Winning Battles and Losing Wars
The recent clash involving British soldiers and Iraqis in southern Iraq has blown the lid off the idea that British-administered Iraq is either secure or stable. As warnings about Shia militias and local hostility towards British troops in the region reach a crescendo, there is unsurprisingly - considerable concern over the morale of the troops stationed there.
Having hoped - and apparently failed - to win Iraqi "hearts and minds", Army sources say that soldiers of all ranks are suffering from combat fatigue -- a view confirmed by Combat Stress, a charity which helps soldiers with psychological problems. According to them, the indefinite time-frame of the current struggle has created the worst crisis of morale among British troops in decades.
One symptom of this disillusionment is evident in the number of soldiers who are leaving the army, to avoid returning to Iraq. One such soldier is Private Troy Samuels, a war hero decorated for his bravery under fire. According to Private Samuels, "I came out of Iraq and they asked me to go back…I just couldn't…I'm not afraid but I've been through enough."
He is not alone in this view. Around seventy soldiers from his battalion have also left the Army during the past year for this reason - "The stress for the guys out there is immense…They are seeing dead bodies [day in, day out]. I couldn't face that any more." His decision to abandon the military shows clearly that the issue at stake is not one of either bravery or patriotism, and demonstrates that "psychological injuries" can affect the bravest of officers.
With their regiment having faced upto 109 recorded attacks in one day, it's not surprising that soldiers find it difficult to face indefinite service under these conditions. In the words of one corporal: "This has been a hard, hard tour. I would be glad not to be back in Iraq for a while". Another officer added bitterly: "Mr Blair keeps on saying that everything is getting better here. Perhaps he would care to come and see it for himself. He is pretty good at sending other peoples' sons to Iraq."
Still others are flatly refusing to co-operate with orders that they see as unethical. An RAF officer, Flt-Lt Malcolm Kendall-Smith, made it clear that he was prepared to face jail rather than serve in a war he considers illegal. He is to be court-martialled, the first British officer to face criminal charges for challenging the legality of the war. The case is likely to further weaken military morale.
A further shocking development has been the recent death of Captain Ken Masters, a military police investigator with 24 years' experience. The Ministry of Defence has launched an inquiry into the apparent suicide of Captain Masters, who was found hanged at his barracks in Basra. He had been involved in investigating the alleged mistreatment of detainees by British soldiers, and Army sources feel that the stress of investigating his own colleagues may have contributed to his death.
Some of the pressures potentially affecting Captain Masters became evident recently, with the unexpected warning from Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, that senior British officers had made a "concerted attempt" to block an investigation into the killing of Sergeant Steven Roberts - a tank commander from West Yorkshire, who was shot dead days after he was told to hand back his body armour due to a shortage of equipment.
According to Lord Goldsmith, he felt it necessary to move the case to civilian jurisdiction, because Sgt Roberts' case was one example of why top commanders might not be trusted to handle murder investigations. Cases earlier settled within the jurisdiction of military courts have already proved controversial. For example, while the allegations of abuses by British soldiers at Camp Breadbasket led to some convictions, it is believed that relatively junior soldiers were made scapegoats, while senior military officials escaped censure by virtue of their rank.
For many, this has simply been a repeat of the investigations into abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison by US Army soldiers, which has also resulted in convictions of low-ranking military personnel. For the British Army, which has long considered itself (and been considered by many), to be one of the best fighting forces, with the highest standards of conduct, this crisis of confidence must be a bitter pill to swallow.
Some - such as Paul Beaver, a defence analyst with close links to senior military staff - have attempted to put a brave face on it, saying "There's obviously a disappointment that things have not gone better. But the main difference between army morale now and 12 months ago is that there is a resignation among the soldiers that they are in it for the long haul." Though he admits, "There is also recognition that some of the elements [the Iraqi police] that they trusted can no longer be trusted and that they must fall back on their own resources."
So there appears to be reason to believe that the situation is rather more serious than merely a sense of "disappointment" or "resignation". According to ex-Minister Clare Short, an opponent of the war: "An army officer stopped me in the street in Whitehall and said his job was talking to parents of those who had been killed in Iraq. He said he supported what I was doing…that his job was unbearable. I think the time has come to get a negotiated timetable for an end to the occupation."
But this seems unlikely. Recently, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw commented that that the British Army might have to stick it out in this increasingly intractable conflict for upto a decade longer. This merely confirms the fears of those who have long felt that British forces are engaged in a conflict that lacks "a credible exit strategy".
The number of sceptics within the army also appears to be on the rise. With around 8,500 British troops in Iraq, allegations have been made that many of those being sent out feel unable to cope with the pressures. Commodore Toby Elliott, of Combat Stress, stated that many soldiers were leaving the Army early in the hope that its psychological effects -(flashbacks, nightmares and guilt that they had survived while colleagues had not)- would abate. Commodore Elliot said: "The effects of the Iraq situation are comparable to serving in Northern Ireland during the worst of the Troubles."
There is little doubt that the British military presence in Northern Ireland exacted a price from the soldiers who served there. But perhaps they were able to find some consolation in the idea that the conflict was inevitable, and the dangers were too close to home to allow for inaction. The same can hardly be said of the war in Iraq!
Under the circumstances therefore, it is questionable for how long soldiers - who may have been inadequately prepared for this kind of long-term, volatile conflict in the first place - can continue to survive these pressures. In the process of trying to win over the Iraqis, the British army seems to be losing the battle for hearts and minds within its own ranks…
(R) thedailystar.net 2005