In October 2008, Captain Robert Semrau of the Royal Canadian Regiment was commanding a ‘mentoring team’ of four Canadian soldiers operating with a company of Afghan National Army troops engaged in fighting Taliban insurgents in Helmand Province. Taliban insurgents opened fire on this force and were engaged by a supporting US Apache gunship. The Taliban promptly withdrew, leaving one of their gunmen dead and one severely wounded.
The Afghan Army troops did not treat the wounded Talib who had one leg shredded off, a foot severed and may have also been wounded in the torso. Instead they apparently kicked and insulted him and then moved on. This put the Canadians in a dilemma.
Following the textbook on modern ethical warfare, one would immediately halt the Afghan troops, treat the badly wounded prisoner (apparently dying in great pain), call for a medical evacuation and only then continue with the mission. Textbook solutions are one thing; reality on the ground is something else. The Afghan Army troops obviously showed no interest in the well-being of the badly wounded Talib. The Taliban themselves have shown little respect for any laws of war. The Afghan National Army is a poor army with few resources and may not have had a means of evacuating a wounded prisoner in time to save him: The sweep for the enemy had to continue and such things must be done promptly before the foe escapes to fight again.
Moreover, for the Afghan soldiers, the fate of the wounded Taliban was in the hands of Allah… ‘Inshallah’ (literally: ‘As God wills’). If he lived or died was in God’s hands and the Afghan troops moved on untroubled by the prisoner’s wounds or future.
Captain Semrau had to balance resources, time, the rules and the mission and, as a foreign expert attached to the Afghan Army, his credibility with these rough men fighting a vicious enemy. Evidently, this badly wounded Talib would not even survive long enough to reach effective treatment. So which was the right action: To prolong the Talib’s pain to no purpose and lose the enemy’s trail or to end his suffering and continue the pursuit?
From what we know so far, Captain Semrau decided to fire two bullets into the wounded Talib and end his suffering.
This irritated the Afghan government troops. Who was this non-Muslim foreigner to decide the fate of the wounded prisoner in lieu of God? But the complexities of Afghanistan casualty management are not the issue for Captain Semrau or or the Court Martial that confronts him. Here the one real question is did he or did he not commit either manslaughter or second degree murder?
Strangely, while the central act of war is homicide and there is no end to histories, commentaries and studies of almost every facet of war, the shelves of material are slender when it comes to issues like this. It is something veterans seldom talk about.
That war is homicide is a point needing no debate. War revolves around killing people, but in a manner that most of us sanction in one way or another.
We have laws, rules, customs and unwritten practices to outline what forms of homicide are acceptable during warfare yet there is a substantial gray area between some of the absolutes. It is acceptable for a soldier to kill an enemy who is shooting at him. It is unacceptable to execute unarmed prisoners in a safe area in the rear of battle. The gray areas lie between shading from light to dark according to circumstances and situations. The customs and unwritten practices of combatants remain an ambiguous and largely unexplored territory although they go far towards defining what is permissible for men in battle.
Lawyers and civil servants who are far removed from the miasma of fear, fatigue and fury on a battlefield can try to regulate men’s behaviour in battle. This would be pretty much like virgin children writing an instruction book on advanced sexual technique. Some attempts are best left unmade and unenforceable laws should never be written.
One of the many gray areas of battlefield conduct concerns the killing of horribly wounded personnel whether those of the enemy or your own.
Imagine, if you will, what to do if confronted by a man blasted out of the hatch of a tank, with nothing remaining of him below the waist except for a few tatters of flesh. As he is also badly burned by flaming propellant, he is not likely to bleed to death for three or four minutes during which the shock might wear off, letting him become aware of the full horrifying extent of his injuries before he dies. What is merciful and what is cruel under these circumstances?
One metaphor we use about dying dates back to Homer’s epic on ancient Greek warfare. When he described somebody “biting the dust” it was usually in the paroxysms of their death throes… and it wasn’t a metaphor.
Actually, mercy killing is extremely common in warfare. At field hospitals. Physicians and medical staff would (and still do) practice Triage. This is the practice where, when resources are overwhelmed, patients are swiftly sorted into those who will probably recover without immediate care, those who will probably die even with immediate care, and those who will recover only if given prompt attention. Those who will probably die even with immediate care are heavily dosed with morphine and put off to the side to quietly expire. Triage, effectively, is mercy killing by medical professionals that remains a practice which almost all military medical units resort to when necessary.
