The Court Martial of Capt Semrau, Part III: Memories

Back in 1998, I was called as a witness in a military Summary Trial. I had spent the summer as an instructor teaching Basic Training in Dundurn, Saskatchewan. Basic Training is only slightly less exhausting for the instructors than for the students. Even though I was young and at my peak physical condition, an understrength instructional cadre had me routinely working beyond the normal exhaustion point – especially during the field training exercise: a five-day period of privation and near constant exertion. Months later, I was called to testify about events that occurred during this exercise. To be blunt: my memory of these events was seriously flawed.

As convinced as I was about the accuracy of my recollections, I was later informed that my testimony conflicted dramatically with those of the other witnesses. I described an event which occurred in the morning, for instance, with certain people in attendance and with a specific discussion. Other witnesses attested to a late afternoon event, with an entirely different cast of characters and dialogue.

And so I was made rather convinced of the limitations of memory and that even earnest eye-witnesses can be very, very wrong about what they think they saw.

This is nothing new to the science of psychology or the court system. Eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable – especially in situations that occur quickly or under stressful circumstances: circumstances that accurately describe that field exercise in 1998.

The army designs its training to replicate as much as possible the conditions it would face on the battlefield. So during that exercise there was stress, there was adrenaline, and there was exhaustion. But undoubtedly these sensations are much, much greater during combat in Afghanistan.

I bring all this up so that you might take certain late allegations at the Court Martial of Captian Semrau with a grain of salt: ie, allegations of an attempted, low-level cover-up. These allegations arose during the trial, but were thrown out and subjected to a publication ban – until now.

By way of a short explanation, (former) Corporal Tony Haraszta approached the chief military investigator outside of the trial and claimed he had just remembered new evidence: that Warrant Officer Merlin Longaphie had suggested to the small group that they “cover up” the incident. Military prosecutors were eager to include the evidence. Semrau’s defence was just as eager to exclude it. Given the circumstances of how the supposed evidence arose, the judge likely had little option but to order it excluded from the jury’s consideration.

Journalists are all but obliged to report these controversies, but after learning what have about the eccentricities of human memory I certainly feel that it was proper for this lately-remembered allegation to be thrown out.

Precious few facts describe what happened on that dusty battleground. There is no body to examine, and the alleged murder weapon was just one of dozens that had been fired lawfully in that place just moments before the alleged murder. There is little objective evidence. There is only threadbare memory.

The sentencing hearing of Capt Semrau begins next week.

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