In June 1944, deep in Nazi-occupied France at the fag-end of a filthy war, a team of SAS soldiers and French Resistance fighters ambushed a column of enemy troops on a quiet country road. Thirty-one men were killed by Bren gun fire and grenades, with several dozen wounded and captured.
Among these was a Russian officer, one of many captured on the Eastern Front who, given the choice between collaboration and execution, had switched sides to fight for the Nazis. He was badly, perhaps mortally, wounded but still lucid, and begged his SAS captors to kill him.
“What would you do?” he asked. “If I go back to Russia, I’ll be shot. If I go back to my German masters, I’ll be shot. And now these Frenchmen want to shoot me too for what I’ve done here.”
Reg Seekings, a supremely tough, one-eyed boxer from Cambridge, stepped forward and put a bullet in the Russian’s head. There was rough mercy in his action. But other members of the SAS were capable, at times, of killing unarmed men out of revenge.
Battlefield euthanasia and cold-blooded killing are both far more frequent in war than the military authorities care to admit. Soldiers frequently find themselves having to decide whether to end the life of someone suffering and beyond hope — a wounded comrade, an enemy combatant, or a civilian caught in the crossfire. Equally, war always throws up incidents when the red mist comes down, and murder ensues.
This week the writer Neal Ascherson revealed that he had killed two “hideously wounded” insurgents during the Malayan campaign, and suggested that Alexander Blackman, “Marine A”, who was convicted of murdering an injured Taliban fighter, might have acted “out of pity or out of frantic loss of control”.
Lieutenant-Colonel Ewen Southby-Tailyour described his own decision to give a badly wounded fellow soldier a fatal morphine dose as a “combination of kindness and sheer common sense”.
Whether Blackman acted out of kindness or cruelty, his case has focused attention on a grim, much misunderstood part of every war: soldiers are trained to kill in battle, but are seldom properly prepared for the killing that happens when the fighting stops.
To judge wartime killing by the standards of peace is to misunderstand the nature of war and human behaviour during conflict. Every battlefield situation is complicated by the inherent danger, the need for swift decision-making and, above all, the intense psychological heat of combat in which adrenaline, aggression and compassion compete. Neither extra-judicial killing nor battlefield euthanasia can be properly judged unless understood in context.
The Geneva conventions are clear: “Wounded or sick shall be respected and protected in all circumstances . . . any attempts upon their lives shall be strictly prohibited.” But soldiers have routinely ignored the convention, and throughout history have killed both their comrades and their enemies, sometimes out of kindness.
Soldiers often refer to an unwritten pact that if one of them is on the verge of death, another will hasten the end. That agreement is often extended to the enemy.
An instance of biblical battlefield euthanasia appears in the Book of Samuel. After the defeat of the Israelite army, wounded King Saul instructs a henchman: “Come, stand over me and kill me, for convulsions have seized me.” The young soldier complies, and is later executed by David for killing the Lord’s Anointed. There is no guidance on whether it would have been preferable to allow Saul to die slowly, commit suicide, or be tortured and killed by the Philistines.
In 1537 the French surgeon Ambroise Paré was appalled to see a French soldier who, on encountering three mortally wounded and disfigured enemy soldiers after the fall of Turin, “cut their throates [sic] gently”. The doctor upbraided the soldier for his “great cruelty”. The soldier responded that “he prayed God that, when he should be in such a plight, he might find someone to do the same for him, that he should not linger in misery.”
Napoleon had soldiers dying of plague in his retreating army euthanised with opium; TE Lawrence of Arabia “finished [off] those of our badly wounded” rather than leave them for the Turks to “kill them horribly”; the Second World War, the Vietnam War and the Falklands conflict all offer examples of soldiers on both sides killing the mortally wounded, sometimes in fury, sometimes out of pity.
Can the average soldier really determine when someone is suffering unbearably and is beyond saving? Should anyone kill an unarmed combatant, even when begged by a dying person to do so? Under the laws of war, without exception, anyone rendered “hors de combat” by wounds should not be killed. But they frequently are, and often by army medics who, when faced with the contradictory demands of preserving life and relieving suffering, opt for the latter.
Every non-combat killing case is different, made complex by issues of fear, care, mental stability and honour. Each should be rigorously investigated, with an understanding that these are not rational peacetime decisions, but actions taken in the strain and stench of battle.
It is hard for civilians to put themselves in someone else’s army boots, and imagine actions taken under pressure, in peril, out of ferocity or sympathy. Battlefield heroics are often painted in black and white, but the truth is always grey. Would you have had the courage to do what Ascherson, the 16th-century French soldier and King Saul’s henchman did?
At their best, both history and the law pose a demanding dilemma, the same question the injured Russian soldier asked the SAS, as he faced death: what would you do?
Ben Macintyre, historian, writer and columnist of The Times.