Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Afghanistan

A Tale of Two Armies Part Three

This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 30, 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/part-three-a-tale-of-two-armies

The main purpose and outcome of war is injuring. Elaine Scarry

 

A man called Johnny Mercer was the subject of many headlines in the UK press recently. This is not the Johnny Mercer who brought us such wonderful songs as Moon River, Autumn Leaves and Come Rain or Come Shine. This Johnny Mercer is a Conservative MP and was a government minister. He made a bit of a splash and some might have seen him as a hero for saying that Boris Johnson’s government was a “cesspit”, adding it was the “most distrustful, awful environment I’ve ever worked in”. He was going to resign from his ministerial post on a point of principle but the man with no principles got his retaliation in first and sacked him. Man with no principles versus a man with principles. One might think that Mercer was the good guy but, hold on. Let us look at what Mercer’s point of principle was.

The Quality of Mercer

Mercer was keen to prevent British soldiers being prosecuted for war crimes. In previous articles, I have discussed a book which is extremely critical of the British army and its operations in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq. Johnny Mercer gets a lot of attention in The Changing of the Guard by Simon Akam.

Mercer was an army man who completed three tours of Afghanistan and retired from service in December 2013 with the rank of captain. He was born in Dartford on 17 August 1981 and is the son of a banker and a nurse. Mercer worked briefly in the City of London before joining the Royal Artillery after graduating from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He became a Tory MP for Plymouth Moor View in May 2015. On 28 July 2019, Mercer was appointed as Minister for Defence People and Veterans. His responsibility included armed forces personnel and veterans’ welfare. In June 2017, Mercer published We Were Warriors: One Soldier’s Story of Brutal Combat, a memoir of his service and time in Afghanistan.

In a previous article I wrote about The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) which investigated alleged war crimes committed by British troops during the occupation of Iraq starting in 2003. Simon Akam writes that Johnny Mercer was a key force in getting IHAT closed down. In his maiden speech in the House of Commons, he set his stall out to concentrate on two main areas, mental health and provision for veterans. The speech had an impact and Mercer started receiving letters complaining about IHAT. Mercer got the impression that junior ranks were being targeted as scapegoats while more senior, well-connected former officers were being ignored. As Nick Cohen put it in the London Observer, “In Johnny Mercer, the Conservatives had a political entrepreneur ready to turn legitimate complaint into political capital.” Mercer was among the majority who voted against a motion calling for the extension of free schools meals.

Another person who has been in the news lately is former prime minister David Cameron who has been accused of corruption. According to the London Observer: “The exposure of Cameron’s links to the fallen financier Lex Greensill have dragged a man once regarded as too privileged to think about earning serious money into the cesspit of financial sleaze which he had said he was determined to root out of public life.”

This is the David Cameron who visited Sri Lanka in November 2013 and told the Sri Lankan government he would join calls for an international inquiry into human rights abuses during the nation’s civil war. In January 2016, Cameron asked the National Security Council to produce a plan to stop “spurious claims” against British troops. Mercer was the chair of a select committee investigating solicitors who were pursuing cases against former soldiers. He was leaking material to the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

Vexation

On March 23, 2021, the House of Commons passed the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill by 345 votes to 260. This is designed to prevent 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.

Mercer claimed that his point of principle was about treatment of soldiers who had served in Northern Ireland. Did he not notice the name of the bill referred to “Overseas Operations”? Northern Ireland is a part of the UK.

To be fair, the legislation got stuck in the Lords as every retired general, admiral and military judge you can name warned the Conservatives they risked bringing “the UK armed forces into disrepute”. Former chief of the defence staff, field marshal Lord Guthrie, said the bill “would increase the danger to British soldiers if Britain is perceived as reluctant to act in accordance with long-established international law”.

Different Rules for SLA

Much of the propaganda against the SLA stems from falsehoods propagated by Gordon Weiss. However, in his book The Cage, even Weiss has good things to say about the SLA. “It remains a credit to many of the front-line SLA soldiers that, despite odd cruel exceptions, they so often seem to have made the effort to draw civilians out from the morass of fighting ahead of them in an attempt to save lives. Soldiers yelled out to civilians, left gaps in their lines while they waved white flags to attract people forward and bodily plucked the wounded from foxholes and bunkers. Troops bravely waded into the lagoon under fire to rescue wounded people threading their way out of the battlefield or to help parents with their children and gave their rations to civilians as they lay in fields, exhausted in their first moments of safety after years of living under the roar and threat of gunfire”.

Killing for one’s Country

In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry writes, “the soldier’s primary goal is not, as is so often wrongly implied, the protection or ‘defense’ of his comrades (if it were this, he would have led those comrades to another geography): his primary purpose is the injuring of enemy soldiers; to preserve his own forces has the important but only secondary and ‘negative’ purpose of frustrating and exhausting the opponent’s achievement of his goal”. Bertrand Russell calls attention to the morally problematic statement, “I am going off to die for my country” rather than acknowledging that “I am going off to kill for my country.”

Scarry writes: “war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’”. She continues, “consenting to kill, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation.”

