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Dead Men Sell No Tales / Cash for Dishonours

I didn’t know that I had such a high regard for our armed forces until last week. In fact, coming from a pacifist family, I wasn’t aware of having any regard for the services at all. It was only on observing my reaction to the ‘cash-for-dishonours’ affair that I discovered just how much my mindset is still conditioned by those old black and white wartime images of Navy valour.

You know – chaps in duffel coats puffing unflappably on pipes as the enemy bore down; men who would no more sell their stories than sell their souls. Part of me still believed that there was something of that old moral fibre written into the Royal Navy DNA. Now we see that the reality of today’s senior service is Operator Mechanic Arthur Batchelor, aka “Mr Bean”, weeping over the loss of his ipod while he was in captivity – as told exclusively to the Mirror.

The great British press reached previously unplumbed depths of hypocrisy last week by condemning the naval detainees for selling their stories, even as it was trying to buy them. “Wot a disgrace! Wot is the world coming to? Something should be done about us! String us up – it’s the only language we understand!”. The press performed the role of a demented chorus in what was a truly tragic week for Britain’s international image.

There has been something of the Jade Goody/Big Brother affair in all this. We have looked into the mirror and reacted with collective horror at what Britain has become. We scoff at the old military virtues and antique notions of British Greatness, but no one likes to think that their country is being pilloried, certainly not me. Half the world is laughing at the antics of our dim naval wimps clutching their goody bags, while the other half snarls in contempt at our willingness to inflict death and destruction on the people of Iraq for no legitimate reason.

The military blogs, like Rum Ration and Army Rumour Service, have been particularly
savage in their attacks on Batchelor and Leading Seaman Faye Turney, who made a hundred grand out of her tearful reminiscences of a not particularly arduous ordeal. I mean – don’t we handcuff and blindfold detainees and send them to places like Guantanamo? “Send them back to Iran” said one post,”they’re welcome to them.”

The marines have not covered themselves with glory but neither has the British government, whose cynicism trumped their venality. The claim that Number Ten had nothing whatever to do with the way the hostage crisis was handled, or the decision to allow them to sell their stories, is simply beyond belief. Come on guys! Number Ten would have been all over this story from the moment that the Brits were seized.

The notion that this media-obsessed administration would not take an interest in whether their stories were then aired in the popular press is risible. It would be like Alistair Campbell saying he took no interest in the media management of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Any MoD press officer who didn’t tell Number Ten what his media strategy was going to be in an international crisis such as this would be looking to an early end to his career.

And I don’t believe for a second that our shy, retiring defence secretary, Des Browne – who makes his predecessor, Geof Hoon, seem charismatic – would have acted on autopilot. The government clearly calculated that there would be a wave of sympathy for the detainees, once their harrowing stories were told, and that would cement the British people behind their government’s handling of the war. Once they realised their mistake – when even antiwar liberals like me started saying that the honour of our armed services was being sold cheap – they tried to blame the Navy, then the MoD press office, and then left Des Browne to make a kind of apology, which managed to be grovelling as well as evasive.

“Although this was a Navy decision” said Mr Browne midweek,”I have to take responsibility for it, and I don’t seek to hide behind the fact that the Navy made the decision”. Except of course that I do. But there will be no hiding place for Browne tomorrow as he faces the full wrath of the House of Commons in a statement over the affair. Heads will have to roll for this national humiliation and his looks to be the first off the block.

The charge is that the British government connived with decidedly unheroic naval ratings to breach Queens Regulations in order to sell their stories to the highest bidder. The MoD press office even played the role of Max Clifford in handling the bids from the media. And this was in the week we saw the bodies of the four British army personnel, including two women, being brought back to Britain. There was no cash for coffins though; dead men sell no tales.

The detainees talked of their suffering at the hands of he Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Well, contrast that with the report last week from the International Committee of the Red Cross on the plight of ordinary Iraqis four years after the British/American invasion. “The suffering that Iraqi men, women and children are enduring is unbearable”, said the report recording that families were being destroyed and children driven insane, in a country where nothing works, death is an every day occurrence and hospitals have no doctors. Iraq has been a military disaster for Britain; now it is a moral one as well.

In further dramatic confirmation of the scale of that defeat, suicide bombers on Thursday struck at the very heart of the occupation – the Iraqi parliament. If insurgents can even bomb the most heavily defended institution in Iraq, deep inside the protected Green Zone, behind eight levels of security screening, then clearly nowhere and nothing in Iraq is safe. It was an act of heroic futility for Sunni insurgents to destroy the one thing that might have justified the invasion: democracy. But it summed up the impossibily of any kind of legitimate democracy while the the country is under military occupation.

We all now know what has to be done. We must announce a phased withdraw immediately, disown the Bush administration, hand over to the UN, convene a regional peace conference involving Iran and Syria, abandon the conceit that we can launch a second front against Ahmadinejad, and devote every waking moment to a diplomatic resolution to the Arab/Israeli dispute. In short, we must get the hell out of there.

Recent events have forged a new and potent moral coalition in Britain among people of very different backgrounds who feel that this country has suffered irreparable damage to national prestige. From the Independent to the Daily Mail; from John Pilger to Michael Portillo; from Rose Gentle to General Sir Michael Rose there has been a collective howl of anger at the damage that has been inflicted on Britain’s image abroad.

Most of us genuinely believe that our soldiers in Iraq did their best, honourably, to protect the local population and try to bring some civil order. But they were given an impossible task, and ended up targets of a poisonous insurgency. To put soldiers in the line of fire in an unwinnable cause which has no moral justification is, or should be, a criminal act.

Not just my views, but those of General Sir Michael Rose, who led the UN force in Bosnia and compares the Iraq crisis to the collapse of he British army after the American Wars of Independence, when the Brits lost to a citizens army of American volunteers. To compare Islamist insurgents to the soldiers of George Washington is pretty breathtaking from the man who led the SAS in the Falklands.

Rose said that Tony Blair would be “doing 40 years in jail” if he’d been the director of Enron. Who knows, it might come to that.

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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