Afghanistan: Civilian casualties and conscientious objection

Two stories about Afghanistan have particularly caught our eye this week. The first is the revelation, in the Los Angeles Times, of the incredibly high numbers of civilians who are dying in the country: 30 in one 48-hour period. According to the article:

The Taliban and other insurgents often plant bombs close together, in hopes of killing troops and those who try to help victims.

While the callousness of this strategy beggars belief, it gives a horrifying insight into the nature of the conflict. Brutal, totally unprincipled, and indiscriminate. In May, the United Nations documented the deaths of 368 civilians, the largest number in any single month since they began to keep track.

Judging by the numbers, it’s more than five times more dangerous to be a civilian in Afghanistan than a member of the armed forces. 65 died in June — still 65 too many, to be sure.

Amidst all this destruction, Leading medical assistant Michael Lyons has just been sentenced to seven months detention in a military correction facility for refusing to attend rifle training on moral grounds.

As a medic, he has ‘protected status’ under the Geneva Convention, meaning that he is a non-combatant with the right to bear arms in self-defence or in the protection of a patient. That defence has not protected him from conviction, demotion to the rank of able seaman, and dismissal from the Royal Navy, however.

He developed a moral objection to the war after reading Wikileaks documents describing the conflict, and realising that he “was unable to find a real, just and noble cause to go out”.

It seems from previous testimony and courses I’ve done that even going out as a medic with all good intention, if you’re at a patrol base or forward operating base, it’s likely you’ll have to use your weapon and will have to turn civilians away who are in need of medical aid.

He added that “if more people in my position stood up, there would be a lot less innocent lives lost around the world”.

When civilians are being butchered, and we incarcerate those who have the courage to stand up and state — cogently and articulately — their objections to serving in the country, it’s time to radically rethink our priorities and to begin valuing peace more highly than ‘winning’.

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