The UK: Island of crisis and denial
By: Neil Berry
The sixth UK Armed Forces Day takes place at the end of June. This annual military extravaganza was established by the former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown in response to worries about growing alienation between British military and civilian life in the wake of the bitterly contested Anglo-US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This year the event takes place in the Scottish city of Stirling. Weeks later, on Sept. 18, Scottish people will vote in a historic referendum on whether they wish Scotland to remain part of the UK.
A Scot himself, Brown is campaigning for Scotland to remain part of the UK. If his fellow countrymen choose independence, the political establishments of England and Scotland will face brain-cudgelling challenges — not least the issue of whether a sovereign Scotland is to make its own arrangements when it comes to defense. With the increasingly influential United Kingdom Independence Party pressing hard for a referendum on British membership of the European Union, the possibility looms that before long Scotland could be out of the UK and the UK out of Europe.
The nomination of Stirling as the venue for the 2014 Armed Forces Day is plainly calculated in London to rekindle Scottish pride in belonging to the UK. Yet in Scotland, as in other parts of the UK, great numbers of people have never needed much encouragement to show servicemen and women how much they appreciate them. What has perhaps obscured popular fervor for the armed forces in recent years is the widespread belief that the British military interventions of the 21st Century — in Afghanistan and Iraq — ought never to have taken place. Many consider soldiers who have died or been maimed in these conflicts to be victims of the misguided foreign policy pursued by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and subsequently by Gordon Brown.
In truth, British sentiment about the armed forces is inextricably bound up with issues of national identity and loyalty and entails a deep disinclination to think ill of men and women in uniform. As a consequence, public objectivity about the conduct of the British Army is next to impossible.
Yet frank appraisal by the British people of what the army has done in their name has perhaps never been more urgently needed. Of greater concern, however, ought to be the mounting evidence that the behavior of many British soldiers has been such as to shame the British Army as an institution and call into question Britain’s boasted credentials as an ethical nation.
This month came the grim news that the International Criminal Court in The Hague is to begin a preliminary inquiry into claims that British troops committed war crimes following the invasion of Iraq.
The court is to investigate an estimated 60 cases of alleged unlawful killing and 170 of mistreatment of Iraqis in British military custody between 2003 and 2008. That the ICC has embarked on this action owes much to the zealous efforts of the Birmingham human rights lawyer, Phil Shiner. It was this much-vilified campaigner who played a principal part in exposing how the hapless Iraqi hotel receptionist, Baha Mousa, was tortured to death by British troops in September 2003.
The sadistic treatment meted out to Baha Mousa was shockingly documented by the British legal academic, A.T. Williams, in his prize-winning book A Very British Killing. In common with Phil Shiner, Williams believes that the British Army must be properly held to account if the UK is to rescue its moral credibility. Yet many in the British political and military establishments, not to mention the wider public, appear loath to acknowledge the delinquencies of British soldiers. For such people, UK Armed Services Day affords welcome make-believe, annual reassurance that far from being a confused and distressed post-imperial state facing internal break-up, the UK remains what it has always been: A great military nation actuated by impeccable motives.