“War kills; that is all it does,” writes Michael Walzer in the midst of a complex analysis of just and unjust wars.  Walzer reveals that Allied planes during World War II were incapable of targeting their bombs with any more precision than a five-mile radius, yet the misleading term “strategic bombing” was habitually used, and the massive, wide-of-the-mark damage was then designated “unintentional,” even though it was in all instances “foreseeable.” “Being shelled is the main work of the infantry soldier,” writes American poet Louis Simpson about his experience in World War II.

Led by Donkeys

A few from the lower ranks had their knuckles rapped for individual acts of brutality but no one who created the mess was punished in any way. Indeed, as Akam notes they were rewarded for their incompetence.  “All those who ran that blighted campaign continue to move up the promotional system unimpeded.” As a result of the Iraq and Afghan Wars, “Britain developed a globally unprecedented web of accountability measures for individual malfeasance on the battlefield. Yet it did so while establishing almost zero accountability for the high-level decision-making that led to the prosecution of two deeply troubled campaigns”.

Akam explains why he wrote his book. “I thought that perhaps this idea that there was glory in the profession of arms was not just an inevitability of adolescence, but a violent trick, the revenge of old men upon the young. There is little redemption through violence to be had in foreign fields, and legs blown off are gone for good. It was then that I knew I needed to write this”.

A Tale of Two Armies Part Two

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

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/a-tale-of-two-armies

Medals

 

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. 

IHAT

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

War Crimes

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on November 27 2019 under the title: “Hurling War Crimes Allegations. The Western Media’s Selective Amnesia”.

 

https://ceylontoday.lk/print-more/45715

 

 

The western media has predictably greeted the election of our new president with rehashed allegations of war crimes. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election was reported on Sunday November 17 2019 (over ten years since the LTTE were defeated). On that same date, one newspaper, The London Sunday Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch, led with a story about horrendous crimes committed by British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not all of the information is new. What is shocking is the extent of the crimes and of the tireless efforts of the British government to suppress the facts. The Insight team of the Sunday Times and the BBC Panorama programme have been carrying out a year-long investigation. The Panorama programme was broadcast on Monday November 18. They claim that two thick files have been kept under lock and key behind the barbed wire security fences of the Trenchard Lines military base near Salisbury Plain.

The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) investigated alleged war crimes committed by British troops during the occupation of Iraq starting in 2003; 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.

Publicity had already been given to some of the cases featured in the Panorama programme. I have myself written about the case of Baha Mousa.

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2011/09/09/more-fog-of-war-another-british-war-crime/

According to Sir William Gage’s report: “Baha Mousa was pronounced dead at 22.05hrs. A subsequent post mortem found that in the course of his detention… Baha Mousa had sustained 93 separate external injuries. He was also found to have internal injuries including fractured ribs.”

Baha Mousa was a receptionist at the Ibn al-Haitham Hotel in Basra who was captured in a raid by Britain’s finest on 14 September 2003 after a cache of arms and uniforms was found in his workplace. The army had found weapons including grenades, rifles, bayonets and suspected bomb-making equipment. Along with nine others, he was taken in  for “questioning”.

Corporal Donald Payne killed a man. That’s what soldiers do. 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 the Gage Report: “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. Baha’s 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 he had seen several British troops opening the hotel safe and stuffing currency into their pockets.

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.

Panorama has re-examined the evidence in a number of alleged war crimes cases. One such case  was the shooting of an Iraqi policeman by a British soldier on patrol in Basra in 2003. Raid al-Mosaw was shot by a British soldier in an alleyway as he left his family home. Major Christopher Suss-Francksen confidently concluded that the soldier was legitimately acting in self-defence. IHAT detectives spent two years investigating the case and interviewed 80 British soldiers, including the soldier Suss-Francksen claimed had witnessed the shooting. The soldier told IHAT: “This report is inaccurate and gives the impression that I was an eyewitness. This is not true.” This soldier and many others confirmed that they only heard one shot which means that Raid al-Mosaw could not have fired first. The Sunday Times states bluntly that Suss-Francksen faked evidence.

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 Panorama 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 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.

Detectives working on Operation Northmoor investigated a night raid in Helmand province, Afghanistan on October 18, 2012 during which a special forces soldier killed four males aged 20, 17, 14 and 12 in the guest room of a family home in Loy Bagh village. ​They were merely drinking tea. Relatives had to mop up teeth, bone and brain flesh from the heavily-stained carpet. Investigators expected the soldier to be charged with four counts of murder and referred the case to the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA). They also wanted to prosecute the commanding officer, along with his superior, for falsifying a report and for perverting the course of justice. Military prosecutors decided not to bring charges.

Predictably, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab refused to be drawn on whether these claims were new to him, and said that prosecuting authorities for the British armed forces are “some of the most rigorous in the world”. It is instructive to contrast Raab’s attitude with the response of Enoch Powell to the atrocities at the Hola Camp in Kenya in 1959.

https://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2010/02/powell-speech-kenya-hola

Former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald (now Warden of Wadham College, Oxford) has examined the evidence gathered by the Sunday Times and concludes: “In 2002, the International Criminal Court was set up, with Britain’s enthusiastic support, to prosecute crimes against humanity where individual nations were too cowardly, incompetent or unwilling to bring their own citizens to justice in the face of compelling evidence of the gravest international crimes. Now, as that court turns its eyes towards us, we are forced to confront the unnerving possibility that one of those derelict nations might be our own.”

