The Court Martial of Capt Semrau, Part IV: Shoes

In a recent article in the Life section of the National Post, Cristina Alarcon, a pharmacist, ostensibly attempts to wear the shoes of Captain Semrau on that dusty battlefield in Afghanistan.

I take the opportunity to suggest that the author is slipshod and should try again:

Greetings Ms. Alarcon,

I read your thoughtful attempt to put yourself in the shoes of Captain Semrau and was moved to provide some feedback.

In short, I’m not sure your attempt was successful. One paragraph in particular seems to betray your medical-professional approach to the situation, rather than that of a soldier’s: “Confronted by such wartime misery, would I still hold firm to my principles that the ends (relief of suffering) can never justify the means (killing)?”

Certainly you can see how a soldier might believe the ends justify the means.

In the course of their wartime duty, a soldier is professionally required to kill. Indeed, they are not just required to kill, but to kill perfectly healthy human beings who might otherwise have potentially decades of long life ahead of them.

Soldiers must necessarily believe that the value of life lay beyond a pulse, beyond the flickering of an eyelid. Otherwise, they would not be engaged in their particular line of work.

And so putting yourself into the shoes of the young Captain, you must assume the logic of his professional duties. And doing so, knowing that you may already have killed many people on the battlefield, is it really so far a moral stretch to kill in order relieve an obvious and immediate (though admittedly not-long-to-last) suffering?

Sure it is illegal, and yes it might be a slippery slope, but if you have honestly put yourself into those combat boots, how could you not feel at least the lure to apply that modicum of mercy?

Although I disagree with her apparent philosophy, I’ll plug her medical-ethics blog:


Cristina’s response follows:

Hello Robin,

I greatly appreciate your taking the time you give me some valuable feedback.  I am fully aware that there is no way I can realistically put myself into the shoes of a soldier.  My very profession being one of healer already puts me at a disadvantage.  Still, this was not my real point.
While I do try to live via the general principles that the ends do not justify the means, the piece was rather a self-reflection on whether or not I myself would be able to hold onto these given such “misery” and chaos.  And honestly, I am not really sure.

This is why I did some research and came upon the blog of soldier-ethicist Pete Kilner

My intent was to try to understand whether or not soldiers have any guide-lines in battle (rules of engagement), and what these might be.

As I understand it, the ends of a soldier are to fight a war, the means are killing other men who are a threat to them and to others.  However, once the enemy ceases to be a threat, due to injury or being unarmed, the duty of a soldier can no longer be to kill.

And your last line may very well be true, that “if you have honestly put yourself into those combat boots, how could you not feel at least the lure to apply that modicum of mercy?”.  The lure might certainly be there.  This was what I was reflecting upon….not sure what I would do.


2 thoughts on “The Court Martial of Capt Semrau, Part IV: Shoes

  1. When a gunship blows you out of a tree missing a limb and intestines, well you get the point, mercy is not only justified it is humane. There was no animosity in his act; on the contrary, it was one soldier’s act of compassion to another.


  2. Hi Robin,

    Killing can only be moral for reasons of self-defense. Any other reason would make it selfish and wrong, though again, in the case of Semrau’s shooting there may have been other factors at play.

    Have a look at this

    And scroll down to read Paul Franklin’s testimony:

    “In the action of an officer shooting an unarmed wounded insurgent there are many issues at play.

    Did the “bad” guy try to escape?
    Did the “bad” guy do something that was threatening to the CF member?

    Self defence is always the preferred option and is always the soldiers right.

    Mercy killing, torture, and “doing the right thing” are not acceptable. The American soldier talks of his mercy killing explaining that there is no way a person can live with such grevious injuries.

    refer to these med links:….

    This “bad” guy could have valuable information that could be given to the coalition to help in the mission. This insurgent could be a farmer in the wrong place at the wrong time. He could also have tried to kill CF members and got wounded in the process. he could have been a dumbass and watching the battle from the top of a tree.

    All these do not warrant a death sentence, they are up to the coalition and Afghan authorities to decide in the proper format. There are courts, judges, a legal system (coalition and Afghan) to deal with this issue.

    It is the job of all CF members, ANA, ANP and other coalition troops to provide aid to the fallen. That’s why we train them in medical skill sets. We do this because we expect (knowing full well that the enemy will never give us the same courtesy) we want the same to be done for us. We must always hold our moral standards as high as we can bare them.

    As a medic I will help the most injured first that is my goal. Triage is not based on nationality.
    If there is a shortage of medical supplies, and that shortage will cause the death of a coalition or ANA, ANP soldier I will make the medical decision to save our people first.

    I am not naïve enough to not believe that this occurs and I will give extra care to our people while only providing the life saving skills neccesary for the insurgent to live. I ok with that. (on my personal moral code)

    But withholding a pain killer or a bandage is different than a bullet in a head.
    Also as a medical professional and with the medical chain of command we will make those decisions and take the praise and the wrath that occurs.

    The CF has a long and proud history and if the allegations are true then there should and will be appropriate punishment. The CF as an organization and as individuals we do not believe that unauthorized killing is ever a valid thing.

    We kill reluctantly, we kill with purpose and we will do it effectively.
    We do not kill innocents, prisoners, or soldiers that are wounded or injured.
    We will kill the enemy with a ferocity that is un heard of and when the battle is over we will let the Canadian morals lead the way.

    That is the only way to win a war and especially a counter insurgency one.
    The population of Afghanistan watches our every move we must always act accordingly or at the very least appear to act accordingly.

    On a final note the idea that a human should live to suffer the consequences of their actions is something I believe in. I will not aid in an insurgents ability to go to heaven one day sooner than I can prevent it. The virgins will have to wait…an afghan prison hospital seems appropriate punishment.”

    Paul Franklin
    (ret. Master Corporal medic)
    Double amputee (January 15, 2006 Kandahar)


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