Wednesday 19 January 2005

It matters what you say, it matters what you do

Three British soldiers are on trial this week at a court martial, charged with abusing and sexually humiliating looters they had detained at an aid camp in Basra, southern Iraq, in May 2003. 22 Photographs of the soldiers abusing naked and bound detainees have been released by the court.

Well, I can't say that I'm surprised, this has happened in this conflict already - most notably at Abu Ghraib prison. This time around though it's a little bit closer to home because it is British troops involved, and not just Americans. We British have always taken enormous pride in our armed forces. For a small island, this country has a big military history, and although we no longer have an Empire, and although it's been a fair while since we could last claim to have ruled the waves, we Brits like to think that we have one of the best armies in the world. It has been interesting to read about the role of the British army in Iraq over the last 12 months. British Units like the Black Watch were initially based in Basra and had a mainly peace-keeping role in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam's regime. The approach that they took was widely applauded (at least by the British press) for winning the hearts and minds of the locals, and compared favourably with the more rough-house tactics of the US forces. This view seemed to be endorsed by the Coalition high command, when the Black Watch was moved up from Basra to the troublespot at Fallujah to help the US troops take a grip on the city.

Turns out we aren't so wonderful after all. Tony Blair says that the pictures are "shocking and appalling" and added that:

"The difference between democracy and tyranny is not that in a democracy bad things don't happen, it is that in a democracy, when they do happen, people are held to account. That is what is happening under our judicial system."

I'm sure I must have said it before, but I'll say it again:

I don't approve of this behaviour - I deplore it - but HELLO this is a war. These soldiers are trained killers, and they have spent the last 12 months fighting tooth and nail against an enemy that simply won't do the decent thing and wear a recognisable uniform so that our vastly superior forces can roll them over and install a new government. What do you think soldiers do in a war? I disagree with this war. I do not think we have the smallest justification for being there. We went in with only the vaguest notion of a strategy ("Get Saddam!") and now we are stuck in a mess largely of our own creation. The Tsunami can only distract the public for so long.... the killing is still going on and we seem to have no strategy for making it stop.

Do I approve of the abuse of prisoners? No, of course I don't.

Am I surprised to find out that it is happening? No - it's been happening in places far closer to home than Iraq - Guantanamo Bay for starters, and I should think it's happened in every war we have ever fought in. I think you are naive if you think otherwise.

Selective morality, I reckon. Let me see if I've got this straight, because this is a tricky area, let me see if I've understood where we've drawn the line: It's okay for us to send our troops over to kill an ill-defined enemy in the name of an poorly defined cause, to shoot unarmed civilians in the street, in a mosque, but it's not okay for those same troops to tie up and humiliate their prisoners?

Personally I think that both are deplorable. I choose to draw my line a little further back.

I was also interested to see that the defence offered by the soldiers on trial was simply that they were "obeying orders".

Sound familiar?

"It was my misfortune to become entangled in these atrocities. But these misdeeds did not happen according to my wishes. It was not my wish to slay people. The guilt for the mass murder is solely that of the political leaders....Once again I would stress that I am guilty of having been obedient, having subordinated myself to my official duties and the obligations of war service and my oath of allegiance and my oath of office" Adolf Eichmann (chief of the Jewish Department of the Gestapo, and one of the prime architects of the Final Solution)

The 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of the Extermination and Concentration Camps is on 27th January this year.

It isn't only the other side who do bad things.

Have we learnt nothing in the last 60 years?

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