 

The Blair Years Part Four

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday, November 10 2016

 

Colman's Column3

 

The Moral Imperialist Messiah

 

 

Kosovo

tonibler

When Blair visited Pristina in 2010, he appeared onstage with nine boys who were named after him. Tonibler Sahiti’s mother said: “I hope to God that he grows up to be like Tony Blair or just a fraction like him.” The NATO intervention in Kosovo, which owed much to Blair’s advocacy, is often seen as protecting Kosovo Albanians from genocide. However, SNP leader Alex Salmond called it “an unpardonable folly”.  General Mike Jackson exhorted the troops, “with God on our side” “to protect the Albanian good guys from the murdering Serbs”. Days after Blair’s visit to Pristina, Albanian thugs began murdering Serbs.

Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull sees the apparent success in Kosovo as the beginning of Blair’s Messiah complex. “He is saving the world from evil”. While intervening in Kosovo, Blair declared during a speech in Chicago, (partly drafted by Lawrence Freedman, who was later a member of the Chilcot Inquiry) his “Doctrine of the International Community”. Blair advocated the use of foreign troops to protect a civilian population. This doctrine could have been used to intervene in Sri Lanka.

Sierra Leone

The civil war in Sierra Leone began on 23 March 1991 when the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) attempted to overthrow the elected government.  Families were gunned down in the street, children and adults had their limbs hacked and women were raped.

Unarmed UN observers, including a small number of officers from the British Army and Royal Marines, were expected to monitor the Lomé Peace Accord signed in July 1999. The RUF did not honour the peace agreement, kidnapped UN personnel and seemed set to take over the whole country. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he expected the UK as the former colonial power, to intervene in Sierra Leone directly, rather than relying on the international community.

chief-of-peace

Blair described the Sierra Leone operation as one of the things of which he is most proud. Most of the inhabitants of Sierra Leone welcomed it. The motivation was altruistic and there was no strategic or commercial interest in the adventure. The proportionality of 5,000 troops and naval force being sent to deal with a small group of brutal drug dealers was not questioned at the time. Unfortunately, the Sierra Leone adventure was cited by Blair in his rationale for later deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Afghanistan

Immediately after 9/11, Blair was very supportive of GW Bush. Although anxious to prevent the US taking precipitate and inappropriate action, Blair was also puzzled and frustrated by Bush’s initial invisibility and lack of response. Those in the know thought the 9/11 perpetrators might be hiding in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban. At the first meeting of intelligence chiefs in the den at Number 10, Blair had looked a little ‘fuzzy’ at the mention of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. One official said, “I don’t think Blair knew much about al-Qaeda at this point. It was clear to me that he had not taken in earlier warnings”.

 

On October 7, 2001, the US, supported by allies, began an invasion of Afghanistan. A small contingent of British SAS soldiers supported American special forces who were guiding the US air force’s bombing raids. The Pentagon initially rejected Blair’s offer to send 6,000 troops. Tom Bower comments “Blair’s commitment was driven entirely by an untested philosophy, and he could not provide a definition of ‘victory’ that would end the war.” Six weeks after the bombing had begun, the Taliban were driven out of Kabul but they were not finished.

karzai

At the 2001 Labour Party Conference, Blair gave an impassioned speech in which he stated his case for moral imperialism and made a firm commitment to fighting alongside the US, whatever the cost. One Cabinet member described it as “the inaugural speech of the President of the World”. Andrew Rawnsley commented: “There was a disjunction between his admission that they couldn’t get the trains to run on time at home and his vaulting claim that they could heal the world of conflict, poverty and disease.”

 

 

Waiting for Chilcot

Basra, IRAQ: (FILES) -- File picture dated 29 May 2003 shows British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressing troops in Basra, Iraq.Blair announced 10 May 2007 his resignation after a decade in powerr, saying he will stand down at the end of June. He told party suporters in his constituency of Sedgefield that he would step down as Labour leader, and therefore as prime minister on June 27. AFP PHOTO POOL Stefan ROUSSEAU (Photo credit should read STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

29 May 2003  British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressing troops in Basra

 

The entire 12-volume, 2.6million-word Chilcot Report into the invasion of Iraq is available online.   I recommend readers to look at the report’s executive summary.

 

http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/media/247921/the-report-of-the-iraq-inquiry_executive-summary.pdf

 

It was widely expected that the report would be a whitewash and the long delay (the process took seven years) in publishing the report caused suspicions. Previous inquiries related to Iraq – Hutton in 2003 and Butler in 2004 (of which Chilcot had been a member) – had been disappointing.

