In the news today an announcement that families of servicemen killed in Iraq may under the Human Rights Act sue the Ministry of Defence for damages. Call it the apotheosis of post-heroic warfare. Call it reason number 359 why Britain’s participation in the European Convention on Human Rights (the alleged contravention of article 2 of which is the basis of these claims) is among the stupidest and most self-defeating acts of policy in a long while. Call it what you want.
Susan Smith, mother of Private Phillip Hewitt, killed when his Snatch Land Rover was blown up in Iraq in 2005, called it ‘absolutely brilliant’. Moreover, she continued, ‘It’s really important because now they (the soldiers) can’t just be out there with no equipment… As an employer they (the MoD) have got to make sure they’re safe at work, which should have be happening from day one.’ I really feel for the families of those soldiers who are killed while doing their duty. But if that is the legal regime that the Army must work under then you might as well disband it now.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that society does owe a duty of care to towards those who volunteer to put their lives in harm’s way on its behalf. I like the way Colin Powell, who has said very many smart things about war and society, put it in an interview almost 20 years ago now:
They’re [the American people] prepared to take casualties. And even if they see them on live television it will make them madder. Even if they see them on live television, as long as they believe it’s for a solid purpose and for a cause that’s understandable and for a cause that has something to do with an interest of ours. They will not understand it if it can’t be explained, which is the point I have made consistently over the years. If you can’t explain it to the parents who are sending their kids, you’d better think twice about it.
But the test that this ruling establishes is effectively unsurpassable. It is a pacifist charter and, I suspect, makes war undoable on the ground. The Supreme Court’s judgment on this matter reflects what seems to me a quite profound problem. A few years ago in a subtle inversion of the ‘parent test’ the London School of Economics professor Christopher Coker observed in a pointed essay on ‘The Unhappy Warrior’ that a society which fights postheroically will struggle to invest the death of its soldiers with the force of free sacrifice and deprive it of nobility. Even more, a soldier whose sacrifice cannot be reconciled by his own parents as other than a waste of life will find the risk of his or her own life difficult to find meaningful.
So no more of this ancient guff:
Except in the movies, of course. Henceforth, one presumes, it is this sort of war which will meet the accepted level of health and safety provision:
It’s a reminder that the ongoing dronification of warfare is a product as much of social forces as it is technological ones. Probably the really fundamental issue here is the failure of policy, attempting to use military force to achieve things that are unachievable by military force, thus rendering the present wars strategically meaningless. But there’s also something disgraceful and ironically unhuman about the direction that the European Convention on Human Rights is pushing the actual practice of war. I’m sure it is unintended and those involved are well-meaning. But it’s just not really thought through.
 From a 1996 interview by Barrie Dunsmore in ‘Live from the Battlefield’, in Pippa Norris (ed.), Politics and the Press: The News Media and Their Influences (London: Lynne Reiner, 1997), p. 261.