What happens when people are given free reign to do what they want with impunity? When there are no consequences for their actions because there is no one to whom they are accountable? British and American soldiers have, in increasing numbers, been joining private military corporations, an opportunity to earn far higher wages than they would get in the army.

In 2003, Order 17 was imposed on Iraqi law, giving private contractors immunity from the punishment their actions would otherwise have caused. And even now, after Order 17 has been abolished, it continues to have an effect, with these private soldiers successfully getting away with anything.

Corruption and Conscience

Ken Loach's film, Route Irish, investigates what happens when unrestrained brutality, extant in Iraq, begins having consequences back home. The film begins with Fergus (Mark Womack), on a ferry in Liverpool, on his way to attend the funeral of his best friend, Frankie (John Bishop). As a child, Fergus had been as good as adopted into Frankie's family, and the two of them had grown up together almost as brothers. They were inseparable, and when Fergus went off to fight in Iraq, Frankie left his wife Rachel (Andrea Lowe) at home and went with him. When Fergus quit the SAS to become a private contractor so did Frankie.

But Frankie stayed on as a private soldier even after Fergus returned home to the UK, and he was recently killed while travelling on the world's most dangerous road, which connects Baghdad Airport to the Green Zone and is commonly known as Route Irish. Haynes (Jack Fortune), one of Frankie's employers, speaks at his funeral, describing him as "a protector, a nation builder, a force for good." He tells the mourners that Frankie and other private soldiers like him, though on their deaths they receive "precious little respect at all", in his book, "these men are the unsung heroes of our time". Meeting with the family afterwards, Haynes and his colleague, Walker (Geoff Bell), tell them that Frankie was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, but Fergus believes that there is more behind Frankie's death than they are letting on. He begins his own investigation and learns that Frankie had been having attacks of conscience following the shooting of a family of civilians. He explains to Rachel that Haynes and Walker were "trying to avoid a scandal. They don't want to get a reputation as cowboys. That could jeopardize millions worth of contracts."

In Fergus's experience, the leeway given soldiers for interrogating prisoners more often than not resulted in torture, limited only by the motto "no blood, no foul". "It means", explains Fergus, "if they don't f***in' bleed, you've done nothing wrong." Why is it that when we are allowed to do whatever we want, we more often than not lean towards the negative? Often the rules that govern our lives stop us doing bad things. In general, we're free to do whatever good in the world we feel inclined towards. But when those rules disappear, even if those around us wouldn't consider us bad people, we still have an inclination to experiment with all those things we couldn't do before.

There are things we are technically allowed to do, but might not do in reality because of our conscience – something within us that is able to distinguish right from wrong. Just because something is legal, that doesn't necessarily make it right. But there is another part of us that is always seeking to satisfy its own desires. Freud describes them as the super-ego and the id. The Bible calls them the 'spirit' and the 'flesh'.

we often confuse justice with revenge, and as flawed human beings, we just aren't qualified to deal out our version of justice

Repeatedly in the New Testament, we encounter this schism between the spirit and the flesh. "I don't really understand myself", says one New Testament author, "for I want to do what is right, but I don't do it. Instead, I do what I hate" (Romans 7:15). Although passages like this are talking about the conflict between God's Holy Spirit and human nature, and that Holy Spirit only lives in people who have committed their lives to God, the ability to tell right from wrong exists in each one of us. That morally conscious part comes from the fact that we were all made in the image of God, while the part that seeks its own gratification comes from our rebellion against God.

Both Frankie and Fergus demonstrate the fact that each of us has the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Firstly, when Frankie realises that these innocent people have been killed, he is upset. He seeks to right his mistake, despite the problems it could cause for his employers and fellow soldiers. Later, when Fergus deduces that Frankie's death wasn't an accident, he wants to see justice done. Unfortunately, however, we often confuse justice with revenge, and as flawed human beings, we just aren't qualified to deal out our version of justice, as Fergus himself clearly demonstrates. God has put some people in positions whereby justice can be dealt out fairly, but even they, as this film shows, are not always able to punish those who deserve it. Fergus offers Rachel an example of the corruptness of the system: "Remember the Iraqi that was picked up by the soldiers in Basra? Huh? Ninety-three injuries. Beaten to death. They still got off with it! They close ranks. They always have. They always will!" In the end, only an all-seeing and all-wise God is able to punish justly those who deserve punishment.

But we ourselves aren't perfect either. Too often we allow ourselves to be controlled by the rebellious part of our nature. By things we know to be wrong, but perhaps 'aren't quite as wrong' as murder, or theft, or corruption. Ought we to get away with it? Is there a particular line we need to cross before we ourselves are deserving of punishment? The Bible says that any wrongdoing requires punishment; from thinking wrong thoughts about someone, to murder. If we think back over our lives, how many times have we done something wrong? Human beings are naturally inclined towards evil. As we are now, it is impossible to live lives anywhere close to perfect. According to God's perfect justice, we are all destined for punishment. Some religions suggest there is a way to avoid that punishment by doing enough good to cancel out our bad. Even if that did work, can we know for certain that we've managed to account for every wrong thing we've done?

But alongside God's perfect justice, he also offers mercy. He knows that none of us can ever hope to live up to the standard of perfection he requires, and so a long time ago, he became a human being and lived a perfect life on our behalf. He was then punished in our place, thus opening up the way for each member of our very flawed race to be forgiven. All that is required of us is to accept his sacrifice and believe in him. We no longer need to be punished. That may not appeal to our sense of justice – that even those we see as irredeemable can still be saved. We might think Fergus was right to dole out punishment on those he felt were responsible for Frankie's death, and that they deserved what they got. But then, Fergus himself was far from perfect. So it comes down to this: do we want to rely on our own imperfect notions of justice, or the justice established by a good and perfect God?

Film title: Route Irish
Keywords: Morality, conscience, human nature, justice
Director: Ken Loach
Screenplay: Paul Laverty
Starring: Mark Womack, John Bishop, Andrea Lowe
Distributor: Artificial Eye
Cinema Release Date: 18 March 2011
Certificate: 15

Buy Route Irish from Amazon.co.uk

© 2011 Richard Blakely