This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 31, 2021.
The British Army’s impressive institutional capacity for cognitive dissonance.
The Sri Lankan armed forces won a remarkable victory over the LTTE in 2009 ending 30 years of suffering for Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim alike. The “international community” did its best to prevent this victory at the time. The Sri Lankan Army has never invaded another country, although Sri Lanka has often been occupied by western powers. The army that won its famous victory served a democratically elected government of a sovereign independent nation which was trying to re-establish control of its legitimate jurisdiction against the brutal and criminal efforts of an evil terrorist organisation.
In a speech in Chicago in April 1999, Tony Blair proposed a “doctrine of the international community”, criteria for deciding when to go to war to protect another country’s own inhabitants. My Irish compatriot, Samantha Power (who is now back in the US government) developed the doctrine of R2P, Responsibility to Protect. In 2003, the UK army invaded Iraq. The enterprise did not turn out well. Despite their own part in invading and attempting to occupy foreign states, the UK is still, twelve years after the SLA comprehensively and convincingly trounced the Tamil Tigers, calling into question the manner of that victory. To add insult to injury, they are also telling the present-day Sri Lankan government, which has a resounding mandate from free and fair elections, how to conduct its business, i.e.to reduce its use of the military which has been an essential part of its Covid strategy. The UK is part of the UNHRC claque that has the galle face to tell the Sri Lankan government how it should use the military today.
A recently published book shed a harsh light on the shortcomings of the British military. The Changing of the Guard by Simon Akam was published by Scribe on February 11, 2021. Akam takes 704 pages to destroy the reputation and credibility of the British Army. Akam conducted 260 interviews covering a wide range of military ranks. He also spoke to soldiers’ families, journalists, Iraqis and sex workers from a bordello near Fallingbostel in Germany.
Peace and War
Akam writes that peace is not good for armies. “They can ossify and become obsessed with matters that are trivial and incidental to their real purpose.” It is not just that they go a bit soft or out of practice: “As with all armies in peacetime, form and function have blurred”. Ways of doing things become archaic and no longer quite suited to the real world of violence.
Violence is a major theme in Akam’s book. There are structural and systemic factors which promote violence. One might argue that it is a soldier’s job to be violent; he is paid to kill people and his government gives him permission to do so, although this is not allowed for Sri Lankan soldiers. However, armies are also supposed to be disciplined.
Akam describes the Black Watch on R&R. “Alcohol is pivotal to the existence of the regiment, and to the army as a whole, in particular in Germany. It has been this way for a long time, but it still sits very awkwardly with the institution’s notion of itself as thoroughly professional and speaks to the British Army’s impressive institutional capacity for cognitive dissonance. The army has managed to distil an already problematic British — and in this case explicitly Scottish — turbodrinking culture into a wildly dysfunctional spirit that treats alcohol not as an ancillary to any social situation but rather as its own entity: alcohol is something to do, not to drink.” There are orgiastic scenes at a German brothel called the Pink House. “The atmosphere is mad, a collective release.” The Germans are sympathetic. “Poor boys. Our heroes”. One worker, Nadine, sees one soldier bend over another. Blood spurts. “She realises, with horror, that the man has bitten a section of his compatriot’s nose clean away. They summon an ambulance.” Akam comments: “endless boozing only works as preparation for war when there is no real war that needs to be attended to.”
Theories of Counterinsurgency
According to Akam, the British army’s primary objective was to impress the Americans. Unfortunately, they were also condescending to the Americans, holding the deluded belief that their experience in Northern Ireland made them experts in counterinsurgency, particularly in urban settings. Remember Bloody Sunday when the Paras killed 13 unarmed civilians in Derry. Forty-nine years on, only one man, Soldier F, remains the sole individual facing court and there is a public campaign supporting him.
In Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal came in and spoke about counterinsurgency, “courageous restraint”, winning the hearts and minds of the local population (as General Westmoreland said in Vietnam, “grab ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”.) — COIN, in military jargon. Because of the tiny numbers of troops, and outposts in remote areas that could survive only through lavish use of airpower, the consent of the local people would be helpful. McChrystal continued in the background to run the kind of kill-or-capture operations he had led in Iraq, with problematic results. In Rolling Stone magazine, Michael Hastings described McChrystal’s staff as “a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs”.
The confusion on the ground about the correct approach was exemplified by the different behaviour of two groups of the Royal Marines. 42 Commando (pronounced as Four-Two Commando) is a subordinate unit within the Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade, the principal Commando formation, under the Operational Command of Fleet Commander.45 Commando Royal Marines (pronounced “four-five commando”) is a battalion sized unit of the British Royal Marines.
Members of 42 Commando, ‘J’ Company in particular, had become victim to “otherisation” or “dehumanisation” — a key factor that history has proven time and again will, left unchecked, lead to atrocities. By contrast, 45 Commando tried to prepare itself to wage a campaign in line with courageous restraint. The philosophy was that “kinetic action” resulted in Afghan funerals which generate brothers and cousins bent on revenge. 45 Commando saw an 86 per cent reduction in the number of violent actions in the south compared to the previous deployment.
A senior development officer with experience of Afghanistan remarked, that when considering Muslim countries, “lots of soldiers talk about what is culturally unacceptable. What is culturally unacceptable is dropping 5,000lb bombs on their towns and raiding their houses, pulling wives and daughters out of bed. Same as in Britain, really.” Patrick Cockburn notes, “Four years after the British arrived in Sangin, a local farmer was quoted as saying ‘the Taliban do not even have a bakery that they can give bread, but still most people support the Taliban – that’s because people are sick of night raids and being treated badly by the foreigners’ “.
The aggressive approach that 42 Commando was encouraged to take by its officers was dramatically out of kilter with the conduct of the rest of the brigade. “They did not want to do finessed counter-insurgency. They wanted to go toe-to-toe with the Taliban, to be aggressive, to see who blinked first”. In 2011, one of two insurgents was seriously injured by gunfire from an Apache helicopter sent to provide air support, and the marines from 42 Commando found him in a field. Sergeant Alexander Blackman, from Taunton, Somerset, shot him and killed him. His action was recorded on a helmet camera. Blackman received a life sentence for murder in 2013. This was reduced to manslaughter after a high-profile campaign, and he was released in 2017. Blackman was left to carry sole responsibility for his actions, as if he were a single bad apple.
In this video many people excuse Blackman by saying we can never understand the trauma affecting soldiers in the situation in which he found himself. His wife seems a decent and intelligent person. Can the UK government not extend the same empathy to the Sri Lankan soldiers who were fighting to save their own country? Blackman was in a foreign country where he was not welcome. So many Sri Lankan soldiers died or lost limbs. Do they not count?
On March 23, 2021, the House of Commons passed the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill by 345 votes to 260. This law is designed to prevent British soldiers accused of war crimes being brought to justice. In June, an independent British investigator looking into allegations of misconduct by British troops in Iraq said that all but one of thousands of complaints – which ranged from rape and torture to mock executions and other atrocities – had been dropped.
More about this next week.