The military has created a wall of silence around
its frequent resort to barbaric practices, including torture, and goes out of
its way to avoid legal scrutiny.
Five photographs together break a silence. The first is of a former Gurkha
regimental sergeant major, Tul Bahadur Pun, aged 87. He sits in a wheelchair
outside 10 Downing Street. He holds a board full of medals, including the Victoria
Cross, the highest award for bravery, which he won serving in the British army.
He has been refused entry to Britain and treatment for a serious heart ailment
by the National Health Service: outrages rescinded only after a public campaign.
On 25 June, he came to Downing Street to hand his Victoria Cross back to the
Prime Minister, but Gordon Brown refused to see him.
The second photograph is of a 12-year-old boy, one of three children. They
are Kuchis, nomads of Afghanistan. They have been hit by NATO bombs, American
or British, and nurses are trying to peel away their roasted skin with tweezers.
On the night of 10 June, NATO planes struck again, killing at least 30 civilians
in a single village: children, women, schoolteachers, students. On 4 July, another
22 civilians died like this. All, including the roasted children, are described
as "militants" or "suspected Taliban." The Defense Secretary,
Des Browne, says the invasion of Afghanistan is "the noble cause of the
The third photograph is of a computer-generated aircraft carrier not yet built,
one of two of the biggest ships ever ordered for the Royal Navy. The £4bn
contract is shared by BAE Systems, whose sale of 72 fighter jets to the corrupt
tyranny in Saudi Arabia has made Britain the biggest arms merchant on earth,
selling mostly to oppressive regimes in poor countries. At a time of economic
crisis, Browne describes the carriers as "an affordable expenditure."
The fourth photograph is of a young British soldier, Gavin Williams, who was
"beasted" to death by three noncommissioned officers. This "informal
summary punishment," which sent his body temperature to more than 41 degrees,
was intended to "humiliate, push to the limit and hurt." The torture
was described in court as a fact of army life.
The final photograph is of an Iraqi man, Baha Mousa, who was tortured to death
by British soldiers. Taken during his post-mortem, it shows some of the 93 horrific
injuries he suffered at the hands of men of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment
who beat and abused him for 36 hours, including double-hooding him with hessian
sacks in stifling heat. He was a hotel receptionist. Although his murder took
place almost five years ago, it was only in May this year that the Ministry
of Defense responded to the courts and agreed to an independent inquiry. A judge
has described this as a "wall of silence."
A court martial convicted just one soldier of Mousa's "inhumane treatment,"
and he has since been quietly released. Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers,
representing the families of Iraqis who have died in British custody, says the
evidence is clear - abuse and torture by the British army is systemic.
Shiner and his colleagues have witness statements and corroborations of prima
facie crimes of an especially atrocious kind usually associated with the Americans.
"The more cases I am dealing with, the worse it gets," he says. These
include an "incident" near the town of Majar al-Kabir in 2004, when
British soldiers executed as many as 20 Iraqi prisoners after mutilating them.
The latest is that of a 14-year-old boy who was forced to simulate anal and
oral sex over a prolonged period.
"At the heart of the US and UK project," says Shiner, "is a
desire to avoid accountability for what they want to do. Guantánamo Bay
and extraordinary renditions are part of the same struggle to avoid accountability
through jurisdiction." British soldiers, he says, use the same torture
techniques as the Americans and deny that the European Convention on Human Rights,
the Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on Torture apply to them. And British
torture is "commonplace": so much so, that "the routine nature
of this ill-treatment helps to explain why, despite the abuse of the soldiers
and cries of the detainees being clearly audible, nobody, particularly in authority,
took any notice."
Unbelievably, says Shiner, the Ministry of Defense under Tony Blair decided
that the 1972 Heath government's ban on certain torture techniques applied only
in the UK and Northern Ireland. Consequently, "many Iraqis were killed
and tortured in UK detention facilities." Shiner is working on 46 horrific
A wall of silence has always surrounded the British military, its arcane rituals,
rites and practices and, above all, its contempt for the law and natural justice
in its various imperial pursuits. For 80 years, the Ministry of Defense and
compliant ministers refused to countenance posthumous pardons for terrified
boys shot at dawn during the slaughter of the First World War. British soldiers
used as guinea pigs during the testing of nuclear weapons in the Indian Ocean
were abandoned, as were many others who suffered the toxic effects of the 1991
Gulf War. The treatment of Gurkha Tul Bahadur Pun is typical. Having been sent
back to Nepal, many of these "soldiers of the Queen" have no pension,
are deeply impoverished and are refused residence or medical help in the country
for which they fought and for which 43,000 of them have died or been injured.
