4 mins to read

Catch 22 and the war on terrorism

Brian Edwards on Army recruitment.

Sat, 07 Mar 2015

Some days ago I wrote a post in the form of a short story. In the story a young man walks into a New Zealand Army recruiting office. He’s 23 and his resume makes it clear that he’s the sort of candidate the Army would welcome with open arms. 

The recruiting officer can’t believe his luck. This kid is officer material for sure. He tells him as much. But the ideal candidate expresses a reservation about signing up. 

He wants an assurance that he will never be placed in harm’s way, that he will never be asked to go to war. The recruiting officer is astonished. With as much patience as he can muster, he points out that it’s the New Zealand ARMY the young man wants to join – a fighting force. Armies go to war. Soldiers are trained to fight. Though he might never be required to risk his life, the assurance he seeks clearly cannot be given.

“I know all that, of course,” the young man says, “I thought there might be exceptions. Thank you for your patience.”

Two weeks later a hooded gunman mows down 15 people at a Westfield mall. CCTV footage will show him  hacking off the head of a late-middle-aged man with a serrated knife before running from the complex. In less than 12 hours Isis has claimed responsibility for the slaughter.

Within 24 hours the young man reappears at the door of the Army recruiting office. The recruiting officer looks up from the papers on his desk. “You’re back!” he says, “What changed your mind?”

I read the story back, then chucked it in the bin. The idea that someone wanting to join the Army could stipulate that he must never be placed in harm’s way or be asked to go to war seemed to me preposterous. 

Then, in the Herald on Sunday, I read that “… The Defence Force has confirmed soldiers will be given the chance to withdraw from the controversial deployment.”

This is apparently part of being “a good employer.” Personal or family circumstances or “ethical grounds” qualified as the principal justifications for not wanting to be deployed in Iraq. Apparently this has always been the case provided the serviceman or woman “had legitimate reasons.”

“Otherwise,” said the Former Chief of Army, Major General Lou Gardiner, “your mates would always see you as a person who opted out. It’s human nature.”

It is indeed. But I would have thought that “legitimate reasons” for not being sent to a war zone would include not wanting to be injured or killed. That too is “human nature.. And, as a Defence Force spokesman reminded us, “military personnel are people who have lives and families and individual circumstances that mean they are less appropriate for a particular deployment”.

Well, if you’ll forgive the term, this policy strikes me as “a minefield.” Take this example: A and B both claim “personal circumstances” for not being deployed to Iraq.  A joined the Army at 19. He is now 42, has a wife and two teenage children. His wife is expecting a third child.

B is 20, single and a relatively new recruit.

A can justifiably argue that his teenagers and unborn child  ought not to be left without a father or his pregnant wife without a husband. And he has already served his country well. B can justifiably argue  that, at 20, his life has barely begun. 

If he is killed in Iraq, he will never have the opportunity to marry, have a family or pursue a career or follow his dreams. He will be denied all the experiences and opportunities that A has already had.

Then there are C, D and E.

C is 31 and a fundamentalist Christian. He loves the army and wants to go on serving his country. But he cannot go against God’s commandment not to kill. Nor can he be party to training others to kill.

D is Muslim and a  follower of Islam. He claims that he cannot be involved in any deployment designed to bring harm to his fellow believers.

E’s great-grandfather was a pacifist and  imprisoned for refusing to take up arms during World War II. Like C, he loves the army but is reluctant to take part in a deployment which he regards as philosophically and strategically unjustified. 

He feels compelled to take a moral stance. We are, after all, he correctly argues, not formally at war with anyone. That being the case, the “rules of war” ought not to apply – even to someone in the  armed forces.

I call this policy “a minefield” because its implementation will require the army to make value judgements not just on the relative strength of one soldier’s argument against another’s but on the relative value of one man or woman’s survival against another’s.

Is a childless bachelor’s life less valuable than the life of  a married man with children? And should a soldier’s “ethics” really decide whether they are more or less likely to be placed in harm’s way or killed?

I would have thought not.

In the meantime, if you’re thinking of joining our army, navy or airforce, you might like to first consider getting married, having some kids, keeping your wife permanently with child and espousing fundamentalist Christianity or the Islamic faith. Definitely safer!

Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards posts at Brian Edwards Media.

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Catch 22 and the war on terrorism