Sunday, May 03, 2009

Not All Heroes

Drowning teenagers and beating waiters to death doesn’t make someone a hero just because they were wearing uniform and obeying orders at the time. Those soldiers who testified against torturers and murderers, despite the threats, are genuine heroes though.

There are even more parades for ‘our heroes’ returning from Afghanistan and Iraq than usual recently.

The trouble is some of those they’re cheering are anything but heroes.

Forcing a teenager who can’t swim into deep water to drown and then throwing bricks at them is not the act of a hero, whether those who carry it out are thugs in Britain or British soldiers obeying orders in Iraq and whether the teenager is Iraqi or British. Neither is beating and kicking someone to death.

Welcoming troops back from foreign wars as ‘heroes’ is blatant propaganda aimed at preventing criticism of governments’ decisions to fight un-necessary wars and approve, order or turn a blind eye to war crimes including murder and torture – and at presenting blind obedience to whoever happens to be in power as a virtue. Nor is just doing whatever you’re ordered to do without question heroic, any more than it is for Al Qaeda suicide bombers or than it was for SS guards who ran concentration camps to obey orders to gas Jews.

Shane Owoo, a 16 year old boy in Britain, was forced into a claypit pool for a ‘punishment swim’ for stealing a bike in 2007. His two tormentors pushed him back into the water whenever he tried to get out and threw stones at him. He drowned. They were both jailed for manslaughter (1).

Ahmed Jabar Karheem, a 15 year old Iraqi in Basra, Iraq, in May 2003, was forced into a tidal canal by British soldiers acting on the orders of their superiors to punish looters. They, like Owoo’s killers, could soon tell that he was unable to swim, but let him drown anyway. One of the four soldiers considered saving Karheem but was persuaded by the other three to let him drown. Some of them threw bricks and stones at Karheem and three other Iraqis they had beaten before forcing them into the canal at gunpoint. Karheem also drowned. All four of the men responsible for his death were released by a British Court Martial without facing any jail sentence. Nor were any of their superiors ever charged for giving the orders – unsurprising since a court martial in which the military cover up for the military bears no resemblance to a real trial (2), (3).

Grant McDonald was kicked and beaten to death by two men in Edinburgh,Scotland in 2005. His murderers were both jailed for 12 years (Not long enough in my opinion) (4).

Baha Mousa, an Iraqi waiter, was one of many Iraqis beaten and kicked for days and nights on end by squads of British soldiers of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, working in shifts as torturers in 2003. Despite members of the regiment and other members of the British armed forces coming forward as witnesses no-one was convicted over his death. No proper trial by jury ever took place, only another Court Martial sham organised by the army and the British Ministry of Defence. The officer who directly oversaw his death was promoted and began training new recruits being sent to Afghanistan. Once again the government line was ‘a few bad apples’ while some of the Conservative party opposition claimed not even the soldiers involved should ever have had to face charges (5), (6), (7),(8),(9).

Can anyone seriously say that the way British troops tortured and killed Iraqis in these cases was heroic, or even justifiable?

I recognise the bravery of risking your life for a cause you believe in. That doesn’t automatically make the cause right, nor any methods used to try to further it right. If it did the July 7th bombers would all be ‘heroes’ too.

I accept our soldiers in Iraq were in a stressful situation. What were Iraqi civilians in? A fun fair? ; Or a situation where they could be killed or dragged off for torture by any side at any time? Being in a stressful situation does not excuse anything and everything.

So, while I won’t shout at entire regiments as if all were equally guilty, or condemn every soldier who ended up firing on innocent people at a checkpoint due to fear of suicide bombers, I won’t give in to propaganda to treat all our soldiers as ‘heroes’ who are beyond criticism and who have done the right thing by obeying orders without question either.

On the BBC and ITV people who had come to the welcome home ceremonies claimed that it wasn’t the job of soldiers or the public to decide whether what they’d been ordered to do was right or not. Their job was just to go where they were sent and do what they were told to do – and the role of everyone else was to support them unconditionally.

Sorry, but that’s how the Nazis got away with so many terrible crimes for so long, because people blindly followed government propaganda and believed what they wanted to believe – that their country and its people were innately good and superior and anyone they were fighting or targeting was innately evil. It wasn’t so much that they had no source of information to tell them otherwise as that they didn’t want to hear anything else, so wouldn’t listen to it.

The British and American governments and militaries have not committed a Holocaust against Iraqis, but they are guilty of systematic war crimes – torture and killing civilians, sometimes by not caring whether they kill civilians (as when firing cluster munitions and new versions of napalm into the middle of cities) and sometimes by targeting civilians (as reported by journalists and aid workers who witnessed it in the assaults on Fallujah for instance).

To obey without question is not the mark of a hero, but of a dupe, an unusually stupid person or a totally amoral psychopath who doesn’t care about right or wrong, only about rewards or punishments. To support any war any government of your country calls for without question in order to ‘support the troops’ (many of whom don’t want to be there) is just as wrong.

Pointing to torture and murders by Saddam’s regime or Iraqi militias or Al Qa’ida does not change or justify any of this – and it never will. The same goes for Afghanistan, where torture and the killing of civilians are also common practice by both sides (10), (11), (12), (13).