 

The five appointees who were tasked with disentangling events since 1998 did not inspire confidence. Tom Bower described one of them, Baroness Usha Prashar, as “an untalented quangoist, [who] fulfilled the requirement of diversity.” I worked with her when she was a member of the Social Security Advisory Committee in 1983 and do not recall ever hearing her contribute to a SSAC discussion. On the Chilcot panel she asked Blair questions about post-war Iraq but failed to follow up on his evasions, inaccuracies and contradictions.

 

Nevertheless, the Chilcot report was not a whitewash. It found that military action was not the last resort and that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence. The severity of the threat posed by Iraq, particularly the existence of weapons of mass destruction, was grossly overstated, and presented with a certainty that was not justified. Furthermore, the UK, which did not achieve its stated objectives in Iraq, did not prepare or plan for a post-Saddam Iraq.

Gerard Russell is an author and a former British and UN diplomat who spent 14 years representing Britain in the Middle East and served as a political officer in Afghanistan. He speaks fluent Arabic and Dari and assisted Iraq’s first elected prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in 2005. He recently commented on the Chilcot Report in the New York Review of Books: “Perhaps there were no quick solutions to be had, but only the slow rebuilding of an abused and shattered state. If so, the most important lesson for us is that we should be doubly and triply cautious about breaking something that is so hard to reassemble.” Russell concludes:” … occupying and trying to run a foreign country is a doomed endeavour.”

 

How not to Fight a War

 

David Manning, who was the British Ambassador to the US from 2003 to 2007, described to the Chilcot committee “a ring of secrecy” that Blair constructed. Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull realised that Blair and his chief of staff’s passion for speed and secrecy “was not a bad habit he and Powell had slipped into, but how they wanted to operate from the start”.

 

Turnbull was excluded from any discussions about Iraq as was Kevin Tebbitt the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence. David Omand, the former head of GCHQ, who had been specifically appointed as the coordinator of security and intelligence in the Cabinet Office could not get Blair to talk, or listen, to him. In his book, Broken Vows, Tom Bower commented: “By excluding the MoD – and Tebbit’s background included seventeen years in the Foreign Office, then [Director of] GCHQ –Blair denied himself direct advice about the movement of manpower and the supply of equipment before and after the invasion.”

 

According to Andrew Turnbull, Blair was “less and less interested in hearing contrary opinions.” Cabinet meetings were desultory. During twenty-five meetings about the war, no official was summoned to write the minutes, and the papers submitted by the Cabinet Office outlining the options were not read. Blair did not enjoy a good relationship with senior military men upon whom he relied to implement his plans for Iraq. Michael Boyce, was succeeded as Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in 2003 by Michael Walker. When military leaders asked for more manpower or equipment he said, “Go and ask Gordon”.  Walker tried to get more helicopters but found Blair “inattentive”.

 

War with Brown

 

Officials were astonished that Blair “spent more time and effort managing the relationship with his Chancellor than on any other issue”. More on Gordon Brown next week.

 

Hugh Thomson at the Galle Literary Festival 2016

The Thwaites Wainwright Award May 8th 2014 at The Royal College of Surgeon's England. Won by author Hugh Thomson for his book 'The Green Road into the Trees'.

It’s not about the quality of the journey; it’s the quality of the writing.

The Galle Literary Festival is back in business. The festival was founded in 2005 by Anglo-Australian hotelier Geoffrey Dobbs and last took place in 2012. Those attending GLF in 2012 included Tom Stoppard, Aminatta Forna, Richard Dawkins, Simon Sebag Montefiore and David Thompson. Tickets for the 2016 event, which takes place from January 13th to 17th, are due to go on sale from the first two weeks in December. The first list of participants was released on November 11 and the full programme will be announced at the end of November.

Among those participating in January 2016 is the multi-talented Hugh Thomson. I would like to introduce him to Sri Lankan readers who are not familiar with his work. Hugh is a veteran of the literary festival circuit and has previously been invited to Hay-on-Wye, Edinburgh, Oxford and Cheltenham. His most recent book, The Green Road into the Trees: A Walk through England, won the inaugural Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing. Dame Fiona Reynolds, the chair of the panel of judges, described the book as “a narrative journey spiced with humour and anecdote, gritty reality and evocation of place and history.” I have just read the book and agree with Dame Fiona. Hugh himself says: “The thing about The Green Road is the idea of treating your own country as a foreign country. A travel journal can be written about anywhere. It’s not about the quality of the journey; it’s the quality of the writing.”

green road

Hugh has certainly led an exciting life. He’s ridden, driven and hiked across Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, the Himalayas and Afghanistan and cruised down the Amazon. I have been to some of the places described in Hugh’s books and, although his explorations have been more adventurous than mine, the books bring back memories for me. When he was just 22, Hugh led his first expedition to the Peruvian Andes looking for a site that had become lost following its initial discovery.  In 2002 he co-led the expedition which discovered the Inca site of Cota Coca and returned to Peru in 2003, making extensive finds at Llactapata, near Machu Picchu. I can vouch that Hugh’s first book, The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland, is an enthralling read. It was the result of a twenty-year long quest to explore and understand the Peruvian Andes in the area beyond Machu Picchu.

White-Rock-cover-195x300

If you want a quick taste of Hugh’s writing on Peru I can recommend a Kindle Single which was released on October 11 2015 and costs only $4.99. Two Men and a Mule: The Last City of the Incas, is a brief account of an expedition to Peru undertaken by Hugh with fellow explorer Benedict Allen and a sympathetic mule called Washington. The short work gives a brief reprise of some of Hugh’s previous visits to Peru and provides an introduction to a BBC Radio 4 series, for which they travel down from the high Andes towards the Amazon basin and Espíritu Pampa, the pampa of ghosts, the very last city of the Incas, built at the lowest level of the cloud forest, almost in the jungle. It was here that Tupac Amaru and his pregnant wife were captured by the conquistadores and later brutally executed.

IMG_8640-2-Men-and-a-Mule-lo-res-300x200

History comes alive in the current day experiences of the three intrepid explorers. They meet many interesting characters on the way. At one point, they stayed at the home of Don Juvenal Cobos, who helped American explorer Gene Savoy uncover Espiritu Pampa in 1964.
I have memories of consuming in the Andes what seemed to be dog and dishwater soup out of cracked blue plastic bowls. Benedict has learnt to be tolerant in his eating habits, so the local delicacy of guinea pig is no problem: “I did try camel once. It was tough, Very tough”. Thomson fears for Washington’s state of mind and has a private chat with him: “He was in a little bog that he clearly liked and was looking particularly sweet, ears twitching, happy after a good night of grazing and munching on the lush pasture”. Thomson told the mule that he knew of Allen’s reputation for eating his travelling companions (camel, mule) but he would not let that happen to Washington. “I felt he was telling me that, whatever happened, he wouldn’t let Benedict eat me either”.

tuking in
Thomson tries to explain his own fascination with Peruvian history. Something about the Inca sites made him, even on his first visit at the age of 21, aware of his own mortality. Benedict, who has crossed the Gobi desert and travelled the Arctic with a dog team, finds Peru a new experience. In other places he got the feeling that exploration was coming to an end. “Here you’re in the amazing position where you can still find cities, or at least ruins.”
There are vivid descriptions of the high mountains and of the steaming jungles, “Where fruit such as mango, granadilla or papaya grew, bright yellow mountain tanagers, one of the most frugiverous of Andean birds, gathered in gregarious groups”. One can sense the serpents lurking in the undergrowth and the appalling insects fastening on to one’s blood vessels. There are compensations for the discomforts. “The call of the oropendola bird… a long looping noise best described as being like water being flushed down a pipe”. Hugh is not being ungallant when he says this reminds him of his wife. The sound had enchanted her too.

tequila
Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico, was an account of an early journey through Mexico in a classic Oldsmobile 98.  It was serialised by BBC Radio 4. Another of Thomson’s books, 50 Wonders of the World: The Greatest Man-made Constructions from the Pyramids of Giza to the Golden Gate Bridge, is only 200 pages long but the format is coffee table, bigger than The Times Atlas. Hugh says it “would actually make quite a nice coffee table in itself if you put legs on it.”

Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary is about the sanctuary on the border between Tibet and India, long closed to all visitors by the Indian government. For his BBC TV series, Indian Journeys, Hugh collaborated with former GLF attendee William Dalrymple to make three ambitious films about India, winning the Grierson Prize for Best Documentary Series.  More recently he collaborated with Jonathan Dimbleby to make another major series for the BBC, this time on Russia.

He was BAFTA-nominated for his ten-hour series Dancing in the Street: A Rock and Roll History, which set out to tell the epic story of the “devil’s own music” from its beginnings in the 1950s to the present day. It took four years to make and went on to win numerous awards for the BBC around the world. His passion for documentaries led him to be a founding member of Doc/Fest; an international documentary festival in Sheffield described as the Cannes of the documentary world. It’s still expanding after 21 years.

I have long been planning to write about cruise ships, so I found Hugh’s Kindle Single, At The Captain’s Table: Life on a Luxury Liner, full of useful information. Hugh provides some great tips on getting the most out of a city in one day. The Captain’s Table shows what it’s like to travel “…round the world the soft way.”

cruise

Thomson’s vast array of experience makes him a resource for aspiring writers. He has tutored on a variety of courses for organisations including Arvon and Bristol University. “I enjoy teaching,” he says. “It’s a chance to re-engage.” Hugh is now working on his first novel, which is set in Peru. I asked him what else he had been up to of late and it seems he is pursuing that RL Stevenson Travels with a Donkey theme.  He told me that he had “been in the middle of doing this quixotic trip with a mule across the North of England for my next book”.
With his experience of broadcasting and his knowledge of travel writing as well as his fund of anecdotes about his own travel, Hugh is likely to be a star attraction at GLF 2016. Book early to avoid disappointment.

 

This article appeared in the Sunday Island on 21 November 2015.

http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=135739

 

Deadly Accountancy Part 1

Thirty Years’ War

Once upon a time,  there was a war that lasted thirty years. The causes of the conflict were complex, its conduct brutal, its outcome murky. Divisions continued long after the war’s end. A mass grave was found recently which was thought to date back to the thirty year conflict. There is no definitive account of how many were killed in those thirty years. Vast areas were denuded by the foraging armies. Famine and disease significantly decreased the population. So great was the devastation brought about by the war that estimates put the reduction of population from between 25% to 40%.

