Paul Vallely: Who did give the green light to torture?

When they behave disgracefully, the military are imitating a contempt for human rights found higher up the chain of command

Share
Related Topics

There has been something artificially over-heated about the international reaction to the video of four American soldiers urinating on the bodies of their dead Taliban enemies in Afghanistan. It was, of course, a fairly disgusting thing to do. But all the breastbeating about how the men's "egregious inhumanity" had brought "disgrace to their armed forces" and "dishonour to their nation" had something of bluster about it. How could anybody do such a thing, asked people who had never been to war, heard their wounded friends scream or seen them die, blown to pieces, before their very eyes.

There may yet be demonstrations and deadly riots around the world in protest. But I suspect not. This is no Abu Ghraib, for the scenes of degraded torture in that Iraqi prison were inflicted upon the living rather than the dead. But what the two have in common is that both have exposed a systematic pattern of abuse in a culture which had been nurtured or authorised at higher levels.

The Taliban, for all their perfunctory condemnation, have announced that the video will not affect the process of political negotiating that has begun in Afghanistan. As part of a deal to bring a modicum of stability in that country ahead of the withdrawal of US combat troops in 2014, Washington has offered to allow them to open a political office in Qatar. The Taliban are far more concerned about that than the desecration of three dead bodies. They and their al-Qa'ida allies are, after all, happy enough to desecrate living bodies, stoning to death young women who have had the ill fortune to be raped, or cutting the throats of hostages and filming it for the internet.

Bad things happen in war. When men have been under extreme fire, or seen their best friend die, anger and hatred flow freely. Enemies are dehumanised. Contempt for the other is a battlefield weapon. Young soldiers – and nearly 40 per cent of the US Marine Corps are below the age of 22 – are prone to callow as well as gallows humour. Some of them do stupid things. With a total of 90,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan, the real wonder is that there haven't been more videos like this. British soldiers did worse things in the Second World War. They just weren't able to video it and stick it on YouTube.

There is something far more disturbing at work here. It was at play, too, last week at the end of the two 30-month long investigations into reports that members of MI5 and MI6 were complicit in the torture of terrorist suspects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Scotland Yard and the Crown Prosecution Service decided that there was not enough evidence against any named individual to bring charges. But they have decided to pursue two cases involving other allegations that the British secret services handed Libyan dissidents over to Gaddafi's torturers when the maverick Libyan was persuaded by Tony Blair to switch sides in the "war on terror". Among those now to be investigated is a woman interrogator from MI6 and two other female agents.

The urination and rendition debacles share another common factor. Both serve to draw public attention to the little men, and women, involved at the sharp end of these dirty situations. And that draws attention away from the real culprits who make the polices or set the culture in which such dubious practices thrive.

All the charges made by suspected terrorists about our intelligence and security services cannot be accepted at face value. Even so, the documents that were discovered when Gaddafi fled from Tripoli suggested that a cosy conspiracy over rendition had been authorised at a pretty senior British level. Already the top spooks and politicians are squaring up each to blame the other.

Sources in the security services are briefing that rendition operations were "ministerially authorised government policy", hinting that they must have been signed off by Jack Straw, foreign secretary between 2001-06, under section seven of the Intelligence Services Act, the clause the popular press likes to describe as a "licence to kill". The politicians of the day are countering by pointing out that the Tripoli documents could be interpreted as suggesting that MI6's then head of counter-terrorism, Sir Mark Allen, could have been the authoriser. It might have been neither of them. It is all very opaque.

The same is true in the United States where it is unclear what are the forces which are preventing President Obama from keeping his election promise to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay where 171 prisoners have now been held without trial for 10 years. They are deemed "too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution" in an Alice-in-Wonderland world of punishment first, trial later – or never. Indeed, far from closing the camp as he pledged, Obama this month signed into law a bill which prevents the transfer of the prisoners to the US mainland or to other countries. Hopes for the closure of the camp are now dead.

The focus on individual wrong-doers obscures this bigger picture. But if we cannot pin down who is to blame, what is clear is that something is being eroded in the West's idea of what should be the ethical norms by which a civilised country acts. There is a new tolerance of acts outside the law.

No intelligence service can do its job without dealing with unsavoury regimes. And no soldiering unit can build the comradeship needed on the frontline without engendering a sense of animus against the enemy. But when in court the Master of the Rolls criticises the behaviour of a British interrogator accused of collusion with torture as "dubious" – and brands him as less than "frank" about what happened – it is disturbing to hear the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, describe the same agent as a "courageous individual" who would now be able to continue his work in support of national security.

Perhaps the man is blameless. But someone here is not. If that agent was not acting on his own initiative, who authorised his activities? The guidelines under which he and his fellows in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya were operating should be published so that the public can trace responsibility for his actions up the security service's chain of command, and perhaps beyond.

It is easier, of course, to find a few little men, or women, to blame. But it is not our ordinary soldiers, or even spies, who are pissing from the greatest height on the values which are supposed to be what separate us from our enemies.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas