Why can’t they lay off Norman Kember?

On Thursday you probably all heard that Norman Kember, a British peace activist who had been held hostage in Iraq by some rebel group or other, was freed by soldiers of various countries including (and this bit was prominently reported in the media) the British SAS (Special Armed Service - or is it Air Service?). Practically within hours of the guy being freed, people started levelling criticisms at him for not being grateful enough to the soldiers who rescued him. The logic must have been that because he was a pacifist, he must have considered soldiering generally to be a bad thing and therefore could not give thanks to soldiers even for doing him a good turn (as if it was somehow beyond the call of duty), or that he would not have wanted any soldiering done for his sake - or perhaps that it had put a dent in his “peace and love conquers all” philosophy which he must have resented somewhat. (More: here, here, here. Tags: .)

It seemed that even General Sir Mike Jackson, head of the British Army, was dragged into this, saying that he was “saddened” at the apparent lack of gratitude, although certainly their group’s statement, released on Thursday, has no trace of gratitude towards the soldiers themselves. While I don’t share their pacifism myself, it is entirely consistent with a belief that being a soldier is an inherently sinful profession that one does not thank a soldier for simply doing his job. The SAS’s reputation will, of course, be boosted somewhat by this: the fact that they could rescue three hostages without firing a single shot (because the terrorists were not there) and without expecting any gratitude (because it’s their job) will confirm the almost mystical powers the SAS has in some people’s eyes. The initials SAS were said, at one Conservative party conference in the mid 1990s (not long before they were kicked out of office), to stand for “don’t mess with Britain”; it is expected to get jobs done, every time.

Still, it should be remembered that rescuing hostages is a police action; it’s not really military work even if it’s soldiers doing it. One of the ways army recruiters used to break the claims of conscientious objectors during the First World War was to ask them what they would do if they caught a German raping their mother or sister; but protecting one’s family from an aggressor is not the same as shedding blood in support of nationalism. Perhaps this is why the group have issued statements of thanks since their initial statement; but Kember’s ordeal has been over for less than three whole days - is that really enough time to pillory him for being an ungrateful swine, as some had probably decided that he was?

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