A distinguished historian still living today, Norman Davies, in his book Europe,[i] gives a figure of eight million. R.J. Rummel, who has invented his own discipline and called it democide studies,  avers that there were 11.5 million total deaths in the war.[ii]

Notice the wide margin there between 25% or 40%. After all this time no-one is really sure how many died. In 1648, the Thirty Years War ended. In her brilliant book[iii] on the subject, CV Wedgwood wrote of those times: “The outlook even of the educated was harsh. Underneath a veneer of courtesy, manners were primitive; drunkenness and cruelty were common in all classes, judges were more often severe than just, civil authority more often brutal than effective, and charity came limping far behind the needs of the people. Discomfort was too natural to provoke comment; winter’s cold and summer’s heat found European man lamentably unprepared, his houses too damp and draughty for the one, too airless for the other. Prince and beggar alike were inured to the stink of decaying offal in the streets, of foul drainage about the houses, to the sight of carrion birds picking over public refuse dumps or rotting bodies swinging on the gibbets. On the road from Dresden to Prague a traveller counted ‘above seven score gallowses and wheels, where thieves were hanged, some fresh and some half rotten, and the carcasses of murderers broken limb after limb on the wheels’”.

Wedgewood was writing in 1938 before the World War Two  conflagration:

“The old legend that the population dropped from sixteen to four million people, rests on imagination: both figures are incorrect. The German Empire, including Alsace but excluding the Netherlands and Bohemia, probably numbered about twenty-one millions in 1618, and rather less than thirteen and a half million in 1648. [A loss of 7½ million.] Certain authorities believe that the loss was less, but these are for the most part writers of a militaristic epoch, anxious to destroy the ugly scarecrow which throws  so long a shadow over the glorious past.”

Genocide in Ireland?

While the Thirty Years’ War was still in full swing, Cromwell was killing rather a lot of Irish people. [iv] The fifty years from 1641 to 1691 saw two catastrophic periods of civil war in Ireland  which killed hundreds of thousands of people and left others in permanent exile. The wars, which pitted Irish Catholics against British forces and Protestant settlers, ended in the almost complete dispossession of the Catholic landed elite. The Plantations had a profound impact on Ireland in several ways. The native ruling classes were destroyed and replaced by the Protestant Ascendancy.

Cromwell has his defenders among modern historians (Cromwell- An Honourable Enemy by Tom Reilly, Philip Graham McKeiver, A New History of Cromwell’s Irish Campaign;  Rewriting Cromwell: A Case of Deafening Silences, by historian and President of the Cromwell Association, Professor John Morrill).  God’s Executioner by Mícheál Ó Siochrú, is a forceful restatement of the case for the prosecution. The 1649-53 campaign remains notorious in Irish popular memory as it was responsible for a huge death toll among the Irish population (possibly 40%). The reason for this was the counter-guerrilla tactics used such as the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement (ethnic cleansing) and killing of civilians. In addition, the whole post-war Cromwellian settlement of Ireland has been characterized as “genocidal”, in that it sought to remove Irish Catholics from the eastern part of the country.

The repercussions of the Tudor and Cromwellian settlements can be seen in Northern Ireland. In that thirty year war “only” 3,000 were killed, the same number that died on  one day,  September 11 2001, in New York. Each individual who died in the Northern Ireland Troubles had a mother who mourned. A book[v] was published in 1999 which told the story of those individuals. Over a seven-year period, the authors examined every death which was directly caused by the Troubles. They interviewed  witnesses, scoured published material, and drew  on a range of investigative sources. All the casualties are remembered—the RUC officer, the young soldier, the IRA volunteer, the loyalist paramilitary, the Catholic mother, the Protestant worker, and the new-born baby. Peter Taylor, himself an authority on the Troubles, describes the book as “ painful, illuminating, desperately moving and sad”.

Some have seen the 19th century famine as genocide. Broadcaster and historian Robert Kee suggested  that the Irish Famine of 1845 is “comparable” in its force on “popular national consciousness to that of the ‘final solution’ on the Jews,” and that it is not “infrequently” thought that the Famine was something very like, “a form of genocide engineered by the English against the Irish people.” AJP Taylor, the English historian, said that the Famine made Ireland a Belsen.[vi] Other historians ridiculed him.

Ireland’s population fell by as much as 25%.  One  million people died of starvation and typhus. A  million more emigrated. Millions emigrated over following decades. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses, where more than 200,000 people died.

The 1911 Census showed that the island of Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, about half of its peak population. The population of Ireland has never got back to pre-famine levels.

Liam Kennedy, emeritus professor of economic history at Queen’s University Belfast does not class the famine as genocide. [vii]

American Civil War

The American Civil War ended in 1865. The number of dead has never been definitively determined. J. David Hacker, [viii]a demographic historian, has recalculated the death toll of the conflict, and increased it by more than 20%.  He  estimates  the number of dead as up to 850,000 – which Hacker says  means the social impact is about 37,000 more widows, and 90,000 more orphans than previous  estimates.

