Outside forces must engage with the culture of brutality

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Is it inevitable that armies should abuse the human rights of those whom they are sent to defend? That is the question posed by the publication last week of photographs of British soldiers humiliating Iraqis. It is made more pressing by our publication today of new figures revealing that the extent of abuse of Iraqis by the British is greater than previously thought. And the existence of a deep-rooted culture of bullying in the armed forces that might be turned outwards on powerless detainees is suggested by our report that half of the women in the RAF say that they have suffered from harassment by male colleagues, mostly superior officers.

Is it inevitable that armies should abuse the human rights of those whom they are sent to defend? That is the question posed by the publication last week of photographs of British soldiers humiliating Iraqis. It is made more pressing by our publication today of new figures revealing that the extent of abuse of Iraqis by the British is greater than previously thought. And the existence of a deep-rooted culture of bullying in the armed forces that might be turned outwards on powerless detainees is suggested by our report that half of the women in the RAF say that they have suffered from harassment by male colleagues, mostly superior officers.

This is an important question, after George Bush's pledge in his second inaugural address to rid the world of tyranny. If the military forces deployed to spread democracy around the globe fail to behave in strict accordance with democratic values, the morality of the whole enterprise is tainted.

However, it was never part of this newspaper's argument against the invasion of Iraq that US and British forces could not be trusted to respect basic human rights. On the contrary, we have the greatest respect for the professionalism and bravery of our armed forces. For that reason, as General Sir Michael Jackson seems to acknowledge, it is all the more important that their conduct should meet the highest possible standards. The fact that war is a brutal and bloody business, in which some people will do terrible things, is one reason for setting the bar for military intervention very high. But military action is sometimes justified, in which case it is important that the conduct of our troops is as disciplined as possible.

Nor is it inevitable that soldiers should behave in the way that some US, British and Danish troops have done. One of the most grievous failings of President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, his Defence Secretary, was the ambiguous message about the legality of torture that they transmitted to the troops serving in Iraq, via Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

But any sense of British superiority on account of the photographs from Abu Ghraib will have been dispelled by now. The photographs of British abuse in Camp Bread Basket from May 2003 pre-date the Abu Ghraib excesses by some months. For those who thought the sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners a peculiarly American perversion, the British photographs are disturbing. Either the Americans copied it from us or, more plausibly, it speaks of the universal nature of relations between soldiers and dehumanised "enemy" in war-like situations.

These are uncomfortable truths, and it may have taken time for them to emerge because they are hard for us to accept. To yield to such psychologising, however, is a counsel of despair. Understanding the danger of such situations should be the first step to guarding against such abuse. The same applies to internal discipline. Because fighting units have to be hardened to do the things they have to do, and because they require an unusual degree of team bonding, military discipline ought to be more than usually concerned to avoid bullying of any kind.

The most important way of doing that would be for some external constraint on soldiers' conduct. One common theme of both the allegations of sexual harassment within the forces and of abuse of Iraqis is that they have been investigated by the military itself. Some form of outside scrutiny would be the best way to ensure that the culture of abuse which disfigures the reputation of our armed forces is challenged and overthrown.

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