Peace Matters Index

life imprisonment for desertion

ONLINE contents

- a real champaign moment
- a park named arndt
- life imprisonment for desertion
- homeland security
- military lessons
- second coming
- close the deso
- remembering Harry and Allen

- compled issue pdf

Since the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 the number of British soldiers going absent without leave or failing to rejoin their units after authorised absence has steadily increased. The number was 118 in 2002, rising to 135 in 2003, 230 in 2004 and 383 in 2005. The view that there may be a direct connection between these figures and British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to be shared by the Ministry of Defence, if a little noticed amendment to the definition of, and penalties for, desertion, inserted in the 2006 Armed Forces Bill, is anything to go by.

Historically, desertion has been defined as going absent with the intention of never returning, with special penalties applicable for desertion in the face of the enemy. The new definition includes absence which is not necessarily intended to be permanent but which is intended to avoid particular kinds of service, including overseas operations for ‘the protection of life and property’ and ‘military occupation of a foreign country’. Between them, these definitions cover British operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (as well as former Yugoslavia). The maximum penalty for such desertion is life imprisonment, whereas ‘ordinary’ desertion incurs a maximum of only two years.

If life imprisonment seems unduly harsh, it is sobering to recall that it was as late as 1998 before the death penalty was abolished in the armed forces for desertion in the face of the enemy, mutiny, and certain other military offences.

A further example of military sensitivity to a small but potentially significant climate of resistance to certain armed forces operations is apparent in the insertion in 2004 of a new caveat in the RAF leaflet setting out the procedure for claiming discharge as a conscientious objector: ‘Because objection to military service on grounds of conscience can often attract disproportionate Parliamentary and public interest, it is necessary for the MOD to be kept fully informed of all cases from the outset, and at times to assume control of them’.

In fact, the last publicly recorded case of a conscientious discharge (from the Marines) was in 1996. The sentence of eight months imprisonment recently imposed by a court-martial on air force medical officer Malcolm Kendall-Smith, for refusing orders to go to Iraq, arose from his argument that the British operation was contrary to international law, and, so far from claiming a discharge, he made clear his wish to continue as an officer, so long as he could remain within the constraints of international law. The MOD has, however, clearly been embarrassed by the publicity surrounding the case.


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