A Tale of Two Armies Part Two

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 23 2021.




The system for awarding medals does not reward the courageous restraint approach. The system seems to incentivise overly aggressive behaviour. “You don’t get an MC for fixing a school; you get an MC for smashing the enemy,” commented Will Pike, who served as a company commander with 3 PARA in Helmand in 2006. As Simon Akam comments, in his book The Changing of the Guard (published by Scribe on February 11, 2021) “the clearest way to win medals is by scrapping, whatever history says is in fact the best way to win the current war.” The medals system valorises combat and extreme violence. “Yet every historical analogue for the kind of counterinsurgency war that the British Army is now engaged in — Malaya, Ireland, Borneo; all the history the army ostentatiously talks about — indicates that such behaviour is counterproductive.”


On the other hand, an awful lot of the citations for gallantry awards coming through were about rescuing people rather than taking the fight to the enemy, which reflects the ineffectiveness of the British army. Bryan Budd was awarded a posthumous VC. The citation read: ‘His determination to press home a single-handed assault against a superior enemy force despite his wounds stands out as a premeditated act of inspirational leadership and supreme valour.” He may have been brave but eleven months later, an inquest declared that Budd was probably killed by a bullet fired by one of his own men.

Humiliation in Basra


There was a time when the British operation in Basra was deemed a success and I recall the army and their supporters in the English tabloid press being rather condescending to the Americans. Richard A Oppel Jr wrote in the New York Times about the “convenient myth that no matter how brutal the Sunni insurgency became elsewhere, the Shiites in Basra would keep the city relatively peaceful, overseen by the soft touch of British forces.” Oppel observed that the “British forces were overwhelmed and confused by the dynamics on the ground, and unsure how to proceed”. They were supposed to be training the Basra police, but the force was dominated by the Jameat, a shadowy force of 200 to 300 police officers “who are said to murder and torture at will and who answer to the leaders of Basra’s sectarian militias.” Two British soldiers were held by the Jameat, prompting a British rescue mission that led to a coordinated mob of 1,000 to 2,000 people attacking British troops in armoured vehicles.


When the last prisoners were released IDF immediately rained down on the airport. There was no leverage left. After ten years, the people the British fought for had left them and the people they fought against were in power. Akam writes: “An outbreak of paratyphoid takes out a number of British troops at the hotel for a while. The investigation requires a team of health advisors from the UK. The staff at the BOC (Basra Operational Command) are not the only ones in the shit in Basra in 2008”. The British largely withdrew from the city in 2007, after negotiations with a dominant Shiite militia, the Jaish al-Mahdi, while British forces increasingly became focused on the war in Afghanistan.


The Iraq body count estimates the civilian death toll in Basra as between 3,302 and 3,766. Following the British withdrawal, women were being tortured and brutally murdered; Basra police records showed forty-seven murders of women in a few months for not dressing sufficiently modestly. After federal elections in 2018, there were protests in Basra about water contamination and shortages, garbage disposal, and lack of electricity. There was a cholera outbreak because of significant environmental degradation in Basra province.

Abuse by the British Army

Corporal Donald Payne killed a man. That is what soldiers do, but the “international community” will not tolerate Sri Lankan soldiers killing people. Baha Mousa was not a terrorist or a paramilitary. He was a hotel receptionist whose father was a senior police officer, permitted by the British to carry a pistol and wear his blue uniform. Colonel Mousa believed the real reason his son was killed was that he had seen several British troops opening the hotel safe and stuffing cash into their pockets.

Here is how Payne killed Baha Mousa. Payne violently assaulted Baha Mousa, punching and kicking. This ended with Baha Mousa lying inert on the floor. According to Sir William Gage’s report: “Baha Mousa was pronounced dead at 22.05hrs. A subsequent postmortem found that during his detention Baha Mousa had sustained 93 separate external injuries. He was also found to have internal injuries including fractured ribs.” He was hooded for nearly twenty-four of the thirty-six hours he spent in British detention.

Gage concluded: “I find that from the outset of their incarceration in the TDF (temporary detention facility) the Detainees were subjected to assaults by those who were guarding them and, in particular, by Payne. I find that they were also assaulted from time to time by others who happened to be passing by the TDF. The assaults by the guards were instigated and orchestrated by Payne.” He devised a particularly unpleasant method of assaulting the detainees, known as the “choir”. It consisted of Payne punching or kicking each detainee in sequence, causing each to emit a groan or other sign of distress.

At a court martial Payne was charged with manslaughter, inhumane treatment and perverting the course of justice. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in prison.

On the left Baha Mousa. On the right, Army medic Dr Derek Keilloh who was struck off by the GMC after  allegations that he helped cover up the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees. 


The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) investigated alleged war crimes committed by British troops during the occupation of Iraq starting in 2003. IHAT detectives say they found evidence of widespread abuse at Camp Stephen, a British army base in Basra run by the Black Watch and used as an unofficial detention centre. One of the detectives told the Panorama TV programme that the physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, most of whom were innocent, was “endemic” at the base. There was nothing spontaneous about the many horrendous crimes committed at Camp Stephen. The culture of abuse was sanctioned at senior levels. The open layout of the camp would have made it obvious to officers what was happening. There is a stinking fetor of complicity and cover-up.

The London Sunday Times reported that prisoners were allegedly punched, kicked, stamped on, rifle-butted in the face, beaten with a pick-axe handle and struck over the head with a concrete block, A former IHAT investigator said, “Knowing what evidence we gleaned from those investigations and the fact that nobody’s taking it forward, they’re not getting justice”.


Operation Northmoor investigated alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. The government’s excuse for calling off the investigations in 2017 was that Phil Shiner, a lawyer who had taken more than 1,000 cases to IHAT, was struck off as a solicitor following allegations that he had paid fixers in Iraq to find clients. That does not explain why the files were kept locked up. The government was allowed to change the narrative from British army war crimes to shyster lawyers.


More next week.