There are no bad lower ranks, only bad officers. Apply that principle to recent events, and you will conclude that a lot of British Admirals want sacking, if not shooting. But instead we are all getting terribly excited about a few underpaid- and, frankly, undertrained- sailors flogging their stories to the tabloids. They are acting as splendid scapegoats for some genuinely culpable individuals: the Naval hierarchy, the Defence Secretary and our dear Prime Minister.
Consider these undisputed facts. There was always a general threat, if British naval forces were operating near Iran, of personnel being seized and held as hostages. The Iranians have a long-standing history of seizing captives, and successfully using them to extort concessions. The threat was recently elevated: some Iranians on official business-whether consuls, or spies- were grabbed by the Americans in Iraq. The United States Government was refusing to rule out military action against Iran. In the Shatt Al-Arab, Revolutionary Guards had taken British Marines and sailors hostage only two years ago, using exactly the same tactics as they reprised the other week.
And yet the Navy sent out boarding parties without the firepower or support that would have deterred an attack- or, it would seem, without even any sense that there might be an attack. The Commodore in charge of naval forces in the Shatt al-Arab must lose his job immediately. The Chief of Naval Operations needs to give a damn good explanation of his conduct if he isn’t to follow suit.
But instead of troubling the powerful, this week a bleating flock of conservative individualists have all simultaneously noticed that Leading Seaman Turney and some of her proley colleagues are fat- this last observation having a certain piquancy as it squeezes its way out of the jowly face of Richard Littlejohn- as well as being rather unprepared for resistance to interrogation. With the exception of Max Hastings, a man who has actually been to war, no-one on the right thought to ask any of the rather obvious questions about the culpability of the top brass for the failure of an operation seemingly planned on the back of a beer mat.
The rightwing sneerers do at least have the benefit of a few facts on their side: there are good reasons for believing that the Royal Navy and RAF, and at least some of the support services of the Army, would prefer to behave as if there is no war on. They don’t have that option.
Whoever is in charge of Naval training needs to remember that if we ever do fight a war at sea again, a bomb or missile strike on a ship leads to fire and every sailor aboard needs to be fit enough to haul casualties or perform fire-fighting drills. The TV pictures showed that some British sailors are frankly chubby, but we should not blame them. Nobody set them demanding fitness tests as a condition of passing their basic training or remaining in the service.
For the Navy, physical fitness is largely an insurance policy: something that gets drawn on only in time of need. It would also act as a pretty useful toughening device. You should be allowed to serve a tour on a Naval vessel if, and only if, you can pass some relevant fitness tests: carrying a fourteen-stone weight – aka a ‘casualty’- several hundred metres, or running with a hose whilst wearing a gas mask. If not, there are other career options. The same goes for RAF personnel who imagine that no guerrilla will ever blow up anything on one of their bases, or Army support troops who should not rely on there being an infantry unit nearby should they run into an ambush.
Of course, this is neither the only nor the nastiest piece of scapegoating underway. Starting last week a job lot of idiots, largely claiming to be on the Left and supplied with laff lines by a senescent comic last heard of thirty years ago, queued up to say that the kicking to death of Baha Mousa by soldiers from the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, or the imprisonment of detainees in Guantanamo, didn’t exactly justify the Iranian actions but did somehow make them – well, rather amusing.
Any mention of what the Iranian government does to its own people was left unsaid by the likes of the cretinous Terry Jones- and if only, if only the humiliation of poor Faye Turney was as nasty as President Ahmadinejad’s crew got. If it was, Atefah Sahaaleh would still be alive: instead of having been publicly hanged, at the age of sixteen, for committing ‘crimes against chastity’. Ooops, don’t mention stuff like that. What are you, a supporter of Gitmo? A Bushite? An Islamophobe?
The comment boards of the left blogosphere, of the Guardian and the Independent, are clogging up with the freely-volunteered prejudices of people who are either glad to have seen British troops publicly humiliated by a regime notorious for torture, or are at least not terribly un-glad. Mention the record of the Iranian state against its own people, suggest that coercion or false imprisonment are wrong whoever the victims are, and the talking point likeliest to worm its way out is: ‘Baha Mousa’, the Basra hotel receptionist kicked to death by members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. One such damn fool recently undertook to tell me that this thuggish killing meant the British military had ‘very little honour left’.
