In political terms, a soldier’s body is viewed in purely instrumental terms. A soldier is simply a tool, a weapon, an individual psyche broken down to fit and wholly identify with a collective, cohesive martial mentality, and rebuilt to unquestioningly follow orders from a hierarchy that reaches its apotheosis in the hands of political leaders (who, in liberal democratic societies, have been elected and are supposedly meant to act as citizens’ proxies and faithfully represent their interests).
The fact that the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), at the very least, thinks little of the soldier’s body, both in terms of its bodily integrity and its embodied existence generally, was made evident when it (once again) denied that it had a duty of care towards British soldiers on a battlefield, specifically within the context of providing them with adequate equipment and the training to allow them to differentiate an enemy force from a friendly one. This is demonstrated in the case of Corporal Stephen Allbutt, who died during a “friendly fire” incident (three rounds of a high explosive shell from a Challenger II tank were fired on Corporal Allbutt’s tank, also a Challenger II) on the fourth day of the Iraq War in 2003. Corporal Dan Twiddy and Trooper Andy Julien also suffered severe injuries from the incident. On June 30 2011, Mr. Justice Owen of the Court of Appeal rejected the MoD’s claim that it did not have a duty of care towards the soldiers due to combat immunity (i.e. the extent to which tortious liability applies to members of the armed forces in the context of armed conflict). The decision is to be specifically contextualized within the remit of providing adequate pre-deployment and in-theatre training and the provision of equipment that, on the balance of probabilities, can significantly reduce the risk of friendly fire during a military operation, and does not encompass combat immunity as a whole.
Mr. Justice Owen’s decision (situated, obviously, within the judicial realm) is to be contrasted with the political view that a soldier is purely an instrument, which is ultimately reinforced by the MoD’s persistent claims to comprehensive combat immunity; although the total blanket protection was supposedly removed by s. 1 of the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987, the immunity can be entirely reinstituted by the Secretary of State, as per section 2 of the 1987 Act, which effectively means that once the Secretary of State states that combat immunity applies once again, the 1987 Act is as good as void.
On the 25th of June of 2012, almost a year later, the MoD finds itself appealing the decision of Mr Justice Owen at the Court of Appeal (the appeal remains outstanding). The principle of combat immunity fiercely propounded by the MoD alludes to an underlying, pervasive philosophy held within the political realm in which soldiers are regarded as the mere cattle of coercive diplomacy, as the enforcers of political promulgations, as the Clausewitzian embodiment of politics undertaken through force or the threat of it; in short, organic machines deprived of any thoughts or sentiments, made of disposable, cut-rate flesh, the instruments of a higher rationality that must be carried out at any cost, and without regard for the bodily effects of the soldiers who enact it. The Armed Forces Compensation scheme provides little comfort for deaths that could have been avoided, like in Corporal Allbutt’s case, through vehicle recognition training, and the provision of suitable equipment, such as, as argued in Corporal Allbutt’s case, automatic target identity devices and situational awareness equipment (i.e. secure tactical digital radio network with GPS) that could have avoided the conflation of Allbutt’s Challenger II tank with an enemy force.
In political terms, the worth of a soldier is tied only to his or her fighting capability (and yet, the MoD is blind to its own failed logic: how can a soldier engage in combat to the best of his or her capability if that soldier has not been given the comprehensive training and equipment to, for example, even recognize a friendly force on the same battlefield?); the soldier is reduced to a mere conductor of a political rationality that he or she has long given up the right to disagree with or even question. On a battlefield, a soldier is nothing more than a cog in a much larger, brutal war machine and the military-industrial complex generally, evidently deprived of his or her rights to bodily integrity, particularly when scarce resource allocations are of paramount concern; a soldier is further at a loss when sent out to a battlefield inadequately equipped and/or trained (consider, for example, the fact that Corporal Allbutt had to buy his own boots suitable for desert terrain), whether in a war of necessity, or most unnervingly, a war of choice.
Linda Roland Danil is a Doctoral Candidate, Teaching Assistant, and Researcher at the University of Leeds, UK.