20th Century World Wars

What about those more recent wars started in Europe? Estimates of casualty numbers for World War One  vary to a great extent; estimates of total deaths range from 9 million to over 15 million. Michael Clodfelter maintains that “The generally accepted figure of non-combatant deaths is 6.5 million”.[ix]

There is more certainty about the number who died in the firebombing of Dresden by the Allies. Most of the dead succumbed to suffocation; in only four places were recovered remains so badly burned that it proved impossible to ascertain the number of victims. Seeking to establish a definitive casualty figure—in part to address exploitation  of the bombing by far-right groups—an independent investigation conducted in 2010 on behalf of the Dresden city council stated that a maximum of 25,000 people were killed, of which 20,100 are known by name. According to an official German report Tagesbefehl (Order of the Day) no. 47 (“TB47”) issued on 22 March 1945, the number of dead recovered by that date was 20,204, including 6,865 who were cremated on the Altmarkt square, and the total number of deaths was expected to be about 25,000. Another report on 3 April put the number of corpses recovered at 22,096. Three municipal and 17 rural cemeteries outside Dresden recorded up to 30 April 1945 a total of at least 21,895 buried bodies of the Dresden raids, including those cremated on the Altmarkt.

World War Two  fatality statistics vary, with estimates of total dead ranging from 50 million to over 70 million. Some nations suffered disproportionally more casualties than others. This is especially true regarding civilian casualties. The debate among historians continues today, 68 years after the end of the war. Civilian casualties include deaths caused by bombing,  the Holocaust, war crimes, population transfers and deaths due to war-related famine and disease. Conflict epidemiology,  estimating the numbers of deaths during violent conflicts, is a controversial subject.

The USA is the only nation to unleash atomic bombs. It dropped them on civilian populations. The real death toll  will never be known. The destruction and overwhelming chaos made orderly counting impossible. The number of total casualties has been estimated at various times since the bombings with wide discrepancies. The Manhattan Engineer District’s best available figures for Hiroshima and Nagasaki together are 199,000.[x]

Vietnam

How many Vietnamese civilians were killed during the American war? The Twentieth Century Atlas gives a lengthy list of different views on this. [xi]The government of Vietnam has officially estimated the dead at three million, including two million civilians.

Investigative reporter Nick Turse recently published Kill Anything That Moves, a history of U.S. atrocities during the Vietnam War[xii] . His title comes from the orders issued by Captain Ernest Medina before an attack in March 1968 on a Vietnamese village known as My Lai.

“Are we supposed to kill women and children?” one of his men asked.

“Kill everything that moves,” the captain replied.

The US  Army made no attempt to keep a running tally but after the war the Pentagon guessed the total might be 195,000. A Senate committee in 1975 suggested 415,000. A study in 2008 by health professionals at Harvard and the University of Washington thought the number of Vietnamese dead, soldiers and civilians alike, was around 3.8 million.

Success in battle was measured by  a high body count, which helped officers get promoted and soldiers get leave. Turse recounts the spread of a body-count culture that accepted any body for the count—if it’s Vietnamese and it’s dead, the saying went, it’s a Vietcong. One six-month-long operation called Speedy Express resulted in tens of thousands of confirmed kills in the Mekong Delta, many in “battles” where the kill ratio climbed steadily—twenty-four to one in December 1968, sixty-eight to one in March 1969, 134 to one in April—sure sign the dead were mainly unarmed, which meant they were mainly civilian

Cambodia

Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a 1975 population of roughly 8 million.

Once again, different people give different figures. Craig Etcheson[xiii] of the Documentation Center of Cambodia who spent five years  researching 20,000 grave sites, suggests a “most likely” figure of 2.2 million. A UN investigation reported two to three million dead, while UNICEF estimated three  million had been killed. Demographic analysis by Patrick Heuveline[xiv] suggests that between 1.17 and 3.42 million Cambodians were killed, while Marek Sliwinski suggests that 1.8 million is a conservative figure. Even the Khmer Rouge acknowledged that 2 million had been killed—though they attributed those deaths to a subsequent Vietnamese invasion.

In his book Sideshow, William Shawcross maintains that Nixon and Kissinger’s secret  bombing of Cambodia not only spread the conflict, but led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent massacre of a third of Cambodia’s population.[xv]

Iraq

Possible estimates of  the number of people killed in the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq vary widely,and are highly disputed. [xvi] As of December 2012, the Iraq Body Count has recorded 110,937-121,227 civilian deaths. The IBC has a media-centred approach to counting and documenting the deaths. Other sources have provided differing estimates of deaths, some much higher. The Lancet did a cluster survey in 2004[xvii] which was not popular in the USA as its results were published just before a presidential election. “Making conservative assumptions, we think that about 100,000 excess deaths, or more have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths. We have shown that collection of public-health information is possible even during periods of extreme violence. Our results need further verification and should lead to changes to reduce non-combatant deaths from air strikes.” Writing in the Lancet, in March 2013, Frederick Burkle and Richard Garfield said: “lost opportunities, plus the burgeoning insurgency and the scarcity of security services, directly contributed to the chaotic conditions that helped plunge Iraq into an acute-on-chronic public health emergency, which it still remains in today”. [xviii]

“A historical view of the war in Iraq is essential to the understanding of the internecine controversies that arose about the validity of mortality studies, and the political pressures that influenced their interpretation to the world”.

