Monday 29 March 2010

Can mercy killing in a war be justified?

The Geneva Convention prohibits shooting wounded soldiers however, battle wounds can sometimes be extremely horrible. If the bullets of shrapnel didn't hit anything vital, the resulting infections, blood loss, and lead poisoning could submit the wounded man to an agonizing death. The belly wounds are the worst because if the soldiers are hit in the stomach, not only would they bleed profusely, the contents of their stomachs and intestines would kill them with an infection in days. It was a horrible way to go because of the pain. For this reason, some of them were killed on the field in an act of mercy if there was no possibility of getting them to an aid station before they died.

What would a reasonable and caring soldier do if he saw a wounded soldier who was lying on the ground with the lower half of his body blown away and he was still alive? The chances of the dying soldier being saved on an operating table would probably be nil, just as his chances that he would still be alive by the time he arrived at the operating room.

Mercy killing at times can happen on the battle fields when soldiers are seriously wounded and there doesn’t appear to be any chance of any immediate help being available. A fellow soldier can help them to die sooner and suffer less. It is understandable that this is extremely difficult for these soldiers, as it is equally difficult to be absolutely sure that there is no possibility of survival. But in such circumstances quick decisions are required, because the soldier who has to make that decision has to move on lest he be killed by the onslaught of bombs.

Mercy killing has been and will remain a subject that is debated many times all over the world and it is essential the law and regulation that rule mercy killing, takes into account important developments in the society in order to accommodate different groups of people within the general perception of ethics of today. Neither Canadian, nor international law recognizes mercy killings on battlefields. Canadian soldiers had killed prisoners on the battlefield in Korea and after D-Day in retaliation for the murder of Canadians by the German SS, but charges were never laid in those cases.

In this article, I am going to tell my readers about three incidents that have taken place in war zones.

Forty-four years ago, the Battle of Long Tan, the bloodiest single encounter experienced by Australians during the Vietnam War.

Retired sergeant, Bob Buick is regarded as one of the heroes of Long Tan, decorated for his part in Australia's bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War. As platoon sergeant, he assumed command of his men when their lieutenant was shot dead, repelling the enemy against overwhelming odds and losing 13 diggers in the process who were killed in a rubber plantation near their army base at Nui Dat.

He has written a book about the battle, in which he admits to killing a critically wounded enemy soldier the next day. After coming across a critically wounded enemy soldier, a man the sergeant believed had absolutely no chance of survival, he shot him dead; reconciling it as a mercy killing. He said of it later; “It's nothing I'm proud of but it's something I did at the time and if it had been me, I would have hoped that someone would have done the same for me if the roles were reversed, so it's just one of those things that happens in war.”

Bob says it was a mercy killing in his book, but if it was a mercy killing, would he have done the same to an Australian? The question that comes to the fore is; was it necessary considering the fact that they were only 15 minutes from a hospital by helicopter and their own wounded were being taken out by helicopters? It is difficult to arrive at a conclusion in that particular case because I have no idea just how serious the wounds were that the enemy soldier was suffering from.

American Armed Forces Staff Sergeant, Cardenas Alban was sentenced to a year in jail in December 2004 after pleading guilty and being convicted of murder and conspiracy to commit murder at his court martial. During that same month, another soldier, Johnny Horne, 30, was sentenced to three years for the same incident. They both received a reduction in rank to private, forfeiture of wages and a dishonorable discharge. Here's what happened:

The charges relate to the August 18, 2004 killing of a 16-year-old Iraqi male found in a burning truck with severe abdominal wounds sustained during clashes in Baghdad's Sadr City, an impoverished neighborhood that was the scene of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and Shiite rebels loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The killing occurred after Horne's unit fired on a dump truck believed to be filled with insurgents planting roadside bombs. In fact, the truck carried young men and teenagers who had been hired to collect trash, witnesses and military investigators said.

