Fighting for the high ground


While the Baha Mousa inquiry "may have shone a torch into a dark corner", what is now before the court is more like "a stadium in which we will switch on the floodlights".

Vron Ware
15 February 2013

It is ten years today since so many of us marched in protest at the Iraq War in the hope of preventing more than we could possibly have imagined at the time. As we think about the wider impact of the Iraq War over the past decade, it’s important to pay attention to the making and maintaining of armies at home. How has this recent history altered the social and cultural mechanisms that propel young people towards a military career?


Some of the two million on Anti Iraq war march, February 15. Flickr/Simon Rutherford. Some rights reserved.

In January, Austrians voted overwhelmingly in favour of retaining conscription. In the country’s first ever referendum, 60 per cent opted to retain a system of national service whereby young men spend six months in the army or nine months doing community work. This outcome defies the trend towards the professionalisation of military service in the rest of Europe.

Although a stint in the military remains compulsory for male citizens in a handful of the 28 Nato member countries (Turkey, Estonia, Norway and Greece - and modified in Denmark), 23 have full-time professional armies. Twenty one of the 27 European Union nations have phased out conscription, including France (1996), Poland (2008), Sweden (2010) and Germany (2011).

Meanwhile, the recruitment of Britain’s military workforce, employed on a volunteer basis since 1960, has been outsourced to Capita. For the next ten years the business of attracting new soldiers to the profession will be managed by a private corporation, ostensibly to save taxpayers’ money and to spare more officers for the frontline.

The discrepancies between these different models of raising national armies can be attributed to history, geography, demography and much else. In contrast to the UK, for example, Austria is not a member of NATO and it has remained neutral since 1955. The widespread political consensus, however, is that volunteer armies produce soldiers who are better trained, more specialized and easier to deploy on overseas missions. And flexibility is the name of the game in twenty-first century warcraft.

Reliance on volunteers means that military organisations are competing in a crowded market. In times of austerity the prospect of a steady job, the promise of gaining qualifications without having to pay fees, and the lack of other gainful opportunities all make it easier for recruiters not just to make up numbers but to be more selective as well.

The rate of recruitment also depends on a range of ideas about the soldier as a particular type of citizen. It can be salutary to recall just how fast the status and prestige of military work can change.

Following orders

On February 24, 2008, a date that marks the midway point between the invasion and the present, the UK’s Sunday Times ran an article with the headline: ‘Army plan to tackle troops’ yob culture’. The report outlined a programme to give new army recruits ‘morality training’ as part of their induction, a remedy approved by the then chief of the general staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt. 

Even more striking than the headline or the article itself, the accompanying cartoon encapsulates how much has happened within the last five years. It shows an officer speaking to a soldier who is equipped for battle. Holding up a paper with the word ‘Orders’, he says, ‘You’re to capture the moral high ground.’

For those assessing the incalculable costs and consequences of that fateful war, this item demands intense scrutiny. It points outwards, towards the maelstrom of military occupation and its unfolding history. But it also directs us to look nearer home at the changed status of military institutions and labour. 

The phrase ‘the moral high ground’ is a reminder that the battle to control perceptions of the armed forces within the domestic sphere is integral to the operations they are dispatched to carry out thousands of miles away.

As the chief of the defence staff, General Sir David Richards put it in a recent lecture on the future of the UK armed forces: ‘The distinction between home and abroad is strategically obsolete. Today it is part of a continuum.’

The Battle of Danny Boy

Although Richards was ostensibly referring to security threats faced by the UK, this notion of a ‘continuum’ is useful in unpicking the knot of issues raised in the Sunday Times article.

The strategy of enlisting army chaplains to, ‘reverse the spread of yob culture among many new recruits’ was partly designed to counter the rise in ‘illegal drug-taking and increase in loutish behaviour among off-duty soldiers’. However, the piece made it clear that there were more urgent reasons to intervene. In 2008 the British Army was facing allegations that, four years earlier, at least 20 Iraqi prisoners, including 19-year-old Hamid Al Sweady, were murdered by British troops after a firefight that came to be known as the ‘Battle of Danny Boy’.

That same week in February 2008, a BBC Panorama programme entitled ‘On Whose Orders?’ would broadcast an investigation into the killings, much of it based on the testimonies of surviving prisoners who claimed to have endured horrific abuse, including torture, during their four months’ detention.

These fresh allegations followed hard on the publication of the Aitken Report, the result of an internal inquiry commissioned in February 2005 by General Sir Mike Jackson. Instructed to investigate particular cases of unlawful killing and deliberate abuse, including the death of hotel receptionist Baha Mousa in 2003, the Aitken Report failed to satisfy demands either for accountability or for rigorous, independent scrutiny of what had clearly been systemic failure across all ranks. 

A month after the article was published, Des Browne would admit the human rights of Mousa and eight other Iraqi men had been breached, paving the way for compensation claims. And a few weeks later it was announced that Sir William Gage would lead a public inquiry which eventually sat from 2009 to 2011. As Andrew Williams has documented in A Very British Killing (2012), the case became one of the most openly reported in British judicial history.

Light and ventilation

Today there are many reasons to reflect on that moment in February 2008. Not least, it is important to locate it on a timeline of torture and human rights violations by the British military that stretches a great deal further back than the invasion of Iraq. 

