Captain Semrau – Sentencing Pending

Well, Captain Semrau faces his sentencing this week, the “sentencing phase” of his court martial began today, and not surprisingly, the media was rife with speculation on what the decision would be.  Some Charter challenges were presented by the defence today but apparently all of them have failed.  I didn’t read in great deal what they revolved around, some had to do with punishments available, some had to do with the legitimacy of the trial in general.

It’s not really looking that great.  A fairly senior Canadian officer, Brigadier General Denis Thompson, was widely cited in the press today saying that in his view, implying in the view of  leadership of the CF, there’s no choice but to dismiss him from the CF with disgrace.  His exact words, cited in every major daily, were “This particular conduct, in these particular circumstances, is such a blow to the credibility to the institution that as a deterrent I don’t believe we have any other option than to release him from service,”

Arguing the counterpoint was at least one troop that spoke highly of Captain Semrau saving his life, of his cool demeanor, and all the other features sought in an infantry officer.  These are meant to present his character as being of a high standard, I would guess to suggest that he is indispensable to the organization.

I have to agree, to a large extent, with BGen Thompson – at least on the big picture terms.  According to the Laws of Armed Conflict and the ideas contained in the Geneva Conventions which are basically beaten into everyone who serves in the Canadian Forces, what Capt Semrau did was undeniably wrong.  The individual, the Talib, was by the terms of reference hors de combat, out of the fight.  At that point, he cannot be harmed in any way and must be offered whatever assistance may be reasonably provided.  It does seem that there was no assistance possible – the Talib had been basically shredded by 25mm chaingun fire.  All the medical care in the world wouldn’t have done a thing to help the guy – and according to the law nothing at all gave Captain Semrau the right to shoot the man.

I still cannot reason out a position on what should actually be done with the man.  Reading court martial decisions, as I do from time to time just to see what stupid things soldiers get up to, the judges rendering sentences always highlight the purpose of military justice and the aim of sentencing – one of which – a key point – is to provide a strong deterrent to others.  A message needs to be sent in this case to the rest of the Canadian Forces that is clear that the choice made that day was the wrong one, that it was seriously wrong, and that it should never happen again, and that’s the argument you’ll see for a strong punishment, whether it is imprisonment (which I think is probably very unlikely) or the dismissal of the convicted from the Forces.  It is for this reason I expect to see such a strong sentence, though I have absolutely no cause to celebrate it of course, to feel good about it.

What has astounded me has been the debate on the matter, both within and outside the Forces, and I have been following both.  Universally it seems few people can’t empathize with the decision, but still, many seem to think that the whole thing should have been buried.  Frequently I find myself reminding them – or seeing others remind them – of one of the darker periods in the history of the Canadian Forces – the “Somalia Affair”, when the murder of a Somali teenager by the name of Shidane Arone who had been detained by members of 2 Commando, Canadian Airborne Regiment,  came to light.  The crime had been covered up as best as possible but a military doctor broke the secret and the whole thing came out.  The CF was embarrassed, and the Canadian Airborne Regiment was actually disbanded as a result.  The CAR’s history and end are a subject of many other works, and I can’t delve into it much, save to acknowledge that what happened in Belet Huen that night was the crime of a very few, and I’m most saddened that it was used to besmirch the honour of an entire Regiment.  I’ve had the privilege of serving with and being instructed by many who were Airborne, and have had the chance to hear their tales of what Somalia was like and the problems that led to that event.  Had this incident been “buried” it surely would one day have come to light and we would go through the same mess, to the benefit of no one.

I still can’t say with conviction that doing the same thing would not have crossed my mind, that I would have been in the same dilemma as Rob Semrau faced that day before he acted.  I can say now that I know exactly what I’d have to decide, but not that I’d necessarily like it.  In that way, I suppose, the court martial has accomplished some measure of deterrence already.

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