A criminal investigator had said during an earlier hearing that the soldiers decided to kill him to "put him out of his misery." The teen was 16-year-old Qassim Hassan, was working with relatives collecting rubbish and not an enemy soldier. Horne was attached to Company C, 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, based in Fort Riley, Kansas, pleaded guilty to one count of unpremeditated murder and one count of soliciting another soldier (Cardenas) to commit unpremeditated murder. (the mercy killing of the 16-year-old) At least seven Iraqis were killed and eight wounded. Military prosecutors alleged that Horne, conspired with Staff Sgt. Cardenas Alban and platoon leader 2nd Lt. Erick Anderson to kill the Iraqi.

Cardenas said at his court-martial trial in Baghdad, "I wanted to end his suffering. With my weapon I fired a shot to his head. His attempts to breathe ceased." In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, family members, including people who witnessed the shooting, insisted that Hassan's wounds were not serious and that his life could have been saved with medical attention. Soldiers on the scene argued about Horne's actions; a debate that continues to divide the unit. Some called the shooting a ‘mercy’ killing and noted that Horne rushed to rescue the victims in the burning truck. Others testified they watched in horror at the shooting.

On October 19, 2008, Capt. Robert Semrau, 36, a Canadian army officer fighting in Afghanistan is alleged to have killed an unarmed Taliban fighter with two gunshots after first telling a younger comrade to look away before he pulled the trigger. It is alleged that he fired two 5.56-millimetre tracer bullets into the chest of his foe. During the time of the incident, Canadian soldiers were facing an increasingly tough insurgency as they defended key positions in the region. Semrau was mentoring Afghan soldiers as part of a NATO program. Following several clashes, British and Afghan troops along with their Canadian mentors came across two presumed Taliban fighters: one dead, the other too severely wounded for treatment on site.

Prosecutors also foretold of a nine-minute video recorded on the cell phone of an Afghan National Army soldier showing the wounded fighter being removed of his rifle, vest and ammunition, being assaulted, spat upon and kicked with sand, all while Semrau, the senior Canadian officer on the scene, stood nearby. Afghan government forces declined to offer medical care to the man. On the video, an Afghan soldier decides against treating the insurgent, saying that his life or death is "in Allah's hands." Capt. Semrau decided the Canadians would also not treat the Taliban wounded soldier. His decision not to provide life-saving medical care; was a violation of the rules instilled in Canadian soldiers to treat friend or foe alike wherever they're found on the battlefield. A number of wounded insurgents have received medical treatment by coalition forces in Afghanistan.

According to prosecutors, the wounded man was "insulted, spat upon, and kicked" by Afghan soldiers in Semrau's company. His rifle, ammo and vest were taken and the patrol moved off, deciding to leave his fate "in Allah's hands." The wounded man was "still alive, moving slightly and moaning." The wounded man was still breathing, his chest was rising slightly and he had moved in changing his position. Semrau then told the two soldiers standing nearby to "head back" as they "should not have to see this.” The pair walked a short distance when they heard two distinct shots.

Prosecutor, Fitzgerald told the courtroom that the shooting of a "wounded, unidentified and unarmed" man was "shockingly appalling." He said that instead of arranging medical attention, Semrau fired two bullets into the insurgent’s body – an act that he later described to a subordinate as a mercy killing of sorts. Semrau is alleged to have told the private under his command "that he couldn't live with himself if he had left a wounded human being and nobody should be made to suffer like that." Later that day, Semrau was overhead saying that he fired the shots that killed the insurgent and that "anyone would do the same for any other human being in that situation. He is still a human being and should not suffer like that."

At the time of this writing, Semrau is still currently facing a second-degree murder charge. He supposedly was acting on a so-called unwritten ‘soldier's pact’ in which enemy combatants put dying adversaries out of their misery on the battlefield. Even after 36-year-old Semrau was charged with the murder of the wounded Afghan insurgent, he allegedly confided to one of his superiors at Canadian Forces Base in Petawawa, Ontario about the pact, an agreement between enemy warriors that one would put the other out of his mortal pain. Semrau said, "You do to the enemy what you would want or expect him to do to you." The high-profile case is the first instance of a Canadian soldier facing murder charges for causing death on the battlefield. Semrau pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder, attempted murder, disgraceful conduct and negligent performance of duty.

