Leading article: A propaganda gift for our enemies


The Independent

Published: 13 February 2006

We have become worryingly anaesthetised in recent years to reports of British soldiers engaging in acts of disgraceful brutality while serving their country. The impact of the images that came to light, over the weekend, of British troops viciously beating four Iraqi teenagers is less than it probably would have been had the abuses of Camp Breadbasket and the death of the Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa not already come to light. This, in itself, is a sad reflection on the present reputation of our armed forces.

But we must not lose sight of the enormity of these latest crimes, if they are proven to be the work of British troops. What we are presented with are not common thugs running amok on Britain's streets, but representatives of their Queen and country. Such men are supposed to be highly trained professionals, operating in a tightly disciplined military structure. These images will now become a propaganda gift to nationalist insurgents in Iraq and Islamist fanatics everywhere. They will be cited as an indication of the Western world's contempt for Muslim life. What the soldiers in this video have perpetrated is not simply a criminal act of violence against four Iraqi youths; this is a betrayal of all the thousands of British troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the vast majority of whom have been doing their jobs impeccably. British troops are about to enter the dangerous Helmand province of Afghanistan on a Nato mission. This video could well put them at even greater risk of attack. The same is true of our troops in southern Iraq.

It is increasingly clear that a culture of ill-disciplined thuggery exists in some pockets of the British armed forces. Tales of extreme bullying and suspicious deaths from the Deepcut cadet barracks first hinted at the existence of a problem in the army's training structures. And the recent video, which showed an army instructor knocking out a naked soldier in some bizarre induction ritual, has confirmed this. Unsurprisingly, this sadism has been transferred to front-line soldiering, as the death of Mr Mousa in the custody of British troops in Basra shows. This new video also demonstrates that the notorious behaviour of three soldiers at Camp Breadbasket was not an isolated incident.

Responsibility must go to the top. We must conclude that senior officers have failed to impose sufficient discipline. The Ministry of Defence is right to point out that the vile actions of these few soldiers are not representative of the conduct of the entire British army. But that simply makes the need for swift action, to prevent such disgusting breakdowns of discipline from happening again, all the more urgent.