In September 2012, the Taliban attacked Camp Bastion. Some 15 enemy fighters, disguised in US military uniforms, infiltrated the facility in a well planned and executed strike, blowing up six Harrier jump jets. They then fought to the death with British and American troops; in the three hour firefight, all but one of the Taliban were killed, whilst two American Marines were killed and some 16 other British and American servicemen were injured.
It has emerged that in the aftermath of that fight, a member of the RAF Regiment seemingly had his photograph taken whilst next to the corpse of a dead Taliban fighter. He and the serviceman who apparently took the pictures have been withdrawn from active duty, and there is currently a great deal of criticism of the men in the media in this country and around the world.
Some will argue that we should hold ourselves to higher standards than those adhered to by our enemies. I would agree. That is why, writing in these pages some four years ago, I came to a drastically different conclusion to the Telegraph’s Con Coughlin over torture (in that instance, prompted by the Binyam Mohamed case).
However, I think that this is rather different situation to the state practicing torture upon those it has detained (or indeed to degrading those it has detained, as happened in the Abu Ghraib prison, where prisoners were systematically abused, leashed like dogs, piled up in naked human pyramids, were the victims of mock executions and so on). Whilst it is true and right that under the law of armed conflict one must not mistreat the enemy (a principle which, again rightly, extends to their corpses), I would say the following.
Although it is true that (if they are as they seem to be) these photographs were in very poor taste, these men demonstrated nothing systematic or organised in their behaviour in the way that the Abu Ghraib abuse was systematic. It is no doubt wrong to gloat or be seen to gloat about the deaths of others. It no doubt aids the cause of the enemy in recruiting others. That is noted and it is true. But I point out that there was no course of action here conducted over a prolonged period of time. They seemingly took these photographs in the aftermath of a fight for their lives: after a huge adrenaline burst, perhaps seeing comrades injured, perhaps thinking that they would die themselves, they were relieved – relieved to be alive. And it is strange to me that years later, in the calm reflection of newsrooms or MoD offices, others think it easy to sit in judgement on what they did in that brief and highly emotional time.
Worse, it is deeply hypocritical. For, in killing the Taliban, they were not just being brave. They weren’t even just defending their own lives. They were doing their jobs. They were doing what we’d asked them to do. We can’t be angry with these men for being glad that the Taliban fighter was dead. Because making him dead was what we wanted them to do. It is perverse to ostensibly be outraged when someone asked by his country to kill others is pleased when he succeeds. Indeed, not only that – in these circumstances, we should be glad of it ourselves. For my part, whilst I take no comfort in the death of anyone, truly believing that any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, given that this man attacked a British base, and that the alternative to him being killed in the course of that gunfight was him killing our servicemen, I’m glad that he’s dead, and I presume that – having sent our armed forces to that country to kill them – our government wishes that more of his comrades were dead too.
What is it we’re saying to our servicemen, precisely? Leave your family and go to another country for a long time. Expose yourself to mortal danger. Die, perhaps. See comrades die, perhaps. Kill others. All of that isn’t just good; it’s what’s expected of you. It’s your duty. Go right up to that line, perhaps time after time. But don’t you dare take a photograph of yourself looking pleased when you’ve done what we have asked you to do. When you’ve survived. If you do that, if you make an error of judgement in those circumstances, then we will condemn you in the press before you’ve defended or explained yourself. If you do that, we will withdraw you from your jobs. Strip you of your rank and good name, perhaps. End your career in disgrace, perhaps. And the burden of proof, the benefit of the doubt, the balance of expectations – they’re all against you. Have this sort of thing break, and we’ll presume you’re in the wrong; we’ll certainly not speak instinctively in support of you or stand up for you in any way.
Such is the way that we treat brave men who have done a great deal more to defend our values than hold up a card with a hashtag on it. They were acting – that night and over a much longer period of tension and danger – in the defence of our values, on our instructions, at risk to more than their standing. So as I say, they deserve our understanding of the circumstances in which they acted. But they also deserve more than our understanding. They deserve our instinctive support rather than kneejerk condemnation. They deserve our thanks.