The Gurkhas have won no fewer than 26 Victoria Crosses, yet Browne's "affordable
expenditure" excludes them.
An even more imposing wall of silence ensures that the British public remains
largely unaware of the industrial killing of civilians in Britain's modern colonial
wars. In his landmark work Unpeople:
Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses, the historian Mark Curtis uses
three main categories: direct responsibility, indirect responsibility and active
"The overall figure [since 1945] is between 8.6 and 13.5 million,"
Curtis writes. "Of these, Britain bears direct responsibility for between
four million and six million deaths. This figure is, if anything, likely to
be an underestimate. Not all British interventions have been included, because
of lack of data." Since his study was published, the Iraq death toll has
reached, by reliable measure, a million men, women and children.
The spiraling rise of militarism within Britain is rarely acknowledged, even
by those alerting the public to legislation attacking basic civil liberties,
such as the recently drafted Data Communications Bill, which will give the government
powers to keep records of all electronic communication. Like the plans for identity
cards, this is in keeping what the Americans call "the national security
state," which seeks the control of domestic dissent while pursuing military
aggression abroad. The £4bn aircraft carriers are to have a "global
role." For global read colonial. The Ministry of Defense and the Foreign
Office follow Washington's line almost to the letter, as in Browne's preposterous
description of Afghanistan as a noble cause. In reality, the US-inspired NATO
invasion has had two effects: the killing and dispossession of large numbers
of Afghans, and the return of the opium trade, which the Taliban had banned.
According to Hamid Karzai, the west's puppet leader, Britain's role in Helmand
Province has led directly to the return of the Taliban.
The militarizing of how the British state perceives and treats other societies
is vividly demonstrated in Africa, where ten out of 14 of the most impoverished
and conflict-ridden countries are seduced into buying British arms and military
equipment with "soft loans." Like the British royal family, the British
Prime Minister simply follows the money. Having ritually condemned a despot
in Zimbabwe for "human rights abuses" - in truth, for no longer serving
as the west's business agent - and having obeyed the latest US dictum on Iran
and Iraq, Brown set off recently for Saudi Arabia, exporter of Wahhabi fundamentalism
and wheeler of fabulous arms deals.
To complement this, the Brown government is spending £11bn of taxpayers'
money on a huge, privatised military academy in Wales, which will train foreign
soldiers and mercenaries recruited to the bogus "war on terror." With
arms companies such as Raytheon profiting, this will become Britain's "School
of the Americas," a center for counterinsurgency (terrorist) training and
the design of future colonial adventures.
It has had almost no publicity.
Of course, the image of militarist Britain clashes with a benign national regard
formed, wrote Tolstoy, "from infancy, by every possible means - class books,
church services, sermons, speeches, books, papers, songs, poetry, monuments
[leading to] people stupefied in the one direction." Much has changed since
he wrote that. Or has it? The shabby, destructive colonial war in Afghanistan
is now reported almost entirely through the British army, with squaddies always
doing their Kipling best, and with the Afghan resistance routinely dismissed
as "outsiders" and "invaders." Pictures of nomadic boys
with NATO-roasted skin almost never appear in the press or on television, nor
the aftereffects of British thermobaric weapons, or "vacuum bombs,"
designed to suck the air out of human lungs. Instead, whole pages mourn a British
military intelligence agent in Afghanis tan, because she happens to have been
a 26-year-old woman, the first to die in active service since the 2001 invasion.
Baha Mousa, tortured to death by British soldiers, was also 26 years old. But
he was different. His father, Daoud, says that the way the Ministry of Defense
has behaved over his son's death convinces him that the British government regards
the lives of others as "cheap." And he is right.