Striking, rampaging soldiers should be thrown out in disgrace
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.