Afghanistan – lying about dying
Among the rituals so consoling to our Servants of the People in Westminster is the solemn roll call of the names of recently fatal casualties of the Afghanistan war proceeding to formulaic assurances of grief, of sympathy for family and friends and an assertion, defiant of a mass of disruptive facts, that from the dead will blossom a victory to bring a happier, freer Afghanistan and a safer Britain. All of this will happen, argue the MPs, through some process so far undefined. Meanwhile it is notable that the casualties’ names are exclusively those of members of the British armed forces; the fighters on the other side and the hapless Afghan people who die terrified in their homes from the blast of the missiles do not get a mention. It is all very satisfactory for the Honourable Members on the green benches, dreaming of their expense claims while scheming of how most effectively to avoid any too probing questions from their constituents about the policy of satisfying the appetite of that voracious war.
This is reflected in the style of the heavily publicised repatriation of the dead soldiers, brought in flag-draped coffins to a military airfield and, after a ceremonial unloading, paraded through the streets of the nearby town – all carefully orchestrated and recorded by the TV news cameras. It would be a very brave person who defied this official smothering of doubts about the reasons for the troops being in Afghanistan. Part of this disreputable process is the eulogising of the dead who, one after another, are remembered, each in their own way, as a rare combination of courage, good humour, compassion, intellectual power…An example of this receptive attitude was a full page article by Audrey Gillan – who has some direct experience of Afghanistan – in the Guardian of 23 September about the late Corporal Michael Lockett: “…one of the most affable and funniest…one of the most courageous…handsome face and bright blue eyes flickering…Each time I met him I admired (him) more…” In another case – which did not have the advantage of being written up by a doting journalist – a dead soldier was praised because he had “loved” being a sniper – loved, in other words, practising his craft of abruptly and clinically killing people as if there can be no higher human talent.
But among the hysteria a more sombre and realistic event intruded – a young man by the name of Barry Delaney in a woman’s dress weeping for his best friend Kevin Elliott who was killed in an ambush in August. Three years ago the two agreed that if Elliott was killed Delaney would attend his funeral dressed like a woman. On his last leave Elliott told Delaney that he was terrified to go back to Afghanistan and could see no proper reason for the British army being there. Delaney is chronically unemployed, living in Dundee where there is a persistent problem – which Elliott avoided by joining the army when he left school at 16. In this context it is particularly pertinent that the Ministry of Defence report a 25 per cent rise in army recruits in this year of the recession – more than at any other time since 2005.
Delaney and Elliott do not conform to the stereotype so lovingly fostered onto us by media hacks. Elliott told of many ingloriously gruesome episodes, such as while trying to leave the battle under fire having to scoop up from the dust the body parts and internal organs of another soldier. Experiences like that are likely, in every case except the most hardened or resistant, to devastate a person’s morale so as to insert unforeseen, unwelcome and unmanageable aspects into their personality so damaging as to make the effect endure for a long time after the immediate experience has expired. The Guardian quotes Professor Tim Robbins, former head of trauma and stress services at St. George’s Hospital: “If we are asking people to do appalling things, to take part in regular firefights and hand-to-hand combat, you get to the stage where it de-sensitises them to violence”.
The durability of these effects was illustrated by a recent survey by NAPO, the Probation Officers’ trade union, which estimated that there are over 20,000 ex-service personnel – over twice as many as are in Afghanistan – being processed by the criminal justice system such as police, courts, prisons and the like. Of these 8,500 have committed offences serious enough to get them sent to prison, making a tenth of the total prison population and the largest singe identifiable occupational group there. In many cases their offences were the immediate result of excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs, or both. The most common offence was for domestic violence, usually by men on their wives as an anarchic response to the stress of the discipline required by a close living relationship. Typical examples are, firstly, by a man who went through two spells in active war zones: “Hard to reconcile the devastation, horror and distress of the war with the comfortable life” and, secondly, a man who in his first few days in the Iraq war saw a friend blown up; he now has nine previous convictions beginning in 2005, of which two were for domestic violence and he is known by his ex-partners as a “Jekyll and Hyde” character. Facts like these throw serious doubt on the official propaganda, abetted by the media weasels, that the British forces in Afghanistan are unique in being impeccably mannered and humane. In addition they raise the question of whether Kevin Elliott was driven to join up when he left school because the army offered him better prospects than a life on the bread-line.
An example of how soldiers, of whatever nationality, are liable to respond to the everyday stress of militarism was the case of Baha Mousa, who was working as a receptionist in a Basra hotel until the day in September 2003 when 120 British soldiers (from a group known as “The Grim Reapers”) raided the hotel and took him, with nine others, into detention at the Battle Group Main camp. It was there that Baha Mousa – called “fat boy” or “fat bastard” by the soldiers – was subjected to a process of “conditioning” – or more accurately torture – until he died with 93 separate injuries to his body including a broken nose and fractured ribs. A video recording shows Baha Mousa, with other detainees, hooded and forced into stress positions, being screamed at, abused and threatened. At the subsequent enquiry there was evidence suggesting that Baha Mousa was arrested and tortured because he had complained after seeing some of the soldiers breaking open a safe in the hotel and stealing money. One of the soldiers admitted to this but probably did not help his case by saying he wanted the money “to make a collage”. There was a court martial but, in what looked suspiciously like a closing of ranks, the blame was focussed on only one of the soldiers, who then had to plead guilty to inhumane treatment while the others were acquitted. Counsel for the Ministry of Defence did his best for his majestic client by apologising for the “brutal violence” and “appalling behaviour” of the soldiers. Which left just the government and the media to do their best to plaster over such an embarrassing episode and insist that things are different now, as the soldiers go about the business of killing and of being killed in Afghanistan.
The pressure on us to misinterpret the deaths, as the bodies come back, as nobly purifying is a cynically orchestrated propaganda exercise intended to justify the war, to obscure the fact that the great powers’ interest in Afghanistan does not arise from any concern for the people of that country but from its position in an area vital to the interests of those powers, rather like the situation when it was an unwilling participant in the “Great Game” of Victorian imperialism. It is almost as a grisly tradition, that those same powers should readily support any Afghan tribal ruler no matter how corrupt and repressive – and that so many of the attempts to control the place through conquest have failed. It is hardly surprising that some of the soldiers should begin to ask why they are there and what the end will be for it all. The official response is to promote a massive lie with insidious propaganda fashioned to strait-jacket any tendency to dissent from the popular delusions. The killing goes on as the government gambles that their lies will be more acceptable than the distress of facing reality.