Once again the British government has gone to war and has sent British soldiers – the Royal Air Force and at least some ground units (22 Regiment of the SAS was revealed to be operative inside Syria after the capture of two commandos) to active combat service in Syria. Wednesday’s vote in Westminster sanctioning the use of airstrikes was merely the legitimisation of the heretofore illegal British participation in the Syrian civil war. From as early as July the RAF has been launching airstrikes against designated targets inside Syria with MQ-9 Reaper Drones and as had aircrews embedded within US and Canadian air forces.
Regardless of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s assertion in the House of Lords that the criteria of a Just War have been met in the case against the Islamic State, his statements must be treated with a degree of cynicism. He assumes – quite wrongly as the case would be – that British forces will be acting in tandem with an international coalition against ISIS, and not a somewhat less noble proxy war against Russia and the Syrian government. Furthermore, as a former petroleum executive who stands to profit from his investments in oil, Justin Welby has a horse in the race. In fact Britain’s claim on a just war fails on three of its six conditions: London has not been transparent with regard to its intentions, has no exit strategy, and peaceful means to end the conflict have not been pursued (not even attempted).
Instead, and once again, the British government has delegated its moral responsibility to individual soldiers, who – not being conscripts – must be assumed to be agents who like the idea of war. Not exactly a perfect recipe for the waging of an ethical or moral war! So it is to the soldiers themselves we must turn to ask whether they will be soldiers or war criminals. In a war in which an estimated five thousand people have been killed in airstrikes and a further ninety-five thousand internally displaced (not including those who have fled the country) as a result of foreign intervention, ‘collateral damage’ does not appear to be a pressing concern for the allied and Russian forces. Given the dubious justification for the war it is clear that British soldiers have been placed in a difficult moral position.
When issued with orders that they know will incur collateral damage (civilian deaths) British military personnel will be faced with either blindly following orders (à la the Nuremberg defence) or conscientious objection. Admittedly this may be unfair in light of the conditioning of the soldiers within the armed forces, but as autonomous moral agents each individual soldier must be accountable for his or her actions even under orders. It is, however, generally accepted that war crimes and international law do not apply to the victors (former Prime Minister Tony Blair who knowingly fabricated the justification for the war in Iraq is unlikely to ever stand trial as a war criminal), but this will not diminish the moral responsibility of British soldiers. This war can only make ‘baby killers’ or morally courageous insubordinates.