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A Canadian soldier from the NATO-led coalition rests on the muzzle of his rifle as he sleeps while riding in an armoured vehicle in Kandahar province November 16, 2007.


The sentencing of Robert Semrau for a battlefield shooting has provoked heated commentary. Some in the media have suggested that the outcome of the court martial has dealt a blow to the Canadian military's "warrior code" and will make it harder for our soldiers to make difficult decisions on the battlefield.

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching is that students often make their professors think more about issues such as those raised in the Semrau case. In a recent graduate class, the students made me question the wisdom of what has been said about it.

The first question raised: What exactly is the "warrior's code" and how could it exempt the captain from responsibility for his actions? Drawing on my own experience - I served in the Canadian Forces for 25 years and have taught Canadian military history for almost 20 - and from conversations with still-serving combat officers, I was hard-pressed to articulate it clearly. As described by some, the code includes the obligation to put severely wounded combatants, friends or foes, "out of their misery" if they are beyond medical help and almost certain to die. There have also been suggestions that it took this case for Canadian soldiers to recognize that the law of war applies to them in battle.

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Looking at Canadian Forces teachings provides a different perspective. Since the Somalia incidents in the 1990s, the military has introduced comprehensive training and education for all members in the laws of war and ethical behaviour as combatants. One of its references is a 2002 manual called Duty With Honour, which is "a defining document for Canada's profession of arms and must be read and understood by all who wear the uniform," as it says in its preface. In a section titled "The Military Ethos and the Warrior's Honour," it says that "honour itself flows from practising the military ethos." Besides being loyal to comrades and fulfilling one's duties, this ethos requires that all Forces members must adhere "fully to the law of armed conflict, especially in the humane treatment of prisoners of war. Honour insists that all non-combatants be protected and accorded the dignity and other considerations their situations may entitle them to." As an officer, Captain Semrau was supposed not only to understand this precept, but also to teach it to his soldiers and to practise it as a military professional. The notion that an unwritten "warrior's code" could somehow exempt members of Canada's profession of arms from doing their duty with honour would trouble most Canadians, I think.

A second question raised by the students: Why was Capt. Semrau acquitted of second-degree murder and attempted murder but still demoted? One can assume that the military officers sitting in judgment found that the charge of second-degree murder was not proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Furthermore, the punishment meted out by the judge, seen as too harsh by some and not harsh enough by others, was between that asked by the prosecution and that suggested by the defence and appeared to take mitigating circumstances into account - a practice not uncommon in jurisprudence. Besides the legal reasons for the court's findings, other reasons might include the nature of professional judgment by military professionals. One student raised the analogy of medical professionals and euthanasia. Some might occasionally give terminal patients lethal doses of painkillers, but, as Canadian law currently stands, those charged with doing so and found guilty are punished. As a military officer, the captain had an obligation to fully understand and apply the laws of war and the principles of military ethics. His colleagues may take his case as a salutary example, but his fate should come as no surprise to them.

Some have argued that the Minister of National Defence should exercise his prerogative to intervene in this case. For the minister to do this before the process is complete - the captain has 30 days to appeal - would call into question the military justice system and the honourable practice of the Canadian profession of arms. Such prerogatives should be exercised with great care.

Allan English teaches Canadian military history at Queen's University in Kingston.

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