Misdirection at the Chilcot Inquiry

The Inquiry shows us that when asked a difficult question there is nearly always a way to deflect responsibility.

Janet Harris
9 March 2015
Tony Blair and Cherie Booth

Will he - or anyone - be held accountable? Flickr/Jon Hurd. Some rights reserved.

“Determination in a single instance is an expression of courage; if it becomes characteristic, a mental habit. But here we are referring not to physical courage but the courage to accept responsibility.”

Carl von Clausewitz wrote this in his seminal work “On War” and although most soldiers have read it, it might be a paragraph that Lord Chilcot insists his witnesses read when he eventually publishes the results of his Inquiry on the Iraq war.  It has now been over five years since the Inquiry began. At the recent Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chilcot was asked to explain why it was taking so long to publish his report.  Sir Martin Gilbert has since died, and Chilcot came up with no clear answer.

The purpose of the Inquiry is not only to try and find out how decisions were made, but also to ascertain how to measure mistakes and errors that were made leading up to the invasion and in the long years after. As a documentary film maker who has made television series on the British military in Iraq, who has learned from bitter experience that there are no excuses in programme making, the overriding feature of the Inquiry it seems to me, are the excuses made by many, and the denial of responsibility by most. The longer the delay in publication of the report, the more chance those who are criticised will have to again defer responsibility. 

“I can’t remember”, “You will have to ask someone else”

The major lines of Inquiry concern the costing of the exercise, the provision of security and how the military functioned.   Much of the interest was, and will be on the decisions to go to war. However, it is arguably the aftermath of the war that has had a major and devastating effect on the country and region. The British military was in Iraq as an occupation force. In a written statement to the Chilcot Inquiry, Jack Straw, then Foreign Secretary states:

We would be bound by the 1907 Hague Regulations as well as the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. We would therefore be considered an occupying power with responsibility for providing public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.

The responsibility is clearly stated. However, who was supposed to do this and how it was supposed to be done, is not so clearly defined. The lines of accountability to go up, down and horizontally, and the ability to shift responsibility is a feature of many of the witnesses. A constant refrain is either “I can’t remember”, or “you will have to ask someone else…”, as the roots of the particular event lie before the 6 month or 1 year tenure of the person taking the stand; or the threads of responsibility are tangled in the web of lines of accountability between the military, the MoD and government. This in part is based in the structure of the organisation of the military, where the Head of the Army was not responsible for equipping his brigades, allowing for a disbursement and denial of responsibility.

Excuses and blame-shifting

A major excuse for the perceived strategic failure of the British in Iraq is that the military was underfunded, and could not fight the war that they found themselves faced with. The denial of responsibility starts at the top with Geoff Hoon accusing Gordon Brown of putting constraints on the defence budget when the government was committing forces to Iraq. Apparently, “there was never enough money to do everything we wanted to do at the time we wanted to do it”, but a key factor in this drain on resources, both financially and in numbers of soldiers, was the fact that the military was fighting two major wars at the same time.

When trying to find out who was responsible for this decision, you might have thought that it should come from the head of the British army, General Sir Michael Jackson, but he says that it is the Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Boyce, who carries the responsibility of military advice, having discussed it with his single service chiefs. When asked whether demand on the army in Afghanistan affected operations in Iraq Sir Michael Jackson avoids giving a direct answer by saying that in his opinion the army coped with the pressure. However, Dr John Reid, Secretary of State for Defence from May 2005 until May 2006, states that he took advice from General Mike Walker, and from Sir Michael Jackson who said that the military could operate on both fronts and emphasised that the decision to go to Afghanistan would not take troops out of Iraq. 

When asked about the chaotic post-conflict situation for which there had been little, if no planning, Lord Jay could not find the papers regarding the Iraq Unit which was set up by Whitehall as late as Feb 2003; the FCO had the policy lead on policing, yet Lord Jay says “I don't have a recollection of particular specific discussions myself on policing”. He also doesn’t recall why the responsibility was handed over to the MoD after the Jamiat incident in 2005. Sir David Richmond, the UK special Representative to Iraq from 2003-4, had the same senior moment when he couldn’t remember what responsibilities he was given before he went to Iraq.

General Sir Kevin O’Donoghue who was Chief of Defence Logistics was asked how it was decided which vehicles were sent to Iraq or which to Afghanistan, but he says he doesn’t know as it is a PJHQ decision. Still on the subject of vehicles, and this time the problematic snatch land-rover; when asked why it took as long as three years for the problem to be resolved, the Chief of Joint Operations Sir Glen Torpy says there were different requests from each commander in the field; that a Chief of Staff can only advise on what equipment to have, it is then the PUS (Permanent Under Secretary) and CDS (Chief of Defence Staff) who “on the recommendation of the equipment capability area, produce a joint equipment plan”. 

When asked about difficulties with software in the Chinook Mark 111 helicopters (which left 8 Chinooks worth £239 million grounded in Iraq), Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of Defence Staff says the acquisition was before his time, so he was unable to comment on that programme. Sir Roderic Lyne encounters this problem of trying to find the truth regarding the events at Cimic House in 2004, asking Sir Glen Torpy what was actually being reported up the chain of command, but Sir Glen can’t recall the specific incident, even though the regiment defending it, the PWRR (Princess of Wales Royal Regiment) was the most attacked company in the Iraq campaign. 

Many “chiefs” seem to have very little control of the things they are chiefs of, or little memory of what chief responsibility they bore. It is quite understandable that war is unpredictable, and that strains are felt on budgets and man-power. However, it is surely a responsibility of command that you do not commit to fight a war that you do not have the wherewithal to fight. 

Dodging the big question

As for the big question, who decides what in war, and where responsibility lies? The Inquiry showed that when asked a difficult question there was nearly always someone else to refer to – the politicians forget details or refer to the Chiefs of Staff; the GOC’s refer to PJHQ, the Defence board, the treasury, the previous GOC, or the one who followed. What is clear is that there was no-one who was in charge of the occupation; no-one to take over-all responsibility, to arbitrate between the various departments and services. 

Most witnesses obviously did as best they could to do what they could in Iraq, but the answer to who was responsible does probably come down to the top of the pile, to the person who started this war but who did not take responsibility to organise it or to care for any of those involved in this whole sorry mess.


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