How Britain Wages War

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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

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by the National Health Service: outrages rescinded only after a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 21st century."

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."

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 cases.

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 inaction.

"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.

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.

12, 2008

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs
, is
published by Jonathan Cape in June.

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