If these were just fringe views I would not bother replying. But their popularity is not merely an expression of the infantilism of a few powerless comment trolls. It’s sometimes useful to hate certain people, and right now a lot of British left-liberals can see the expediency of hating ‘squaddies’.
As Mr Blair departs the scene, a great many people – Labour Party supporters, but also Liberal Democrats looking hungrily at the prospective banquet of a coalition government- will conveniently forget the record of our incoming Prime Minister in voting for, and funding, the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Similar mechanisms will protect the entirely unwarlike Mr Cameron. Many people also have reason to forget that the majority of both Government and official Opposition MPs backed the invasion, and only a very few of them were voted out by their electorates. It will no longer be the done thing to blame the Iraq war on those actually responsible for it.
So scapegoats are needed, and in times of need we British must turn to our military. It was the squaddies what done it. Thus the Armed Forces have little honour left, since one man was killed- disgracefully and criminally- in the custody of one army battalion. Oh, and, er, the Americans have shipped people to Gitmo, which is quite obviously the responsibility of a few nineteen year-old Private soldiers and Able Seamen, rather than being something which a number of unimpeachably liberal Foreign Secretaries and Ministers of State have managed not to notice.
I suppose I could mention that the British military, in the last few years, have, at the behest of our elected government, defeated the RUF in Sierra Leone and helped chase the Taliban from Kabul. But no, the fact that one man has died in the custody of the Army (a record that, say, the Metropolitan Police would rather envy) means that the entire Armed Forces have become ‘an organisation (with) little honour left to lose’. And besides, only racists feel the RUF weren’t the perfect government for the people of Sierra Leone (who seem rather to have felt otherwise, lacking as they did the sage advice of Seumas Milne); no doubt only Islamophobes feel that there may have been good reasons, in the winter of 2001 and later, to dislike the idea of Mullah Omar ruling Afghanistan.
No, my first instinctive response when I hear that the British military are without honour is actually to think of a man I know, a man with ten years’ Navy service, a Falklands war veteran, who left the regular military and became a fireman- in which capacity he was among the first senior members of the emergency services at the scene of one of the July 7th bombings. He’s still a military reservist because he happens not to believe that the British Armed Forces ‘have very little honour left’. In fact, I know a good many firemen and doctors and paramedics who are either ex-Forces, or current Reservists, or both.
Allow me to advise my fellow Guardian readers, my fellow left-liberals, my fellow haters of Bush and despisers of Blair and opponents of the Iraq war. If we are going to start scapegoating, let us start by sneering at these men, these dastardly firemen and doctors and paramedics who have the temerity to serve as military reservists.
These men need to be told that we honour their courage when they wear one type of uniform- Fire Brigade or Ambulance Service- but that we despise it when they wear another type- the bad type, the military type. Yes, they take risks in both roles; yes, they believe themselves to be under the control of the elected government of the day- rather tighter control, when they are in the military. They need to be told that we don’t actually believe in all that guff about the military being under the control of Parliament: no, the Iraq war is all the fault of some 18 year old soldier, or 26 year-old female sailor.
Let’s endorse the principle of collective punishment, making it plain that it applies to the ‘squaddies’ who fight our wars for us- but not to our elected representatives who authorise their despatch into combat, nor, heaven forfend, to their spotless electors. Of course, a logical thinker might point out that making collective punishment (which civilised folk used to call ‘revenge’) an accepted custom has some fairly horrifying possibilities.
But let’s adopt it anyway, and let’s hope that whichever slavering thug next appoints himself the avenger of the Iraqi war sees the point of our argument and kills only those Britons who wear the wrong sort of uniform. Let us hope that they share the clarity of our vision, and do not kill or kidnap our MPs or Ministers, nor our fine firemen and ambulance crews (well, maybe excepting those who were or are in the military) and certainly not us.