Saturday, November 09, 2013

Paddy Ashdown and the treatment of prisoners of war

I am probably the last person in the party to have read Paddy Ashdown's autobiography, but at least it is fresh in my mind.

So the conviction of a Royal Marine for murdering an Afghan prisoner reminded me of a profound passage from it. Ashdown is writing about his time as a young officer in Sarawak:
On one occasion, after returning from a short patrol, I discovered one of our Marines hitting one of these detainees who had been captured a few days earlier. I have a furious temper, and on this occasion, to my shame, lost it completely, knocking the Marine across the room. I could easily have been court-martialled for this if anything had been made of it. But it wasn’t, and from then on everyone understood that mistreating prisoners was out of order. 
I claim no special morality in this. My act was one of irrational fury not thought-through principle. But when the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam broke six years later, I knew that that act of appalling brutality and horror had just been the last step in an escalation of violence that had been tolerated in William Calley’s unit. 
I do not think people leap from innocence to terrible violence in one bound. I think, rather, that anyone can succumb to the evil that steals up on us, little step by little step, and that what Lieutenant Calley did at My Lai could well have appeared to him to be just a small step beyond what had probably been perfectly acceptable common practice in his unit. 
Evil, it turns out, is not the great Beast of myth and legend. Rather, it imitates the bilharzia worm, slipping in imperceptibly between your compromises, to start its long progress to possession. 
If leaders do not have the courage or alertness to stop the relatively small transgressions against accepted values, then they risk initiating a chain of escalation which can end in horrors that would never have imagined or tolerated when it all started.
But at least this incident gives me the opportunity to say what a good book Ashdown's autobiography is. In many ways the parts before and after his time as an MP and leader of the Liberal Democrats are more interesting and more important.

He is also, to use an unfashionable concept, a good and moral man. The passage above should serve as a warning to those who have been crowing about the desirability of shooting prisoners of war.

And as my readers are all so young these days, I had better provide a link that will tell you all about Lieutenant Calley and the My Lai massacre.

Incidentally, you can see a young Lieutenant Ashdown in Sarawak at around the two-minute mark in this Guardian video profile.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"And as my readers are all so young these days"

No we're not. Some of us remember My Lai all too clearly.