If everyone falls into line, who will ask the questions that need asking?

Robin Cook may have cut an odd figure, but the really odd thing was that the responses to his call for withdrawal were so deluded
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The Independent Online

For three more British soldiers, this war is over. These men did not die in accidents though, or in combat, or in friendly fire. They have instead been sent home to their base in Colchester after raising objections to the conduct of the war.

For three more British soldiers, this war is over. These men did not die in accidents though, or in combat, or in friendly fire. They have instead been sent home to their base in Colchester after raising objections to the conduct of the war.

They specifically questioned the killing of innocent civilians, more of whom are reported to have died in the invasion of Iraq than soldiers. The Ministry of Defence says there is "no evidence" to suggest that the men refused to fight. Nevertheless, the three may face court martial and up to two years in prison.

The soldiers, who include a private and a technician, are from 16 Air Assault Brigade, which is engaged in protecting oilfields in Southern Iraq. While their protests are obviously embarrassing to the Government, some reports suggest that its discomfort will be all the greater, since military chiefs are already deeply concerned about "growing evidence" of civilians being killed in fighting by US soldiers in the urban areas of the south.

This "growing evidence", though, is not something we are privy to. In this war about which we seem to know so much, we actually know surprisingly little. Rumour has it, though, that the British are coping much better with the pressure of the kind of warfare that is being demanded of them in Iraq than the US forces.

Who can say whether this is true, or whether it is merely propaganda circulated by and among the British troops? All we have to go by are reports that occasionally reach us, perhaps suggesting that, less than a fortnight in, US soldiers are panicky, unsure of exactly who the enemy is and feeling that they're in a position where they have to shoot first and ask questions later.

We have a graphic picture from Audrey Gillan, a journalist "embedded" in Southern Iraq with the Household Cavalry, of the events that led to the "friendly-fire" death of Lance-Corporal of Horse Matty Hull, 25, last Friday, and the injury of four others. Joe Woodgate, 19, the only soldier in the convoy to survive unhurt when two Scimitar armoured-reconnaissance vehicles were destroyed by a US tankbuster plane, described how his comrades were attacked not once but twice, as they let off red flares in their attempts to signal that they were part of the coalition.

"I couldn't believe it when I thought more about the fact that it was the Americans," he said. "I don't see how they could mistake us for Iraqis. We have got all these indicators on our wagons, strips on the turret and infrared lights and one of these vehicles had a massive Union Jack."

The Pentagon, as in previous friendly-fire incidents, has nothing to add in the way of elucidation. It expressed regret and said, again, that "work is under way to prevent such mistakes". No further explanation of the incident was given.

As for young Joe Woodgate, he is fighting on with courage that is awesome. His is the sort of unquestioning bravery that is demanded of soldiers. The sort of courage of the three who did dare to question though, is just as admirable, even if theirs is the kind of maverick bravery that is so greatly detested – and with hard, practical reasons – by the military.

Yet the plight of these three men, who will necessarily be punished for speaking their minds, even though they were in Iraq ostensibly to liberate people so they could have that very freedom, throws light on the attitudes of those who say that a failure to back the troops in Iraq from the "home front" is a betrayal.

There has been much emotional rhetoric of this kind flying around in Britain. What this rhetoric really says is that even if one has not chosen to join the armed forces, one must, in times of war, always succumb to the tenets of military discipline, and accept, unquestioningly, that there is a job to be done, and that it is being done by people with more physical bravery than the rest of us.

The latter is certainly true, and the forces must always be respected for the risks they take and the losses they suffer. Yet I find it impossible to accept that a nation involved in war must also involve itself in strict censorship of opinion. After all, if everyone falls into line, then who is left to ask the questions that may need to be asked on behalf of the soldiers who cannot ask themselves?

Robin Cook may have cut an odd figure over the weekend, as he explained that his anti-war sentiments were no more than sentiments and that, actually, he didn't want the war to stop at all. But in truth, the really odd thing was that the responses to his apparent call for British withdrawal were so deluded.

It is patiently explained that we cannot withdraw now from Iraq because that would leave a bigger mess than ever, reminding the Iraqis of times past in which the Allies have abandoned them. But actually, this mainly applies to the Americans, because they are seen as being the main protagonists of the war.

In this, as in everything else, the British are an afterthought. Anyone who doesn't believe this simply has to remember that the British, after all, would have no option to withdraw if the US suddenly decided to. However strategically important British forces may be, we are merely adjuncts to this war.

If the US begins to take action or even make plans for Iraq that are no longer something that Britain can support, then it would be perfectly sensible for us to leave Iraq, rather than stay involved with a situation that becomes less and less tenable.

Britain, and specifically Tony Blair, even at this late stage in events, still has some desire to provide a restraining force towards the Americans. Mr Blair, for example, clearly understands the perils of further antagonising the rest of the Middle East, but has not been able to persuade the US administration. How he must wince when he hears of casual threats being tossed towards Syria and Iran. He also clearly understands that central to the process of pacifying the region is a post-war plan for Iraq that involves the coalition as little as possible. On this issue, too, his counsel goes unheeded. Perhaps he should now be thinking the unthinkable and reminding himself that, even now, his support for the Americans does not have to be unconditional.

This may at first seem like political suicide for Blair, a climbdown of enormous proportions. But actually, if the threat of withdrawal of British troops can win some kind of place for Britain in shaping the further course of the war and peace, then it will fit in exactly with Mr Blair's avowed strategy thus far. British men have died "for their country". So maybe it's about time that some of this country's values were represented in the post-war settlement.