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50 Years Ago: War, Crime and Punishment

Recently two young soldiers were convicted at Berkshire Assizes of robbery with violence. Instead of sentencing them straight away the judge gave them a choice – volunteer “unconditionally” for Korea or go to gaol. After they had a night to think it over their counsel told the judge: “They are eager to take advantage of your lordship's leniency, and volunteer for overseas service.”

An editorial in the Daily Mirror (9th May) strongly criticised the judge's action. The Mirror asks how the choice of the convicted men could be unconditional in such circumstances,. But there are other aspects of the matter that should be brought out, and the main theme of the editorial (An Insult to the Army) is of little consequence compared to the deeper questions concerning the cause of crime and war in our present society.

The comments of the judge Mr. Justice Hilbery) are indicative of the conventional attitude to crime. “You have been convicted of a very grave crime. When you robbed and attacked as you did each was not showing his true nature. Each of you is a better fellow than that. See active service and turn yourselves into men of courage.”

From this it would appear that when people rob and attack others without the sanction of the law they are not showing their “true nature.” If, on the other hand, they take part in organised attack and robbery against other nations (for what else is war?) then they are turned into “men of courage.”

The Daily Mirror believes that the men risking life in Korea are undertaking a high and honourable duty, and that it is not for courts to confuse military service with crime and punishment. In extenuation of the courts it should be pointed out that in the circumstances the confusion is pardonable. “War crime” is a name given, by the nation in a position to inflict punishment, to certain of the “military services” performed by the forces of other nations.

(From an article by “Stan”, Socialist Standard, June 1953)