In December 2012 the UK government appealed against a high court ruling that had recently granted three Mau Mau war veterans the right to claim damages for abuses suffered at the hands of British administrators during the 1952-1960 insurgency. This was just the latest move to block a struggle for justice that has been going on for decades. 

In the context of Iraq, there have been more inquiries and admissions of liability within the last five years, with millions paid out in compensation as well as legal fees. So far, a total of £14m has been paid out to 205 Iraqis who have made successful claims in the past three years. This is a process that will continue into the foreseeable future. 

In December 2012, for example, it was announced that there would be a public inquiry into the al-Sweady episode. This new hearing - the biggest so far - is due to begin in March and to last almost a year. Costing another £25 million, it is expected to examine evidence from 498 military witnesses and 97 Iraqis, many of whom will be flown to Britain to give evidence in person. 

And just last month, Public Interest Lawyers, who have been in the forefront of gathering evidence of UK human rights violations in Iraq, attended a judicial review hearing in the high court seeking to demonstrate that Britain had broken international laws of war by pursuing a policy of systematic torture between 2003 and 2008.

Their case rested partly on the inadequacy of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), the body set up by the UK government to investigate hundreds of abuse and torture claims by Iraqi citizens. They suggested that while these investigations would examine evidence of wrongful behaviour by members of the armed forces, they would not necessarily result in a better understanding of why they took place.

They emphasised the need for greater ‘ventilation’ of the conditions in which such wholesale abuse had continued for so long. Citing the precedent of truth and reconciliation commissions held in South Africa, Argentina and elsewhere, PIL lawyers, led by Michael Fordham QC, argued that the UK would not be able to fulfil human rights obligations unless the public were reassured that the systems that led to the abuse had been rectified. 

Fordham argued cogently that while the Baha Mousa inquiry "may have shone a torch into a dark corner", what is now before the court is more like "a stadium in which we will switch on the floodlights".

 ‘This is the crucial moment of decision,’ Williams told the Observer last month. ‘This is our last chance to get to the truth and find out what went on. It's the last chance to see who is responsible. 

‘These are international obligations. This is what we demand of others, but we do not demand it of ourselves. What kind of message does that give to the world about who we are?’


US students protesting in February 2003.

Yobs to heroes

It is against this background that the outline of the moral heights comes into view. In 2008 Britain’s military leaders might have had it in their sights but victory was not assured. Once again, fast forward to January this year to consider the results of a public survey conducted by the think tank British Future, post Olympics. In a list of what made respondents most proud to be British, the armed forces came a close second (40%) after the NHS (45%) but before Team GB (38%), the royal family (38%) the BBC (16%), various institutions such as Marks and Spencers, and Nothing (10%).

While public surveys can be discounted as unreliable or unrepresentative, another recent index of changing attitudes to military work can be found in parliament itself. On February 1, Labour MP Thomas Docherty introduced a private members bill which hoped to increase the punishments handed out to anyone who committed a crime against members of the armed forces.

If passed, the bill would effectively put military workers in the same bracket as disabled, gay, transgender and ethnic minority victims of hate crime. Needless to say, such a proposal would have been unthinkable in 2008 when even the staunchly pro-military Murdoch press could refer to soldiers in the same breath as ‘yobs’ and ‘louts’.

This admission of behavioural problems such as alcohol, violence and drugs among soldiers coincided with the fears being expressed in civil society about ‘Broken Britain’. It prompts the question: if those soldiers come from social backgrounds with a reputed lack of moral values, how is the army supposed to control them during the carnage of war?

Of course it is not just Britain that has faced these questions in the past decade. In his book Irregular Army: how the US military recruited neo-nazis, gang members, and criminals to fight the war on terror (2012) Matt Kennard documented the terrifying consequences of lowering recruiting standards in order to keep up with the incessant demands of aggressive and unpopular foreign policy.


If the shoe will the calibre of new British soldiers be affected by contracting out recruitment?

Song and dance

But who cares about what real soldiers get up to in the course of a nasty war in someone else’s country? The US has a multi-million dollar military recruitment sector and it’s called Hollywood. Or MTV. Remember the huge success of the Destiny’s Child hit ‘Soldier’ that was released in 2004 shortly after war crimes at Abu Ghraib were revealed?

The song reached the top five in Australia, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom as well as the United States. 

Last year Katy Perry made a video to accompany her hit ‘Part of Me’ which shows her dumping her two-timing boyfriend for a more fulfilling life in the Marines. Demanding to know whether the Pentagon had contributed financially, Naomi Wolf fulminated against the singer’s duplicity in ‘the strategic co-option of pop culture by the military's PR arm’. 

As Capita takes responsibility for advertising the profession to young people in the UK, get ready for the all-singing, all-dancing recruitment videos that will merge seamlessly with gaming culture and pop music, enthusiastically endorsed by celebrities and playing on many websites near you. 

The move has already had an impact on more traditional patterns of recruitment in some parts of the country. Army offices in Burnley and Blackburn have recently closed, fuelling anxiety that the local Lancashire regiment would be reduced in the current rounds of cuts.  

But with the end of the mass deployment in Afghanistan and the increased use of UAVs and special forces, the future of the all-volunteer standing army itself is harder to predict. As the timeline of judicial hearings proves beyond doubt, societies need their militaries to be accountable in ways that corporate mercenary services are not. What will the status of the soldier look like in another five years?

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