If we want to understand why the July 7th bombers and the attempted attack on Glasgow airport took place we only have to follow the same flawed logic our government, military and many of our soldiers have. They beat Baha Mousa to death because a member of their regiment was killed in a roadside bombing and they wanted revenge. So they took revenge on random Iraqi civilians. The people who attacked us did so because other Muslims – like Baha Mousa and Ahmed Karheem – had been murdered by British troops and they wanted revenge – and took it against random British civilians. In both cases the flawed logic is that killings of any members of our group – British citizens or Muslims – can be justifiably avenged by killing any member of the other group. They can’t. British lives are not more valuable than Iraqi or Afghan or Pakistani lives. Muslim lives are not more valuable than non-Muslim lives. All British people are not responsible for the actions of the British government and military. All Muslims or Iraqis are not responsible for the actions of every other Muslims or Iraqi.

The only excuse possible for some of our own soldiers and some Al Qa’ida recruits is that they had been given no education and/or had their heads thoroughly filled with propaganda by the government, their superiors and the lies and half-truths churned out by the British tabloids and their Muslim equivalents. The superiors giving the orders and the members of government and opposition parties who approved their actions or looked the other way have no such excuse.

There are some of our soldiers who undeniably deserve to be treated as heroes - the ones who came forward to testify against those who committed these crimes to try to make sure more innocent people would not suffer torture or death in future.

If they’re treated anything like their counterparts in the US military they’ll be arrested like Captain Ian Fishback, threatened with prosecution like Sergeant Samuel Provance or driven to suicide for “crimes” such as showing empathy with tortured prisoners, like Specialist Alyssa Peterson (assuming it was suicide) (14), (15), (16), (17).

The Obama administration has announced that members of government who ordered and approved torture may be prosecuted. A similar measure in the UK seems unlikely given that the leaderships of both main parties have been apologists for torture sticking to the lie of ‘a few soldiers out of control’.

(1) = Times 26 Apr 2008 ‘Jail for men who stoned Shane Owoo as he drowned in claypit pool’,

(2) = Independent 03 May 2006 ‘Soldiers 'allowed Iraqi boy to drown'’,

(3) = BBC News 06 Jun 2006 ‘Troops cleared over Iraq drowning’,

(4) = Edinburgh Evening News 22 Apr 2009 ‘Sister of man beaten to death tells of her relief at judge's ruling’,

(5) = BBC News 20 Jul 2005 ‘UK soldiers face war crimes trial’,

(6) = Panorama – BBC 15 March 2007, 14:55 GMT - A good kicking: Transcript

(7) = Scotsman 19 May 2004 - ‘Soldiers 'took turns to beat Iraqi captives'' -

(8) = Amnesty International 15 Mar 2007 - ‘United Kingdom Court Martial acquittals: many questions remain unanswered and further action required to ensure justice' -

(9) = BBC News 14 Feb 2007 ‘UK soldiers cleared of Iraq abuse’,

(10) = Amnesty International 2008 Annual Report, Asia-Pacific, Afghanistan,

(11) = Human Rights Watch World Report 2009, Afghanistan,

(12) = Human Rights Watch 8 Sep 2008 ‘Troops In Contact – Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan’,

(13) = HRW 15 Jan 2009 ‘Afghanistan: US Investigation of Airstrike Deaths ‘Deeply Flawed’,

(14) = ABC News 21 May 2004 ‘Military Punishes Abu Ghraib Key Witness’,

(15) = Washington Post 28 Sep 2005 ‘A Matter of Honor’,

(16) = Sunday Times 02 Oct 2005 ‘How America tiptoed into the torture chamber’,,,2092-1806906,00.html

(17) = Independent 26 Apr 2009 ‘US interpreter who witnessed torture in Iraq shot herself with service rifle’,


Anonymous said...

I think you're an absolute tit.

You don't have the strengths enabling you to go and fight overseas, stop criticising and belittling those of us who allow you to make that choice.

Regardless of the political reasons, the troops just do what they're told and you should support them you selfish little man.

CPO Duncan RN

calgacus said...

Dear Anonymous/CPO Duncan. If there was any threat to anyone in Britain from Iraq BEFORE the US and British governments decided to invade it you might have a point.

Since there was none - and the war not only pointlessly killed British troops along with Iraqi civilians - you have none.

Since the Iraq war also produced the July 7th London bombings which killed British civilians the invasion of Iraq actually killed British civilians rather than saving any.

You also seem to have completely missed the point - which is that "just doing what they're told" is the problem. "Just doing what I was told" is not a justification for forcing teenagers into canals to drown or torturing people by beating them in shifts for days on end.

You're offering the same defence for torture and murder that the Nazis put up at the Nuremberg trials - and the same defence SS Prison Guards at the concentration camps used.

So far you've shown a lack of the moral and intellectual strengths and grasp of basic facts required to make a coherent argument.

Please go back to feeling proud that you obey any orders anyone gives you, no matter how wrong or crazy they may be, you "selfish little man." - and try to have read what you're criticising and know some basic facts about it before getting high and mighty.

Yours sincerely,
Duncan McFarlane