Menzies Campbell: Nasty, brutish and refusing to go away

As leaked documents tell of 109,000 violent deaths in five years, will the war's supporters finally admit they were wrong?

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:13

It simply will not go away. Every time it seems that Iraq, Britain's worst foreign policy judgement since Suez in 1956 might at last slip down the political agenda, it bounces back. If it is not David Miliband's public spat with Harriet Harman at the Labour Party conference, it is the chilling but not surprising news that Iran is brokering the deal to resolve the political impasse in Iraq and install a government months after the inconclusive general election. But this weekend, courtesy of The Guardian and WikiLeaks, we can read over the breakfast table the sorry, harrowing accounts of the aftermath of invasion and the reckless, callous disregard for human life now at last acknowledged to have resulted in 109,000 violent deaths over the five years from 2004 to 2009.

War can be nasty, brutish and long. Let no one claim the moral high ground here. Terrible things are done in the heat of battle, sometimes by design and sometimes by circumstance. The hapless conscripts put in the trenches in the front line by Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war paid a terrible price when the allied offensive began in the spring of 1990.

Even in fiction there is acknowledgement of dreadful acts of revenge. In the war epic Band of Brothers one of the brothers, off camera, shoots surrendered German prisoners. But these newly released documents, now exposed to scrutiny, tell of disrespect for human life which, for the armchair reader or the studio pundit, is way outside of experience. Although they do make it easier perhaps to understand why so many former soldiers have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

So much has been written about why Britain joined military action against Iraq. So many justifications have been offered up by those most intimately concerned in that decision that it is difficult to be clear in one's own mind about the reasons advanced at the time. But the catch-all and last-resort argument has come to be something like, "At least we got rid of Saddam Hussein, turned Iraq into a democracy and made it a better place."

If you believe that argument, read these documents and ask yourself this question. If, when the House of Commons voted on 18 March 2003 to endorse Tony Blair's intention to go to war, it had collectively and individually known then what we now know, would it have supported that action? Or, if you reject that approach, on the ground that to use hindsight in this way is objectionable, put the question another, simpler way. Has it all been worth it?

Two things leap out of these documents. First, the routine, matter-of-fact summaries of incidents and casualties, which must have been searing in their impact on victims and perpetrators alike. And second, the terrible willingness of Iraqis to exact the most awful toll on their fellow citizens by systematic violence.

The behaviour of some Iraqi security forces as recorded in these documents is unconscionable, with regard neither for the dignity nor the sanctity of human life.

Al-Qa'ida's contribution to these events was ruthless and barbaric, too, and their extensive use of suicide bombers led to extreme nervousness among US military manning checkpoints, which in turn led to shooting incidents involving women and children. Some of these were almost certainly unjustified in law but there is little chance of anyone being brought to book.

In the laconic language of these documents are recorded accounts of incidents observed by US forces which on any view amount to torture, or at least cruel and inhumane treatment by Iraqi forces. On occasions, only the intervention of the US military prevented brutality continuing or escalating.

It is true that complaints against coalition forces are also recorded, but so far as the documents reveal, unpleasant and wrong though these incidents may be, they do not appear to be of the same character as the sadism of Iraqi towards Iraqi.

But what the reports do not contain is information to suggest that any action was ever taken by the Iraqi authorities against any of these security forces or that there was any system for following up these allegations. Lawlessness, irresponsibility and brutality were commonplace and tolerated.

Should we be surprised by the contents of these documents? Put it another way, should we have anticipated what might happen?

Iraq was an artificial construct, a product of colonial map-drawing with little regard for tribal or clan structures. It was held together by strong central authority. In Saddam's case, this was by vicious repression. Was it so difficult after the first Gulf war to deduce that Saddam would do anything to stay in power, not least since his life did literally depend on it? Was it so difficult to deduce that if the ruthless structure for survival he had created were to be removed, and him with it, the internal rivalries he had suppressed would not assert themselves? Was it not inevitable that a country built on blood and brutality would plunge into both when the authority of its ruler was destroyed?

You can argue that unequivocal answers to these questions would have been impossible in 2003 on the eve of war, but you can't argue that the risks were not evident. These leaked documents are further confirmation of misjudgement and failure.

Sir Menzies Campbell is former leader of the Liberal Democrats

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