21 June 2004
The nation will shortly have to confront the torture question. Are we content with the notion that allegations of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by British troops fall conveniently under the "bad apples" rubric? In other words, the military courts will do their work, the guilty will be punished and nobody else will be to blame. The bad apples will be mainly, if not exclusively, "other ranks".
I don't think we should be satisfied. Where, for instance, would fault lie in the following incident? British troops came under attack on the Amara to Basra road in May. Naturally they defended themselves. After an exchange of fire in which 14 of the attackers died, a group of Iraqis was rounded up. The Red Cross has complained about the way they were then treated. A witness alleges that they had their hands tied behind their backs, they were hooded and made to lie face down on the earth for an hour or two.
Next, it is alleged, the Iraqis were put one on top of one another in the back of an armoured vehicle with the soldiers' feet resting on them. Having reached their destination, they remained hooded until the next morning, it is alleged, when their interrogations began.
In its way this was quite a simple incident; it doesn't compare with the reports from the notorious Abu Ghraib detention centre run by the Americans. However, supposing the accounts are true and the handling is judged as excessive, who should be asked to explain themselves? The soldiers? Yes. Anybody else such as their platoon or company commanders, officers up to the rank of major? Undoubtedly; they are responsible for the conduct of their men aren't they. The commanding officer of their battalion? I don't see why not; he sets the standards for the troops under his command.
Yet notice something missing in the list published last week of the four British soldiers due to face court martial for incidents involving the abuse of a different set of Iraqi prisoners. No officers have been charged. But the directors of a commercial company, for example, whose faulty services lead to the death of customers, can be prosecuted for manslaughter, even though they didn't personally, say, have to tighten the nuts on a railway line.
So I argue that, if the court-martials find soldiers guilty, then we need to be told what the consequences will be for their commanders. For every "private" A who is punished, I wish to know what will happen to Major B and Colonel C under whose command private A served.
I have another question about the Colonel Cs of the British army serving in Iraq. When allegations of abuse are made, it is the local commander who decides whether an investigation is required. And we know that one of the Colonel Cs dismissed charges of unlawful killing against one of his soldiers. As a result the case is now in the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police. How many officers have dismissed charges which should have been investigated?
How many others will see their soldiers being court-martialled? Thus far there have been 75 investigations into incidents of abuse or excessive use of lethal force against Iraqi civilians. Some 37 of these have been completed and closed, eight are finished and awaiting a decision on further action and 30 are still under way. If there prove to be, unfortunately, numerous Colonel Cs, what then?
That is exactly the question which the US is now confronting. Four American soldiers have been court-martialled thus far for the use of torture at Abu Ghraib; another three are awaiting trial. Yet the question of where responsibility lies has slowly risen up the American command structure. Colonel Thomas M Pappas, who commanded a military intelligence unit at the prison, has been implicated. So has the Brigadier who oversaw all prison facilities in Iraq until January 2004. And now the accusation has touched General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of the coalition ground force. And struggling to keep themselves clear of blame are the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and even the President, George Bush.
In the same way, if the use of torture against civilians has been widespread where British troops are involved, then the question of responsibility should also climb the British command structure to the top, including the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Is the British situation so different from the US? The charges announced last week against four fusiliers included indecent assault which, according to the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, "apparently involved making the victims engage in sexual activity between themselves".
"Not in our name" was written on the posters carried during the great peace march in London just before the war began. Did any one of the two million people who were present believe then that "not in our name" would have to embrace the use of torture? It is not bad apples; it is bad commanders and bad political leadership.