Captain Robert Semrau: Murder or Mercy on the Battlefield? (Teacher's Guide)
Overview The First Geneva Convention established international laws that govern the treatment and care of the wounded and prisoners of war in armed combat. In the case of prisoners of war, they are not to be abused in any way. Their basic physical needs for food, clothing, and shelter are to be addressed, and if wounded, they are to be given full medical attention.
On 19 October 2008, while on a routine patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Captain Robert Semrau, killed a wounded, unarmed Taliban insurgent, who had been shot out of a tree earlier by a U.S. army Apache helicopter. Part of a Canadian mentoring team that was working with the Afghan army, Semrau was with a rifle company at the time, when they came upon the soldier. In the next few moments, the Afghan soldiers spit on and kicked the unconscious insurgent’s body, then left him to die. However, Semrau, a practicing Christian, went back and put two bullets into the wounded man’s chest, justifying his action later as an act of mercy for a dying man.
A couple of months later, the case became known to the authorities and an investigation was undertaken by The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS). Capt. Semrau was eventually court-martialled in June 2010 on a charge of second-degree murder, disgraceful behaviour, and neglecting his duty. On 19 July 2010, twenty-two months after the incident, he was found guilty of disgraceful conduct, but not guilty of second-degree murder. In October 2010, he was demoted to 2nd Lieutenant and dismissed from the Canadian forces. His military career was over.
This activity is designed for students in Senior High Canadian History classes. Students should:
Gain knowledge of the international rules pertaining to prisoners-of-war as outlined in the First Geneva Convention.
Gain knowledge of the specific events associated with the death of the Taliban insurgent, the subsequent investigation, and court-martial of Captain Robert Semrau.
Analyse the arguments both for and against Captain Semrau’s conviction.
Make comparisons with similar cases of questionable battlefield behaviour.
Consider the dilemma of an officer who acts according to his moral code in violation of military law. Consider also the dilemma his action creates for the men under his command and for the officers above him.
Evaluate the final verdict and sentencing from the perspective of Captain Semrau, the Judge, the Canadian Military, ordinary soldiers, and the Canadian public.
Present arguments orally or in written form on the Semrau case.
This will vary, depending on the class and the student outcomes envisioned. If one or more avenues of research are explored, then it may be wise to introduce the topic at the beginning of the unit, review it from time to time, and conclude with a research paper, a courtroom role play activity, or a class debate on the guilt or innocence of Capt. Semrau. (If your focus is on a student’s intellectual and moral development, that becomes the basis of your strategy. Covering every aspect of the Canadian History course will not then get in the way of meeting that student need.)
Become familiar with the news articles related to Robert Semrau’s court-martial. There are links to the originals online and to our summaries of them on this website, in the event that the originals are removed from Internet circulation.
Assign the students to read the news articles to become thoroughly familiar with the Semrau case.
Class discussion for initial reactions. Was Captain Semrau’s action “murder” or “mercy”? Was his trial fair and the verdict and sentencing just? Students should all have opinions.
Refer the students to the First Geneva Convention. What is the history and rationale behind international law in reference to the treatment of prisoners?
Find other examples, including Canadian, of unsanctioned battlefield behaviour. (Canadian Soldiers murdered in Normandy in 1944, the Somalia Affair, Allied War Crimes During World War II).
At this stage of the activity, point out that determining what is murder and what is understandable, but still not condoned, battlefield behaviour depends upon context and one’s perspective.
In a class discussion, review with the students their initial assessment of Captain Semrau’s court-martial. Have they modified their initial reaction? What insights have they gained from additional research into international law, other questionable battlefield behaviour, conscience versus military law, and officer responsibility to lead those he commands?
Captain Robert Semrau was the first Canadian soldier ever to be court-martialled on a charge of murder. In October 2010, he was found not guilty of murder, but was found guilty of lesser charges that resulted in his demotion and dismissal from the armed forces. By contrast, the murders of Canadian soldiers by the 12 SS ‘Hitler Youth” in 1944, as illustrated by The Bremer Murders went unpunished, but the issues raised by those murders are still with us.
a) Compare and contrast the SS murders with the alleged murder committed by Captain Semrau. What are the differences and similarities between them?
b) Outline the arguments for and against Captain Semrau.
c) Evaluate those arguments and take a reasoned stand either for or against the court’s decision
Note to Teachers: The research project above is designed to assess students’ ability to analyse, synthesise, and evaluate research material. It can be modified in any number of ways to fit the needs and abilities of your students.