Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Editorial | Wrong about General Saunders, Major Dixon

Published:Thursday | June 23, 2016 | 6:07 AM

The West Kingston Commission of Enquiry got most things right. One they got very wrong: their excoriation of the former Chief of Defence Staff Maj General Stewart Saunders and Maj Warrenton Dixon for the use of mortars during the 2010 internal security operation.

If General Saunders had not yet retired, the commissioners would, in all probability, have recommended that he never again be allowed to participate, much less oversee, an internal security operation in Jamaica, which, effectively, would have ended his military career. That is the recommendation they have made against Major Dixon, the Jamaica Defence Force's (JDF) mortar officer.

The finding against Major Dixon is egregious. Though not explicitly stated, it is based not on his action on the day, but presumably, too, on his role, as the army's senior tactical man on mortars, as advisers to General Saunders on their use in an urban environment, without the optimum operational distances to eliminate the possibility of casualty. This is problematic on two fronts.

 

FULL RESPONSIBILITY

 

First, as the commissioners acknowledged, General Saunders took full responsibility for authorising the use of mortars. "The decision ... was entirely mine," he said.

In other words, Major Dixon executed the orders of a superior officer, which no one has claimed were unlawful, and which if he had refused, would have put him in breach of Section 44 of Jamaica's Defence Act that makes a soldier who shows "wilful defiance of authority (or) disobeys any lawful command" liable to a jail sentence if convicted at court martial.

While soldiers are under no obligation to follow unlawful orders, obedience to superior officers is critical to discipline and the command and control structures of militaries. In any event, there is nothing compelling of the commissioners that General Saunders' decision to use the mortars was, of itself, "reckless and wholly irresponsible". Our conclusion, reinforced by the outcome, is to the contrary.

Indeed, the commission conceded that General Saunders "gave careful and deep thought" to his decision. He would have rejected the use of stun grenades, gases and the noise-making accoutrements used in war games as impractical in the circumstance of the live urban warfare in which the JDF was engaged against Christopher Coke's militia. Further, we accept General Saunders' conclusion that the skill with which the mortars were used in an admittedly difficult environment was a tactical success. It, in all likelihood, saved lives.

 

REGRETTABLE

 

The commission concluded that perhaps one person, and probably two, died from mortars. That is painful and regrettable. But it is also a real likelihood that the noise from the mortars that targeted open field disoriented and frightened Coke's gunmen and, at the same time, kept women and children indoors, thus preventing their use as human shields by the irregulars.

Indeed, soldiers with conventional, direct-fire weapons beat back and dispersed some of Coke's men in a bitter firefight in the Rasta City area of Tivoli Gardens. But elsewhere, a soldier was shot dead and others injured by gunmen while fighting their way into Tivoli Gardens. In other sectors, disorientation caused by the mortars may have limited the firefights.

We appreciate a call for a policy review on the use of mortars and decision making thereto. We might have no problem questioning, even regretting, General Saunders' decision, but the excoriating declaration of recklessness and irresponsibility on his part and the implicit punishment of Maj Dixon are wholly undeserved.