September 3, 2001
The British press sometimes has surreal moments. Often those surreal moments involve the presence of British troops abroad. Considering how many British troops we have abroad and in how many places, you would expect a constant barrage of stories. Not so. When there is a major bombing raid on Iraq, it is not mentioned. I realised this when a bombing raid was covered on all the front pages and I thought "why are they talking about this, can't they discuss something more important"? I knew I had succumbed to the strange mix of ignorance and jaded cynicism that affects most of the nation when it comes to the foreign activities of our troops.
We used to know what they were there for. "There," being abroad. Usually it was to fight communism, or at least be there when the reds came over the border (which they rarely did – at least where we expected them to). Sometimes the troops were there to hold down some troublesome bit of the Empire that we hadn't peacefully divested, like Cyprus or Kenya. In rare times, it was a bit of both, like Malaya. It was often brutal, many British troops were killed, but there was a certain simplicity about it. Most Brits were prepared to accept that Soviet Communism did not offer a great future and that when leaving an empire it is always good manners to ensure a semblance of good order. Not everyone agreed with it, but there was a broad consensus. This meant that the British could be fairly informed about where their troops were and what they were doing.
Not so today. Maybe we are in too many places and tired of stories about "our boys" being under fire. Possibly the military is effective at censorship. Perhaps the press is squeamish about arousing possible public opposition to humanitarian interventions that they support. Knowing what little I do of human nature, I would say that there are probably elements of all of these explanations in this change in our press's behaviour. It is still eerie. The effect in the press is of sudden outrages in foreign countries interspersed with long periods of static when other affairs – often with far less British involvement – are reported. If foreigners die because of our actions it is rarely reported; hence my surprise at the reporting of the bombing of Iraq so many months ago.
The one way to guarantee press coverage of a foreign entanglement is a British soldier's death or kidnapping. In Sierra Leone, long after we had been told that British troops had left, we suddenly found a couple of jeep-loads being kidnapped by our erstwhile allies. We are now told that half of our troops are about to leave, again. The same happened in Macedonia when a British soldier, Ian Collins, was killed. The circumstances are unclear, although it appears that some Macedonian delinquents were responsible. The reaction was telling. The British press did report on it, and the nationality of the killers was discussed – but there was a hint of the reaction that the British government feared. The right wing Daily Mail led with a headline asking why Ian Collins was sent to death, and reported that his father condemned the mission. Even the inept Tories got on to the act, with the leadership contender Iain Duncan-Smith, claiming that this was a mission too far. Too many deaths could cause problems.
This is precisely the government's problem. There are three very suspicious deaths, which could cause acute trouble for the present deployment in Macedonia, as some serious questions would be asked about our allies. The first involves a strange helicopter crash on the border of Albania and Macedonia in April. The area where the helicopter was downed, Kacanik, was an area of extensive KLA activity. It was a crucial point in the route for Kosovan arms and troops to the nascent rebellion/invasion in Macedonia, a traffic that NATO was trying to prevent (at the time). The puma helicopter, an all-weather helicopter, may have been downed by the atrocious weather at the time or it may have been downed by stinger missiles. The Ministry of Defence promised a "full investigation" while at the same time denying that there was any indication of hostile action. How you can have a full investigation while at the same time ruling out one of the main possibilities eludes me.
Then there was the landmine. Another British soldier was killed a week later, while also on patrol, while also looking to intercept KLA arms smuggling, while also in the tiny area of Kacanik. This time it was the Serbs, at least according to our military. Why the Serbs? They had been out of the area for two years, and the really dastardly thing was they planted the mine so deep that it wouldn't go off and then waited for the rain to uncover it. Of course, the idea that the KLA planted it a couple of days ago on a busy road they controlled, that is out of the question. The death of a Russian soldier in Kosovo or the downing of an unarmed US spy-plane over Southern Serbia are also not really anything else but tragic accidents. That they all occurred in the same fortnight in April is regarded as coincidental.
These may be what we are told, tragic deaths. However, there is an alternative explanation. The motivation of the KLA is clear, to stop NATO monitoring of the arms smuggling to Macedonia. The motivation of any Western cover-up of these deaths, the anger of the public when they see their troops butchered by their allies, is also clear. The response of the West, to cover up the failure to de-claw the Macedonian rebels by putting in place a sham disarmament program is a perfectly plausible reaction to any KLA blackmail. Of course, this may be the rambling of an armchair commentator seeing a sinister pattern in accidental connections. However, the West is reacting in a strange way.
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