As an ex-officer of the Defence Forces, I would welcome the opportunity to add some balance and perspective to the article produced by Michael Clifford in last week's Sunday Tribune.

Comdt Niall O'Donoghue was tried by a general court martial for a breach of military discipline. Within the Defence Forces, discipline is the bedrock upon which the military operates. The legislative scheme applicable to the Defence Forces is designed to ensure tight command and control over the largest legitimate armed group within the state. It also ensures that the military functions as a cohesive force. The Irish Defence Forces is not unique in this regard. I have encountered many international forces who operate within similar structures and parameters.

To consider the recent court martial as purely a case of one individual insulting another individual is too simplistic. What occurred was conduct that runs contrary to the very core of what the military adheres to. Comdt O'Donoghue's commanding officer was under a duty to take a corrective action against conduct which, to use the military's phraseology, "was contrary to the maintenance of good order and discipline".

There are a number of consequences that can flow from such conduct being either ignored or unchecked. Two are significant.

Firstly, if the impugned conduct was not countered adequately, then the position of the commanding officer is weakened. In small units this can be very detrimental. Effective units operate within a vertically cohesive structure. The structures are hierarchical – they need to be. A weakness at the top permeates through the organisation. Due to the "unlimited liability" clause associated with military operations, weaknesses at unit leader level can have serious consequences.

Secondly, Comdt O'Donoghue is a senior officer in the Defence Forces. The force expects that its commanders conduct themselves appropriately. There was more to this relationship than just Comdt O'Donoghue and his commanding officer. Comdt O'Donoghue also had command over subordinates. Those subordinates are entitled to rely on their belief that their commander adheres to the highest military standards of respect and integrity. Conduct which detracts from such a belief has no place within the organisation.

Clifford used his position to make a number of observations as to military service in general and the conduct of the court martial in particular. If they were meant to induce a reaction, then he has achieved his objective. If they were written in earnest, then they display a lack of appreciation and basic knowledge as to the subject matter. By referring to the seminal quote from A Few Good Men, Clifford has obviously missed the entire point of what the film was about. The climax was not the exchange between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson but rather the realisation from the corporal that he had acted dishonourably. That film was about honour.

I would accept that those who may not have served in the military would consider dismissal from the force to be an excessive punishment for Comdt O'Donoghue's offence. If you have not been part of the military, then it may be difficult to reconcile the utterance with the sentence passed. I remember a quote attributed to an Irish politician when trying to describe to an American journalist the root causes of the difficulties in the north of Ireland, "to those that know, no explanation is necessary, to those that don't know no explanation is possible."

Comdt Sean Murphy (Retired),

'Woodlands', Woodleigh Park,

Model Farm Road, Cork