On The Complex Case Of Captain Semrau

Although it doesn’t seem to be getting a massive amount of attention in the media, the curious case of Captain Robert Semrau is starting to get interesting with the trial now underway at Kandahar Airfield. Capt Semrau is an infantry officer from the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, currently standing trial on a murder charge relating to the death of a Taliban insurgent in a remote part of Helmand Province, Afghanistan in October 2007 (if I recall correctly).

Captain Semrau, by all accounts an outstanding soldier who began his military career in the UK with The Parachute Regiment, was charged after returning to Canada after a tour where he served with an Operational Mentoring & Liaison Team (OMLT, pronounced “omelette”), training the Afghan National Army.

According to what’s available, following a short fight with the Taliban, a mortally wounded insurgent was left on the battlefield. The ANA & OMLT outfit led by Capt Semrau determined they could offer no medical assistance of any value to the man, who was disarmed and lay dying. It is alleged that after telling the others with him to leave (reportedly “You shouldn’t have to see this”) that Capt Semrau administered something of a merciful ending, shooting the man dead.

This is a complex matter and one I’ve struggled to come up with a position on – and so far I have not settled on what I think. I’ve never been in the position, obviously, and I can’t begin to imagine what would have run through his mind. Here is a man, an enemy fighter who has just tried hard but failed to kill you, now dying before you. You have the power to end his suffering on determining that you cannot save him, something which you have an obligation to do despite the absurdity of the idea perhaps. What would you have done?

The clear textbook answer is that if indeed Capt Semrau shot the insurgent dead in cold blood after the battle – even if out of a well-intentioned sense of mercy to the man, he has committed murder. It was not for him to make that decision even if it was a morally reasonable thing to do. The fact that this guy was indeed an enemy, an insurgent, is irrelevant in the eyes of the law.

The reality I’m sure is more complicated and absurd. It’s a prime example of shades of grey, I think. I don’t envy anyone involved in the case – any of the witnesses or the lawyers or the judge, because the absolutes of the law are going to be hard to reconcile with a just decision in the matter.

I was annoyed when the charge was laid that some folks came out immediately screaming that the idea of charging a soldier – an officer – with murder in a war zone was wrong before any facts came out. Members of the armed forces are granted legal authority to use deadly force – they exercise the State’s monopoly on violence – but that does not mean there are no limitations or restrictions thereupon. The reality of the history of warfare is that horrendous murderous atrocities have happened any time we fail to be civilized and take up arms against each other for whatever reason. They are as much a part of war as anything else.

Much of the training I’ve experienced as a soldier involves decisions about appropriate use of force and making that call to shoot or not to shoot, and it is something taken most seriously. This case seems not so much about that though, and much more about the idea of a “mercy killing”. I have a much harder time reconciling a stance on that than anything else.

By all accounts Captain Semrau was a decent, disciplined, dedicated and loyal soldier, faithful to his duty and lawful authority. I think I believe the idea advanced that he was a man of compassion, who, confronted by a man slowly fading in some manner of mortal agony, did what he felt was the right thing in ending that suffering rather than leaving a fellow human being to so awful a fate. I don’t see what justice would be served by having the law insist he should have simply left, done nothing.

That, of course, is the rub. What to make of what the law says… For that there is indeed no easy answer.

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3 comments so far

  1. Ed Landser on

    The proper verdict was rendered in this case. The unwillingness to set a precedent of “murder” is understandable. However, the necessity of setting limits on the ability of a junior officer to kill on a whim needed to be established. There is no such thing as ‘mercy killing’ under the law, nor indeed should there be. Human life gets cheaper every day, as science lets us create it in test tubes, carbon copy it, extract it from DNA, etc. Resolving issues by the application of deadly force is an awesome responsibility, and our armed forces and police far more often than not handle that responsibility with dignity and honour. It is well to keep them within their arcs of responsibility, which is what this trial was all about.

  2. gryde on

    Capt. Semrau should be released from any ‘disgraceful’ charges. If he shot a fatally wounded enemy, then he should be tried for that. And then acquitted.

    We will never know the ‘frame of reference’ of a battlefield and the decisions needed to be made instantly. Lugging them into a civil court is not logical.

    Let the man be. He is an exemplary soldier and a credit to our army.

    • warriorbanker on

      I respectfully have to disagree. Captain Semrau was found guilty in a court martial by a jury of his peers and I respect that decision. As I said I have a hard time imagining what I would do, but according to the Laws Of Armed Conflict he had no legal colour of right to fire the shots he did.

      I do hope – and expect – that the punishment will fit the circumstances and be relatively minor because he is an otherwise model soldier.


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