Strik­ing, ram­pag­ing sol­diers should be thrown out in dis­grace

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

THERE’S a Latin phrase, quis cus­todiet ip­sos cus­todes? (who guards the guards them­selves?), beloved of aca­demics when they pon­der tyran­ni­cal so­ci­eties where there is nei­ther bal­ance nor sep­a­ra­tion of power.

Plato asked the ques­tion first and the Ro­man poet Ju­ve­nal coined the phrase. Nei­ther meant it lit­er­ally.

Yet it’s a ques­tion star­ing us in the face this week af­ter 3 000 sol­diers, mem­bers of the South African Na­tional Force Union, protested on the grounds of the Union Build­ings.

They were armed. They went on the ram­page, and the po­lice stepped in and dis­rupted the il­le­gal protest, but not be­fore a Mil­i­tary Po­lice ve­hi­cle was set alight and the egos of some of the more mil­i­tant were se­ri­ously dented un­der a hail of rub­ber – both bul­lets and ba­tons.

In typ­i­cally South African fash- ion, al­most im­me­di­ately the de­bate went up about (a) the sol­diers’ demo­cratic right to strike and (b) the high-hand­ed­ness of the po­lice.

It is – even 15 years into our hard­won democ­racy – not just one of the most disin­gen­u­ous ar­gu­ments, it’s also dan­ger­ously flawed.

Sol­diers aren’t nor­mal cit­i­zens. The rights they are trained to give up their lives to de­fend are not ex­tended to them.

The de­fence force is not a democ­racy – there are no ba­sic con­di­tions of em­ploy­ment, cer­tainly no 40-hour work­ing week and no guar­an­tee of liv­ing to re­tire­ment.

Be­ing a sol­dier is danger­ous, which is why there is such a pre­mium on dis­ci­pline.

The Royal Navy dur­ing the time of Ad­mi­ral Nel­son was a bloody aw­ful place, so bad in fact that the navy used press gangs to cap­ture men to serve on the ships.

Their any in­fringe­ment was bru­tally pun­ished, from be­ing flogged to be­ing dragged un­der the keel of the ship and/or be­ing hanged from the yardarm.

If they sur­vived, as Win­ston Churchill put it, bug­gery, rum and the lash that char­ac­terised life be­low decks, they would leave ser­vice with a very small pen­sion and the sat­is­fac­tion that they had served their coun­try.

In the process, though, the Royal Navy be­came the world’s best fight­ing force at sea and re­tained that po­si­tion for cen­turies.

The same hap­pened in the renowned Ro­man le­gions, the sol­diers who carved out the great­est em­pire the world had seen.

One of the lesser-known gifts they be­queathed us is the con­cept of dec­i­ma­tion, so beloved of head­line writ­ers and clichéd hacks.

Dec­i­ma­tion was a pu­n­ish­ment for a cow­ardly or muti­nous le­gion.

The em­pire could not af­ford to lose the en­tire le­gion of 10 000 men, so in­stead it would make an ex­am­ple no one would for­get.

The sol­diers were forced to draw lots un­til one tenth of their num­ber had been se­lected.

Th­ese sol­diers were then ex­e­cuted by ston­ing, sword or clubbed to death – by their peers.

There’s an ar­gu­ment that the SANDF is a cit­i­zens’ army, a corps of vol­un­teers, with no war to fight. It’s a flawed ar­gu­ment.

The SANDF has in­cred­i­ble for­eign re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, far more than its pre­de­ces­sors, the South African De­fence Force or Umkhonto we­Sizwe, ever had.

And peace­keep­ing de­mands a far higher form of dis­ci­pline than sim­ple war­mak­ing ever did.

South African sol­diers have mu­tinied be­fore. Lieu­tenant-Colonel Jopie Fourie springs to mind. He was shot by fir­ing squad.

There are those who ar­gue that the 3 000 pro­test­ers did not mutiny, that they were not in uni­form and they cer­tainly didn’t have their ser­vice weapons. They are right. They will be eter­nally grate­ful for that small tech­ni­cal­ity.

What the sol­diers did do was af­front the high­est seat of power in this coun­try. They threat­ened the po­lice.

They shamed them­selves and the proud or­gan­i­sa­tion they serve and they fright­ened the hell out of this coun­try in the process.

I don’t think they should be shot, but I do think they should be thrown out in dis­grace.

They’ve lost the priv­i­lege of de­fend­ing us and that’s ex­actly what be­ing a sol­dier is all about. And if you can’t hack it, don’t sign up in the first place.

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