Unfortunately, there is a significant wrinkle in the prosecution's case. It is the absence of a body or any autopsy reports that would indicate who the dead man was and how he died which is independent of the various witnesses who were at the scene when the shooting took place. It is difficult to determine whether or not the Taliban fighter could have been saved if his wounds were treated by a doctor. The absence of a body in a homicide is not necessary a bar to prosecution. The missing body and an autopsy report are obstacles but it is not an insurmountable obstacles.

What his lawyer is trying to do is paint a picture of Captain Semrau as a warrior who believed it was acceptable to take the lives of soldiers – even foes – who had been very grievously wounded in battle. That’s not the picture I see at all. He didn’t even ask the wounded man if he wanted to be put out of his misery.

He’s believed to be the first Canadian soldier to face a murder charge for an alleged battlefield killing. He faces a possible life sentence, or 25 years in a military prison, if convicted. In my opinion, his act was unwarranted, unjustified and unforgivable. His actions were a disgrace to the Canadian concept of what is right and decent. He should get the maximum penalty the court martial can give him. The fact that he stood by while the wounded man was being spat on and sand was being kicked in his face, is a clear indication that Semrau is a thug. His kind should never be permitted to serve in any armed force and if they are discovered, they should be removed quickly before they do any harm to the reputation of the armed force in which they serve.

When the decision of Semrau’s court martial is announced, I will put it at the end of this article as A

UPDATE: The four officers in the court marshal ruled that Semurau's  actions were improper however they didn't convict him of murder or manslaughter. He was dismissed from the Canadian Armed Forces.


Not_A_Fan_of_Afghan_Mission said...

You're characterization of Capt. Semrau as a "thug" couldn't be any further from the truth. A family man; a university graduate; a distinguished service record with the British army in both Macedonia and Afghanistan. I believe Capt. Semrau was the only one there that day that showed any modicum of decency at all. 1) It was the ANA's mission... they didn't want to treat the insurgent. 2) the local Afghan police were found spitting and kicking sand on the insurgent when the ANA and CDN patrol found them. 3) they were still in the middle of their patrol with the rest of the day ahead of them and they had taken on several ambushes already; with an unknown number of ambushes yet to come... you don't risk calling in a British medic helicopter to take away 1 wounded insurgent who isn't going to make it. Remember, the insurgent's original wounds were inflicted by an American Apache gunship - firing 30mm cannon rounds from a chaingun. That insurgent (don't forget there are pictures that still have to come out in trial) would have likely been missing limbs and/or had holes in him bigger than softballs - his insides I imagine were lying outside of his body. Maybe you are right... Capt. Semrau should have left him to whither and die in the sun (like a whrithing snake half run over by a car on a Saskatchewan highway)... or to be eaten alive by packs of roaming wild dogs... or to be stomped on and beaten to death by the local police and villagers once the ANA/CDN patrol had moved on. Being the ranking CDN officer there, he made the toughest of all decisions - end a compatant's suffering and get his men out of there and back on mission to the task at hand. While we are at it, why don't we armchair quarterback another possibility... that maybe the guy spoke broken English and asked Capt. Semrau to end his life? Maybe the guy lashed out at Capt. Semrau with a hidden knife and the Capt. was defending himself? Maybe... just maybe... he did the morally and ethically right thing - while still being "legally" wrong according to the letter of the law - but then only when there is a presumed allegation made by an Afghan Medic who wasn't even there to a CDN Major who is now backtracking and trying to cover his own ass. Arm chair quarterbacking sucks. Spewing spiteful and hate filled words at a man you don't even know is worse. Let due process proceed. 141 is too many already - July 2011 can't come fast enough.

(PS. yeah I spelled Afghan wrong... it was too late to fix it)

Dahn Batchelor said...

I am going to wait until the decision of the court martial is published before I respond to the previous comment. If Capt. Semrau is found innocent of any wrongdoing, I will apologize for referring to him as a thug. I should add however in this message that simply because he graduated from a university,that doesn't automatically mean that he couldn't have later become a thug. Many university graduates have later become thugs and creeps and left behind them, a trail of victims.

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Dahn Batchelor said...
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Dahn Batchelor said...

UPFATE: The four members of the court martial aquitted the soldier of murder but dismissed him from the army.