The war dead in the era of liberal interventionism

In 2003 the bodies of 32 Spanish deceased soldiers who died on their return from Afghanistan were handed to the wrong families. Six years on, the search for responsibility continues, or does it?
Gloria Martinez
14 December 2009

Body-bag syndrome has become a popular term to describe the lack of Western political will to contribute to international military operations. Even when troops participate in international operations described as having ‘peacekeeping’ or ‘humanitarian’ intentions, politicians are subject to political and public scrutiny when soldiers’ lives are lost. Martin Shaw’s The New Western Way of War illustrated the challenges that Western societies face as the scope of security agendas are expanded to manage international conflicts while the expected human cost incurred by contributing states diminishes.

There is little doubt that, due to the very violent nature of the scenarios the armed forces of Western states face in some of the international missions they are sent to, there will be fatalities. And when this happens, there is an expectation that the relevant government will act in accordance with the circumstances, and with the utmost respect for the lives lost. The internationalisation of the armed forces and the progressive militarisation of western foreign policies has not necessarily been followed by the development of a cosmopolitan public conscience in which the lives of national soldiers can easily be justified when they occur as part of operations that are still seen as irrelevant to the immediate national security. As a result, ensuring political sensitivity, transparency and accountability is all the more important.

Citizens have every right and responsibility to demand political and public recognition for the sacrifices of those people who agree to put their lives at risk at the mercy of political agendas, even if one disagrees with the very notion of military intervention and war. Today Western governments’ expectations of their armed forces have increased significantly. So have the expectations of Western societies, who are susceptible to the armed forces’ compliance with international standards and international humanitarian law while at the same time expecting quick and decisive action and a safe return to normality.

This is why the way Spain has dealt with the controversy of the Yak-42 catastrophe threatens the very essence of Spanish, and Western, democratic values. When in May 2003, a plane carrying Spanish troops returning from Afghanistan crashed in Turkey killing 62 soldiers, the then Aznar government’s priority was to repatriate the bodies of the dead soldiers immediately and avoid a public backlash. The repatriation was carried out within hours at the order of the then Minister of Defence Federico Trillo, with the funeral held at six o’clock on the evening of 28 May 2003 - a mere 60 hours after the accident. A year later it was discovered that in the hasty process of repatriation the families of 32 of the 62 deceased soldiers had been handed over the wrong bodies, and one coffin was found to contain three different DNA samples, with Trillo accused of being politically responsible for the blunder. 

A court case begun on 24 March 2009 is now trying to answer failings in both the identification process and the way the repatriation was handled by Spanish authorities. From the investigations and the court proceedings it can be concluded that the Aznar government was in a hurry to carry out the funerals for the soldiers. Only domestic pressure over the significant loss of life can be speculated to explain why Spanish authorities did not carry out a proper identification process and focussed instead on repatriating the bodies and organising the state funeral. The accident reignited the controversial issue of the presence of troops in Iraq and Spain’s contribution to the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ since March 2003, a topic the government, opposed by the anti-war PSOE, was desperate to avoid. 

The court’s ruling in May has resulted in three army officers being sentenced to jail (one general and two officers from the medical unit sent to Turkey to carry out the identification). However, there are no political fatalities, and the then minister of defense, Trillo (now the conservative Popular Party’s Justice spokesperson in Congress), was exempted from providing evidence based on the fact that he had made his memoirs public (published in 2005 as Memorias de Entreguerra). Furthermore, Trillo continues to receive his party’s unconditional and uncritical support. Instead, three high-ranking members of the most hierarchical and loyal national institution that exists today, and who were acting under government instructions, have been made responsible for the negligence. This hardly represents the process of due diligence that should characterise a Western democratic nation such as Spain.

Spain is not alone in this, although arguably this is probably the worst case yet of political negligence. In 2006 the Australian government sent the wrong body to the widow of a soldier who died in Iraq. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has only recently been the subject of strong criticism for misspelling the name of a deceased solider in a handwritten letter to his mother, while several other letters were delayed. The question then arises: what role and expectations do the armed forces of states meet for Western politicians, and how do governments contribute to civil-military relations? How much is a soldier’s life worth?

It is not enough to ensure that, in the event that military intervention is decided (rightly or wrongly) the appropriate measures, planning (the Chilcot inquiry into Iraq a case in point), and equipment are provided for the completion of the mission and the established mandate. In a climate of budget constraints and volatile public reactions, the conservative Spanish government action then, and lack of accountability now, threatens the very democratic fabric of Spanish society. It also affects the very core of Spanish civil-military relations when soldiers are considered a mere political tool to advance particular political agendas. Due diligence and political transparency must take place, and must be demanded by democratic societies. Today, the armed forces are expected to fulfil an increasing number of civilian tasks in an attempt to maintain the relevance of a national institution that has experienced a great deal of change in the last few decades, but soldiers cannot be expected to adapt in a political and societal vacuum.

Society and governments cannot simply wash their hands of cases like these. Even if one disagrees with the operation these soldiers were part of, let’s not forget that, ultimately, the political decision to send the troops there in the first place was not made by the armed forces but by a democratically elected government. The government accordingly needs to take full responsibility for that decision from the moment it is made until the moment that the whole operation is completed, dismantled and the military personnel returned safely home. And government departments need to remain transparent in their processes and, moreover, fully accountable for any mistakes that are made. Society also needs to take responsibility by demanding political accountability. No families should suffer what the families of these 32 dead soldiers are suffering today.

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