Sorry, General, not enough

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The Independent Online

General Sir Michael Jackson, the Chief of the General Staff, has apologised to the Iraqi people and announced an inquiry into the abuse of Iraqis by British troops. As the newspaper that first reported that some British soldiers had mistreated Iraqi non-combatants, we welcome both the apology and the inquiry.

General Sir Michael Jackson, the Chief of the General Staff, has apologised to the Iraqi people and announced an inquiry into the abuse of Iraqis by British troops. As the newspaper that first reported that some British soldiers had mistreated Iraqi non-combatants, we welcome both the apology and the inquiry.

We cannot but express our reservations, however. It should be apparent that Sir Michael is engaged in a public relations operation to limit the damage to the Army's reputation caused by the court martial that concluded in Germany last week. We accept, of course, that the vast majority of British soldiers in Iraq have done and are doing a difficult and important job well. But we cannot share Sir Michael's confidence that the grotesque photographs from Camp Breadbasket represent "one of a very small number of cases" of deliberate abuse. Nor do we accept the implication of his statement that abuse is simply the fault of wayward individuals among the lower ranks. It seems more plausible that a culture of mistreating and humiliating Iraqis was allowed to flourish - if it was not actively encouraged - by officers. It does not require, for example, a PhD in semiology to wonder about the assumptions behind an operation to round up looters and "work them hard" that was codenamed Ali Baba.

Our criticisms of the Army's response to proven instances of abuse are twofold. First, military justice is too concerned to minimise crimes and to prevent responsibility seeping up the chain of command. Investigators tend to be deferential towards officers, and we simply do not accept Sir Michael's assertion that courts-martial provide "the same standards of justice and independence that are present in the civilian judicial system". If they are the same, then why not have crimes committed by soldiers tried by the civilian judicial system? In fact, it is unfair to squaddies that they should be denied the right to jury trial like the rest of us.

Secondly, if the Army really is determined to learn the lessons of the failures in Iraq to meet its professed standards, then an inquiry conducted by a senior officer is inadequate. If Sir Michael means what he says about his "desire to maintain the highest standards of conduct in the Army", then he can have no objection to an independent inquiry.

Military justice and military discipline can only be improved by external, independent oversight.

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