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Morality on the battlefield

Duration:
43 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 04 December 2013

This Friday a court martial will sentence Marine A - the sergeant who was found guilty of the murder of a wounded Afghan insurgent. In footage from a helmet camera we heard the Commando shooting the man point blank in the chest with the words: "Shuffle off this mortal coil... It's nothing you wouldn't do to us." He then said to his comrades: "Obviously this doesn't go anywhere, fellas. I just broke the Geneva Convention". With these words you might feel that Marine A was condemned out of his own mouth. His guilt has certainly been established, now perhaps the more morally difficult question of his culpability has to be answered. Is he simply a cold blooded ruthless killer or a man who having been through the horrors of war, momentarily lost his bearings? For almost all of us it's hard to imagine the exhaustion and pressure that soldiers like Marine A have been through and if we were in the same situation, might we too have pulled the trigger? But would any hint of clemency incentivise revenge jihadist attacks and undermine our moral ascendancy over our enemies? If that is the case why are we trying Marine A and not the drone operators who fire missiles which kill innocent bystanders? We rely on our armed forces to fight on our behalf and when needs be, to kill on our behalf too, but how do we ensure they do the right thing? Is it still sufficient to rely on a "band of brothers" military ethos born out of Aristotelian virtue ethics- where we do the right thing out of strength of character that's inculcated through training and regimental honours? Or do the demands of modern warfare, where targets can be an enemy one moment and a civilian the next, mean that we should focus on more sophisticated rules of engagement and legal documents such as the Geneva Conventions?

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