The long history of British abuse and torture in Kenya, Malaya, Aden, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan cannot be explained as the work of a few ‘bad apples’.
Set up to investigate alleged human rights abuses of Iraqis by British troops in the aftermath of a firefight in 2004 and costing over £22 million, the al-Sweady public inquiry is set to report in the autumn.
Citing a lack of evidence, in March lawyers representing Iraqi families withdrew their claim that British troops had killed unarmed Iraqis they had captured and brought back to their army base in southern Iraq.
However, while the headline allegation has been dropped, the inquiry has unearthed some shocking behaviour.
One British soldier testified that his sergeant fired around 30 rounds into a “pile” of Iraqi bodies: “He put a full magazine of bullets into both bodies that had been twitching but he also fired into the bodies of the other dead gunmen in the ditch. The bodies of the two twitching gunmen stopped twitching.”
The soldier went on to note that he witnessed two other soldiers punch and kick Iraqi prisoners, with one of them stamping on the head of a dead Iraqi several times.
Faced with these types of allegations the British government and military have repeatedly tried to downplay their significance, effectively labelling the perpetrators as “bad apples.”
As the then armed forces minister Bill Rammell said in 2009: “Only a tiny number of individuals have been shown to have fallen short of our high standards.”
However, the cold facts suggest a far less comforting reality. In 2010 the army’s most senior legal adviser in Iraq revealed that at least eight Iraqis had died in British custody since the invasion in 2003.
Included in this shameful number is Baha Mousa, a Basra hotel worker who was beaten to death in September 2003 while being held by the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. It also includes Tarik Mahmud, who reportedly died in a helicopter while a captive of the RAF Regiment.
In Iraq the British army was using what are known as the five techniques of interrogation — hooding, stress positions, noise, sleep deprivation and deprivation of food and drink — even though they had been banned by the Heath government in 1972.
In January 2005, photos showing abuse of Iraqis at Camp Breadbasket were released. These showed soldiers from the 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, including British soldiers forcing Iraqis to strip bare and simulate oral and anal sex.
A year later the News of the World released a video from 2004 showing several soldiers from the 1st Battalion The Light Infantry beating unarmed teenage Iraqis who they had captured during a protest.
In 2010 investigative journalist Ian Cobain reported on abuse allegations at interrogation centres under the command of the Intelligence Corps that hundreds of Iraqis passed through.
According to Louise Thomas, a former member of the Ministry of Defence inquiry team set up to look into the allegations, videos of the interrogations show prisoners being abused, beaten, humiliated and threatened.
After watching footage of around 1,600 interrogations Thomas, a former police officer, said: “I saw a really dark side of the army. The videos showed really quite terrible abuses.”
By 2012 Cobain was reporting that the Ministry of Defence had paid out £14 million in compensation to 400 Iraqis who had complained they were illegally detained and tortured by British forces.
So rather than “a few bad apples,” it is clear the abuse was widespread, perpetrated by members of several regiments.
The abuse must have directly involved hundreds of soldiers with a much greater number — thousands, surely — likely aware of the mistreatment.
And it’s important to remember the examples of mistreatment listed above are just the main stories the media has reported on.
“The abuses uncovered are only the tip of the iceberg,” David Buck, a member of Veterans for Peace UK who served in the British Army in Iraq, told me.
“A lot will have gone on that has been covered up, brushed under the carpet and kept amongst themselves never to be spoken about.”
So why did British soldiers abuse Iraqi prisoners?
Much of the debate in the mainstream media about causes and solutions has focused on legal and cultural reforms.
For example, Phil Shiner, the lawyer who has done more than anyone to bring attention to British abuse in Iraq, made a number of suggestions last year: “Introduce a new fitness-for-service test for all would-be soldiers (as with British police, soldiers must be able to pass a straightforward test on the relevant law)… address the loss of moral compass so evident in the behaviour of British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, rewrite the relevant rules of engagement for various conflict situations so that the golden thread of legal compliance shapes all acts of force, bin the UK’s interrogation policy, introduce a lawful one and train those responsible to use it correctly.”
These proposals are all well and good but the long history of British abuse and torture in Kenya, Malaya, Aden, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan suggests the problem is far deeper and requires action that gets to the root of the issue.
For Joe Glenton, an Afghan veteran and the author of Soldier Box: Why I Won’t Return To The War On Terror, the problem goes back to recruitment and training.
“The UK military virtually depends on what, by polite societal standards, are bad apples,” he explains.
“It looks for rough kids who are desperate, poorly educated, with limited prospects. It then socially engineers them through the process known as Basic or Phase 1 Training to make them tribal, aggressive and skilled at violence.”
Military training and military life also engenders a strong “us -versus-them” group mentality, which is only heightened when troops are deployed to an unfriendly foreign land and start taking casualties.
Time and again those alleged to have brutalised prisoners have talked about their anger after one of their friends has been killed or injured by the enemy.
In addition, soldiers, like the general public, are subject to war-time propaganda that demonises and dehumanises the enemy.
“Soldiers have the mindset that they are superior to the population of the country they occupy … they see them as subhuman, their lives are irrelevant,” Buck explains.
Glenton links this sense of superiority to the fact of the occupation itself.
“You cannot effectively occupy a particular people by force and at the same time view those people as your equal,” he argues.
“You simply have to think of them as lesser. At best, as primitive feckless creatures to be marshalled for their own good — at worst as alien, treacherous, uppity niggers or similar. That is what occupation looks like.”
Conservative MP Rory Stewart, previously the Coalition Provisional Authority deputy governorate co-ordinator in Maysan province in Iraq, agrees with Glenton that the central problem was the military occupation itself.
“The problem wasn’t the way that this was implemented, the problem was that we were there at all,” he noted about British forces in Iraq in a BBC Radio 4 documentary last year.
“The problem was so deep that if we hadn’t made those mistakes we would have made other mistakes. It was a wrecked intervention from the beginning, from the very moment we arrived on the ground.”
Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press.