Justice in time of war

TORTURE is the virus of war. Sometimes, the pandemic shows up as the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ used by the CIA. Sometimes, it’s in the white phosphorus shells used by the US military to burn flesh off bones.

By Mary Riddell

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Published: Sun 27 Nov 2005, 10:03 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:23 PM

And sometimes, it’s just the same old torture that infected Saddam’s Iraq. Only now, the starving and flayed prisoners discovered in a secret prison are held by jailers linked to the new interior ministry. The ‘shake’n’bake’ missions add a new dimension to brutality. There was only one chemically armed protagonist in this war and it wasn’t Saddam.

Few, including those of us who opposed war on Iraq, expected the postscript to be so harsh. The made-for-TV warfare of the 21st century was meant to be sanitised, surgical and short. Remember shock and awe, choreographed like a municipal firework display. Remember the flowers that might have been thrown, but never were, at liberators offering chocolate bars and dreams.

Instead, the onslaught became another down-and-dirty conflict, echoing suffering from the Somme to Saigon. Only this time, some things were worse. The just war theory outlined by Thomas Aquinas seemed pugilistic compared with the bloodless and virtuous liberation that Bush and Blair proposed for Iraq. And yet here we are, on a Macbeth battlefield in which ‘fair is foul and foul is fair.’

In the vacuum where the benign trades places with the wicked, people cleave to talismans of good. Enter the army and Britons’ idealised picture of their military men. Wilfred Owen’s hymn to dying for his country was spat out like bile, but ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ still gets a literal interpretation, in keeping with more romantic elegies. To Siegfried Sassoon, the infantryman was godlike. ‘No thorny crown, only a woollen cap he wore —an English soldier, white and strong,’ Sassoon wrote. But by the end of the poem, his ‘redeemer’ is just another squaddie, hurling down the planks that pass for a crucifix and cursing the Almighty as he stumbles in a dark ditch.

Such nuanced accounts have been obliterated by time and sweeter anthems. The soldiers commemorated in poppies and Cenotaph wreaths are heroes, pure and unadulterated. So are modern fighters. The kick-ass US troops who took Baghdad were never to be compared with the British forces in Basra, soft-capped ambassadors of the finest army in the world.

That image sat uneasily with recent history. As Joanna Bourke, author of An Intimate History of Killing, has noted, a Ministry of Defence Survey in 2002 found that more than 40 per cent of British soldiers believed the army had a problem with bullying, sexual discrimination and harassment. The death of four young soldiers at Deepcut Barracks evoked an unaccountable and unsavoury world. Our army did not emerge from Malaya, Kenya, Aden or Northern Ireland with its pristine image untarnished. In Iraq, the treatment of detainees at Camp Breadbasket shattered any illusion that prisoner abuse was born in the USA and confined to Abu Ghraib. But the ‘few bad apples’ theory soothed fears, and the army remains one of the most potent symbols of a righteous country, in love with its military history and in denial over its dwindling global power.

Last week’s revelations about white phosphorus and tortured Sunni prisoners emerged at the same time as a third Iraq-based furore, centred on the army. The case of Colonel Jorge Mendonca is becoming one of the most curious and disturbing stories of the Iraq war.

Colonel Mendonca, the decorated former commanding officer of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, based in Basra, has been accused of neglect over the death in custody of an Iraqi hotel receptionist, Baha Mousa, in September 2003. Colonel Mendonca is expected to stand trial, along with six of his regiment, at a court martial next September. He will be the first officer serving in Iraq to face this process.

The decision to put him in the dock has provoked fury, especially at the Daily Telegraph, which is campaigning on his behalf. His wife, Louise, has told the paper that her husband was being charged because army chiefs and politicians wanted officers to be prosecuted with the troops under their command. Protesters, many highly-placed, have accused Tony Blair and the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, of damaging, or betraying, the army. I never supported Blair’s war or believed Goldsmith’s argument for its legality. I do, though, find the crusade building behind Colonel Mendonca shocking. It would be unthinkable, in a civilian hearing, for what amounts to a case for the defence to be splashed across the Press in the run-up to a trial. Whatever happened to due process?

It is true that army-style justice often seems slow, haphazard and out of its league. The court martial system has already been spruced up and the prosecuting process will be streamlined in the new Armed Services Bill. Even so, a system that coped manfully with charges relating to groping in the officers’ mess was never designed to unravel death and allegations of abuse in a highly charged war zone. Civilian justice, expert and impartial, should take over major investigations and trials.

But the Mendonca furore is not primarily about the mechanics of military justice. The Attorney General, who is called in to advise on serious cases, and senior army officers stand accused by Colonel Mendonca’s supporters of subverting the law to ‘political correctness’. There could hardly be a graver charge than this. Goldsmith has refuted it utterly and General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff, has said it is ‘calumny’ to suggest military prosecutors were politically influenced.

Colonel Mendonca, meanwhile, is innocent under the law. He faces no war crimes charge. I have no idea whether he will ultimately be acquitted of neglect, partly since I do not know the evidence against him. Nor can his supporters be any the wiser, unless army prosecutors have taken the unlikely step of copying in Tory MPs, retired top brass and Bruce Anderson, who writes in the Spectator that ‘a country which treats Colonel Mendonca like this ought to be ashamed of itself’.

We should be ashamed, instead, of the suggestion, underpinning the pro-Mendonca campaign, that officers are untouchable and that prosecuting them is bad for army morale. Maybe the case against Colonel Menonca is as mistaken as his champions claim, but that is for a court to establish, not for commentators to assert. Otherwise, we might just as well hand over the entire justice system to the opinion-formers of the right-wing press.

Everywhere, the rule of law is faltering. Guantanamo, a monument to torture by the civilised, has made abuse seem legitimate in the eyes of other regimes. Just as today’s brutalised child becomes tomorrow’s monster, Iraq’s fledgling democracy is incubating the vicious habits of Saddam and his displacers. In this climate, the army’s stake on honour is vital.

That reputation does not lie in ancient myths of valour or even in the blood of the 97 British troops killed in Iraq. It depends on the absolute assurance that no soldier, however humble or distinguished, is ever seen as being above the law.

Mary Riddell is a British journalist and Observer columnist

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