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Editorial | Two wrongs don’t make a right in torture allegations
If truth is the first casualty of war, good judgement runs a close second. But while violations of the rules of war committed by individual soldiers are often the consequence of battlefield chaos or adrenaline-induced conflicts with civilians, ordering soldiers to turn a blind eye to the likely mistreatment of detainees amounts to a cold-blooded disregard for the well-being of others.
It would be naive to think that warfare is without transgressions of good conduct – if such a thing exists in war – but the problem for the military right now is not that soldiers may have engaged in a few instances of bad conduct. Its problem is far graver: the military as an institution appears to have had a policy that allowed mistreatment or even torture to occur.
As heinous as individual lapses of good judgement are, the apparent existence of guidelines telling battlefield soldiers to allow other countries’ forces to detain suspects, and in so doing possibly exposing them to mistreatment in Iraqi prisons, is far worse – both because it makes the military a ‘bad guy’ in the eyes of those it was sent to help, and because it opens up Danish soldiers to reprisals or mistreatment at the hands of potential captors.
Making matters worse for the military is that this is not the first time it has faced allegations that its soldiers – whether by simply following orders or acting on their own initiative – either passively allowed detainees to be mistreated (in Afghanistan in 2002) or actively engaged in it (in Iraq in 2005).
Whether the military or its soldiers are guilty of wrongdoing in any of these cases or not, the allegations place it in a bad light. The first step in efforts to clean up its image is to be as open as possible and to co-operate with any investigation into possible misdoing – even if that means allowing top brass, former ministers or senior statesmen to be felled in the process.
Refusing to divulge information by claiming oaths of secrecy or a sudden inability to recall the facts, not only denies justice to the individuals who may have been affected, it also casts doubt on whether these allegations, if proven, were isolated incidents or part of a wider culture of disregard.
With the situation in Afghanistan still far from settled, the military’s leadership should be looking for ways to instil confidence in the country’s people that they are on their side. Showing that it does not protect its own soldiers at their expense would certainly be a good start.