James Turley examines the atrocities in Basra
In 2003, Baha Mousa was arrested with nine other Iraqis by British troops in Basra. Two days later, he was dead; in the intervening time, according to the coroner, he had suffered 93 distinct physical injuries.
Nine years later, an inquiry into his death - and the treatment he and the others suffered at the hands of the British army - has finally concluded. It reveals what any intelligent observer would expect - Iraqi civilians were subject to repugnant physical brutality, to the apparent indifference (or, more likely, with the active collusion) of the chain of command.
This has caused something of a stink in the British establishment. As well it might - not long ago, we were still being treated to smug statements from the great and the good that we were a civilising influence on our American allies, who were perhaps too quick to resort to wanton brutality and ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. Like every other part of the British state, the armed forces have a peculiarly exalted self-image; it is supposed to be a bastion of those great British values of moderation and prudence, morally upright and valorous.
Thus, those at the top of society are falling over themselves to condemn the behaviour of those soldiers nine years ago. “The British army, as it does, should uphold the highest standards,” opined David Cameron. “We should take every step possible to make sure this never happens again.” Foreign secretary William Hague, meanwhile, was on hand to point out that “torture” - the ruling class usually prefers ‘mistreatment’ or some other euphemism, when referring to its own actions - is not a particularly effective way of getting information out of people. That is true, of course, but it seems nobody told the British high command in Basra.
The Tory leaders thought it a good idea to get their condemnations in early, in order to set the terms in which this atrocity is discussed. They serve fundamentally to restrict the issue to the narrative of a ‘few bad apples’, combined with ‘poor oversight’ from those charged with keeping the rank and file on their best behaviour. The army can thus be seen to put its house in order, and swear - on its unimpeachable honour - that no such disgrace shall ever happen again ... or at least until we have forgotten about this one.
In fact, this is all so much risible play-acting. The army, in the first instance, is a machine for taking ordinary working class men and women and turning them into trained killers who will do the job they are told to do without remorse. Even if it were the case that the various responsible officers were completely in the dark about the torture taking place on their watch, we would have to ask - were the direct perpetrators torturers in their civilian lives? Were they recruited from maximum security prisons and institutions for the criminally insane? It is not terribly likely (the oh-so-honourable British army does not recruit among such people); so this sociopathic violence is a product of the brutalising experience first of military training and then of combat experience.
The army aims - in many cases, successfully - to cultivate all the seeds of sadism and misanthropy it can find in its recruits, until they bloom into an active desire for violence. The result, according to one of Mousa’s fellow detainees, is a competition among soldiers to see who can kick a prisoner the greatest distance across a room. ‘Upholding the highest standards’, indeed ...
As noted, however, it is completely implausible to sustain a plea of innocence on the part of the army chain of command. The phrase ‘military discipline’ did not enter the everyday lexicon for nothing; it is safe enough to assume that, if there was not a direct command to brutalise these prisoners, somebody high enough up the military career ladder to matter allowed it to happen. One major Michael Peebles admitted ordering soldiers to hood detainees and keep them in stress positions - but he claimed he was unaware that these techniques were illegal, and told the soldiers not to go “over the top” - so that’s all right, then.
Equally, it is safe enough to assume that Mousa and his fellow victims are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Again, let us assume that the ‘few bad apples’ theory of torture obtains; are we really to accept that the distribution of ‘bad apples’ is such that they should all end up in the first battalion of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment? No doubt there are many more battered corpses in Iraq, which have been written up by army bureaucrats as less suspicious deaths.
So does the Mousa inquiry’s report recommend a root-and-branch clear-out of the military branch, radical restructuring of the armed forces, more rights for squaddies and perhaps protection for whistleblowers? Of course not. Broad immunity from prosecution was granted to soldiers who agreed to testify in the inquiry - their testimony cannot be used against them, even if it reveals that they lied in previous proceedings (notably the court martial that resulted in the conviction of corporal Donald Payne.)
As for the army, it will take more steps to ensure that soldiers are aware of the legal ins and outs of different ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. That is about it - although it takes the right honourable Sir William Gage 20 pages of repetitious ‘recommendations’, drowning in military jargon, to arrive at such a profound conclusion. We can certainly rule out any but the most tokenistic prosecutions. Even Payne was only sent down for a year for “inhumane treatment”, and acquitted of manslaughter. (Is the British state suggesting that Mousa died of natural causes?)
Compare the reticence about prosecuting ‘our boys’ (let alone the top brass who preside over this torture apparatus) to the recent vogue for throw-away-the-key sentencing of those individuals who dared to pinch a pair of trainers in the recent riots. More pertinently, compare the fate of three men - Munir Farooqi, Israr Malik and Matthew Newton - convicted of various offences related to their attempts to recruit jihadi militants.
Newton got six years, Malik a minimum of five, and Farooqi a whopping four life sentences. None have ever killed anyone; it is not known whether their recruitment efforts yielded any success, or whether they were simply toytown jihadis of the Four lions variety. Indeed, somewhat revoltingly, the paucity of hard evidence is cause for celebration for one detective chief superintendent Tony Porter, whose words should unsettle any democrat. He says: “This was an extremely challenging case, both to investigate and successfully prosecute at court, because we did not recover any blueprint, attack plan or endgame for these men” (that is, no evidence of actual wrongdoing).
“However,” he continues, “what we were able to prove was their ideology. These men were involved in an organised attempt in Manchester to recruit men to fight, kill and die in either Afghanistan or Pakistan by persuading them it was their religious duty.” There you have it - a man has got himself four life sentences on account of his ideology.
The direct link between the two cases, which accounts for the wild disproportion in the severity with which they have been treated, is in the end the ideological imperatives of the British state. It needs us to believe - whatever the rights and wrongs of this or that war - that fundamentally the British military is a force for good. It organises great mass rituals to bond civilians ideologically to itself; most prominently the annual Remembrance Sunday jamboree, but also The Sun’s Help for Heroes charity. When the realities of war - which inevitably involves brutality and dehumanisation - strike too close to home, that ideological compact is threatened, and the state’s management of the scandal is based primarily around damage limitation.
The state reserves the use of legal muscle for those at odds with this cosy consensus - let us say, those distributing fiery leaflets preaching holy war; in short, for those whose political beliefs place them in the most direct opposition (the advocacy of military resistance) to their country’s pursuit of disastrous military adventures. Such people must be punished severely and publicly, pour encourager les autres - but also so that broad masses can be brought through yet another ritual (of condemnation of terrorism and treason) designed to cement their bond with the state.
Communists, needless to say, are not fooled. The atrocities that took place in Basra were not perversions of a fundamentally noble cause, but perfectly fit the profile of a singularly rapacious imperialism, and especially the profile of Britain - which once exploited and plundered a quarter of the planet in much the same manner. The rantings of Islamist militants are toxic, certainly, but would not have half the appeal they do, were the greedy eyes of the imperialists not on the Middle East.
We declare that the main enemy is at home - the British state.
- The Guardian September 9.