On rewarding soldiers for killing

By Jonathan Bartley
September 22, 2010

Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday are fast approaching (you can read some of the work we have done in this area about looking at the values behind our remembrance including Kate Guthrie’s excellent report last year which was praised by the Guardian). So it seems highly appropriate that a debate has emerged in Scotland around the place of medals.

It has come from a most unlikely source however, and that is the committee stage of a bill in the Scottish Parliament concerning assisted dying, and comments from Rev Ian Galloway, convener of the Church of Scotland.

Yesterday, Margo MacDonald, an independent MSP, Parkinson’s disease sufferer and the proposed legislation’s sponsor, suggested to Galloway there were circumstances in which those who ended the life of another person were rewarded.

“We award medals to soldiers who have killed other soldiers, and that's the taking of human life” she said.

Galloway responded: “I don't think that's a good idea that we do that, I think it's terrible, I think we should change it.”

MacDonald: “What, no medals?”

“Absolutely, I think that killing in wars is tragic,” he confirmed.

“I think the fact that they happen is tragic, and if it is a necessity that we do these things, I do have a bit of a problem about the way that our values system holds that up.”

Predictably the Telegraph is up in arms already with the headline: “Soldiers should not be awarded medals for killing, says Churchman”.

It highlights however a difficult line that the Church always walks, and that is that is whether from a Just War or pacifist position, war is always considered an evil. (It is simply that from a ‘just war’ tradition it can be considered the lesser of two evils).

Issuing a clarification after the event, the Church of Scotland suggested that what Galloway meant was that whilst the bravery and courage of soldiers could be acknowledged with medals, the killing should not being celebrated or rewarded.

Galloway should be supported for his bravery in making the point. He will get a lot of abuse (and already is) for doing so, and it is sad that more church leaders don't speak out in the way that he has. Many of course feel hamstrung by their close alignment with the military, not least through chaplaincy services.

The controversy which emerges when these kinds of issues are examined (and which also emerged when we suggested a few years ago that red poppies might be made available alongside white ones to give people a choice about how they remember) highlights once again how this is a distinction that few think about making. Many feel that we can only love, care and even honour soldiers by justifying, and even rewarding, the killing that they do. It encapsulates the idea that violent killing is redemptive.

But such an approach also underlies the common mantra that “if you support the soldiers, you support the mission” (something taken up by some senior chaplains in the church). It is an overtly political position, which at its worst, brings justification - and even celebration - for killing on a mass scale.

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