also set a terrible precedent for how the Army is envisioned in the public imagination. Remembrance Day, the wearing of poppies and two minutes silence are all genuinely good things, when a nation comes together to remember those that do the difficult work of defending its people and their ideals, as well as those that gave the ultimate sacrifice to that end. However, this does not extend to protecting every soldier, or even the institution itself from genuine prosecution for crimes that only muddle the memory and work of the average, disciplined soldier. Understanding the crimes of individual soldiers, and the institutional failures of the British Army in upholding basic human rights in conflicts like Iraq and Northern Ireland will only lead to the lowering of the likelihood of such atrocities in future conflict. By burying them, they will only become more likely.
It would also do no harm whatsoever for the average British schoolchild and citizen to understand Britain’s chequered imperial history in the 20th Century, when it fought several rearguard ‘Emergencies’ that were rife with human rights abuses that have left significant marks on the countries in which British soldiers operated. Expanding this historical-legal investigation to recent conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan will only make people more aware of the inherent issues in making war, while not detracting from the average bravery of the individual soldiers. If the history of the British military is indeed more than just defending the country, but also includes defending the ideals of democracy, free speech and human rights from terrorism, than facing up to the crimes of the past in the present will only strengthen that reputation. Thus, the government should hold firm and continue its current policies of historical investigation.
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