"Theirs not to reason why"
"In human rights legislation, we require individual soldiers to exercise their own judgment as a duty. Mention has been made of Nuremberg, but this was an issue before then, and it goes well beyond Nuremberg. There is a duty placed on each of us, as individuals in a democratic society — but in particular on soldiers and members of the military — to exercise judgment about whether what we do is right and lawful. I reiterate the point that, whatever debates take place in this or any other Parliament, they do not override that individual duty."
Those were the words of John McDonnell, MP, in the House of Commons last night. It's an important reminder, since Flight-Lieutenant Kendall-Smith is currently in gaol for refusing to serve in what he regards as an illegal war.
John McDonnell was making the final speech in support of an amendment to the Armed Forces Bill. The Bill, when it is signed into law, allows a sentence of life imprisonment for soldiers who desert the army or refuse to serve in an army of occupation abroad. There is a right of conscientious objection for serving soldiers but, as the case of Kendall-Smith shows, it can be hard for serving soldiers who object to the legality or morality of particular wars or particular kinds of conduct to obtain release from the army.
The Bill that has just been passed by Lords and Commons (there is still, I think, a space for the Lords to consider amendments passed in the Commons - but nothing else) declares that desertion should carry the same maximum sentence as rape and a higher maximum sentence than burglary.
Many people accept that soldiers should give up their rights to conscience when they join the army. "Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do or die," Tennyson wrote in "The Charge of the Light Brigade." There's a tendency to treat soldiers as people who have sold themselves into slavery for a fixed period - people who have given up their brains and feelings and souls in order to kill and be killed.
But soldiers have always had consciences and sometimes they have framed arguments for freedom which still resonate. The Levellers set out their case in "The Agreement of the People". They spoke passionately for liberty and democratic reform in the Putney Debates of 1647. They came from the army. Colonel Thomas Rainsborough set out the principle that "every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent be put himself under that government." The Levellers called for freedom of conscience and opposed conscription.
The Levellers' movement came to a violent end when troops began to march towards London. 340 soldiers were imprisoned in Burford church in Oxfordshire. Three of their leaders were taken out, set against the church wall and shot, on Cromwell's orders. You can see the bullet-holes. The Levellers' words and arguments are still remembered.
Individual soldiers are required to exercise judgement and act according to conscience. Soldiers can be terrifyingly violent. But they can also generate democratic ideas which startle and frighten those in power.
Some soldiers may decide they wish to leave the army. Like many Americans at the time of the Vietnam War, they may desert. Soldiers can become conscientious objectors, though it's not easy. Organisations like At Ease can advise them.
Because of the Armed Forces Bill, soon to become an Act, soldiers who refuse to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan can expect to be silenced by imprisonment, possibly for life.
19 Members of Parliament voted for the amendment which would have restricted the sentence for desertion to two years imprisonment.
442 Members of Parliament voted against the amendment and for a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The 442 Members - and those who abstained - should be ashamed of themselves. I shall not name them.
Instead I name and celebrate the 19 Members who voted against a sentence of life imprisonment for soldiers who desert or refuse to serve in an army of occupation abroad. They were:
John Austin, Michael Clapham, Katy Clark, Harry Cohen, Jeremy Corbyn, Bill Etherington, Paul Flynn, Neil Gerrard, Ian Gibson, Kelvin Hopkins, Stewart Hosie, Lynne Jones, Elfyn Llwyd, Angus MacNeil, John McDonnell, Alan Simpson, Dennis Skinner, Rudi Vis, Robert N. Wareing, Pete Wishart