Nor is it just military medics who resort to triage. Canadians might want to look up the regulations and rules for resort to triage in all of our hospitals. It is widely recognized that triage might be particularly common in rural hospitals when confronted with mass casualties from an event such as a major auto crash. Regulations and legislation are in place to protect Canadian physicians who have to make such choices in particular circumstances.
The more conventional view of battlefield mercy killing can be guessed at from anecdotes. As an infantryman in the Rhineland offensive in February 1945, this writer’s uncle was involved in such a dilemma with a German fallshirmjaeger. Another veteran once told me of a night in Holland where a badly wounded enemy soldier was alternatively screaming and wailing for his mother in the deadly ground between two fiercely held positions until a Canadian medic crept out to him with a knife. Barry Broadfoot’s Six War Years contains an anecdote of a Canadian slitting the throat of a badly wounded soldier in a dark night between the lines in Italy without checking which uniform he wore.
The full horrors of battle are seldom ever described by veterans except in the vaguest terms; but there are exceptions. Raleigh Trevelyn, a British Guards officer at Anzio, once recounted seeing the puddle of human fat pooled underneath a knocked out Sherman rendered from its crew by the slow fire inside their tank. He was willing to tell of this horror, but was more guarded about something else. One of his diary entries following the tank anecdote said: “Yesterday evening there was something on a stretcher that was the worse sight I have ever seen at this bridgehead… and it was still alive.” Years later, the casual reader might wonder, but who would really want to know?
There are many memoirs written by combat veterans and some of them are very frank indeed. Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed on Pelelieu and Okinawa” recounts ghastly episodes of the battles in which he participated as a US Marine in 1944-1945. Being covered with maggots after slipping downhill on a slope coated with decaying bodies is but one of these episodes. For defeat and despair, one could consult Guy Sajer’s account of his three years as a German soldier on the Russian Front in “The Forgotten Soldier.” Canadians would do well to look at Blackburn’s ‘Guns’ trilogy or Farley Mowat’s account of his mental breakdown outside Ortona in “And No Birds Sang.”
Sledge only indirectly refers (twice) to mercy killing. In this case, it concerned shooting burning Japanese who had just come screaming out of a bunker after a flamethrower hit them, and dispatching wounded Japanese who was still alive when one Marine started pulling out his gold teeth. Sajer, who mentions the casual murder of Russian prisoners, pulled back from helping his horribly wounded friend, Ernst. However, he does state ‘We shot a great many men to put them out of their misery, although mercy killings were strictly forbidden. Neither Blackburn nor Mowat mention mercy killing at all.
In 35 years of asking informed questions from combat veterans (starting with men who had been in the Trenches in the First World War) the matter of mercy killing was never voluntarily raised. A few conceded that they knew of episodes involving badly wounded foes. Only one veteran, a British soldier from 1917-18, mentioned a sergeant who ‘took care of’ a man in his platoon who had three bullets through the guts, an inevitable and painfully slow death sentence in the days before antibiotics. Another heard wounded mates imploring their officer to shoot them.
Another veteran of the Falklands War once described the dilemma of his fighting patrol which had just killed a number of Argentines, excepting one disembowelled by a grenade. The wounded Argentine was dying slowly and painfully. The British troops couldn’t carry him away, didn’t dare to use their slender stock of morphine on him, and his howling was drawing other Argentines. So a knife was used to ease the situation.
One Vietnam veteran recounted a common occurrence – men who are hit in the legs or abdomen often check (or ask a mate to check) to see if their genitals are still there. One man who had his torn away begged to be shot then and there, and a comrade provided this service.
Although many veterans simply won’t discuss this issue with those who have never been in combat, there are some accounts of regret from soldiers in many armies who killed their own badly wounded or those of the enemy and regrets from those who did not. The morality of every incident is disputable, because the circumstances are always different, but the choices are always the same absolutes. This aspect of warfare is seldom discussed. It happens and veterans keep their judgments to themselves; some remain untroubled by their choices, some are haunted by them.
Captain Semrau was charged with second degree murder for killing the wounded Talib and has been involved in a court martial. These charges never should have been laid.
The only people who can properly judge Captain Semrau are his true peers – veterans of combat and perhaps medical doctors who have had to triage patients in the sure knowledge some wouldn’t survive. The only person who can truly condemn or reprieve him is himself.