Afghanistan

“You know we don’t do body counts.” General Tommy Franks was quoted in The San Francisco Chronicle, 23 March 2002.[xix]

Simon Rogers in The Guardian tries to collate the information available.[xx] Rogers comments: “Obviously, collecting accurate statistics in one of the most dangerous countries in the world is difficult. But the paucity of reliable data on this means that one of the key measures of the war has been missing from almost all reporting”.

UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) investigates reports of civilian casualties by conducting on-site investigations wherever possible and consulting a broad range of sources and types of information that are evaluated for their credibility and reliability.[xxi]UNAMA estimates that Over the past six years, 14, 728 Afghan civilians have lost their lives in the armed conflict.

Drones

Pakistan: Total US strikes: 368
Obama strikes: 316
Total reported killed: 2,545-3,533
Civilians reported killed: 411-884
Children reported killed: 168-197
Total reported injured: 1,176-1,472

 

Yemen: Confirmed US drone strikes: 43-53

Total reported killed: 228-328
Civilians reported killed: 12-45
Children reported killed: 2
Reported injured: 62-144

Possible extra US drone strikes: 77-95

Total reported killed: 277-443
Civilians reported killed: 23-49
Children reported killed: 9-10
Reported injured: 73-94

All other US covert operations: 12-76

Total reported killed: 148-366
Civilians reported killed: 60-87
Children reported killed: 25
Reported injured: 22-111

Somalia: US drone strikes: 3-9

Total reported killed: 7-27
Civilians reported killed: 0-15
Children reported killed: 0

All other US covert operations: 7-14

Total reported killed: 51-143
Civilians reported killed: 11-42
Children reported killed: 1-3
Reported injured: 15-20 [xxii]

 

Tamil Eelam War IV

I have been reading a discussion paper which deals with the matter of calculating how many civilians died at the end of Eelam War IV.

While reading the paper, a number of thoughts  came to my mind:

·         The war was undoubtedly brutal, but wars generally are;

·         The Sri Lankan government would be in a better PR position if it  could have its own figure with which to enter discussions. However, it is not so unreasonable to be lacking such a figure four years after the events when figures for older conflicts are still a matter of dispute;

·         The Sri Lankan government was rightly ridiculed for saying there were zero civilian casualties. This seems less ridiculous when the USA refuses point blank to give casualty figures;

·         The “international community”, led by USA and UK, are accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes, seemingly blasé about what they did themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Vietnam, Cambodia, Ireland, Cyprus, Kenya etc.)

Coincidentally, while I was preparing my review of the discussion paper I got involved in a conversation with Dr Dayan Jayatilleke, former Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN in Geneva and subsequently to France, about the concept of “ethical violence”.



[i] ·  Europe: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1996. ISBN 0-19-820171-0

[iii] The Thirty Years War (1938; new edition 1957) Now available in paperback from New York Review of Books Classics

[v] Lost Lives by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeley and Chris Thornton

[vi] Politics in Wartime and Other Essays by A.J.P. Taylor Athenaeum, 1965 207 pp., $5.00

[ix] ·  ^ Clodfelter, Michael (2002). Warfare and Armed Conflicts- A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500–2000 2nd Ed.. ISBN 978-0-7864-1204-4. Page 479

[xii] Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse Metropolitan, 370 pp., $30.00

[xiv] Heuveline, Patrick (2001). “The Demographic Analysis of Mortality in Cambodia.” In Forced Migration and Mortality, eds. Holly E. Reed and Charles B. Keely. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

[xv] Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia, William Shawcross.

Salem’s Lot

A version of this article was published in the print edition of Lakbima News on Sunday 25 September. Unfortunately, it does not appear on the online edition even though it is listed in the Lakbima News contents.

Why does the Salem News hate Sri Lanka so much? The Salem News website carries ads saying “Check the label. Boycott Sri Lanka”.

Oregon

Oregon is a beautiful place. I spent happy times there.

US state capitals can be surprising. You would expect Portland to be the capital of Oregon – it has a cosmopolitan feel to it. Culture abounds, the great Powell’s bookshop – although there did seem to be a lot of drunken Native Americans in the gutters when I was there. If you felt a bit clever you might guess Eugene to be the Oregon state capital. But no, the capital of Oregon is Salem, the county seat of Marion County, population 154,637. They have two universities, Willamette and Corban. Two famous people came from Salem. The great guitarist John Fahey was known for his coarseness, aloof demeanour, and dry humour – but hell he could play guitar. Carmella Bing is known for- well, I’m not sure. She is described as a “pornographic actress”. I know nothing of such things.

You would have thought Salem News  would be mainly interested in goings-on in the state of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. They claim: “Serving the community in very real terms, Salem-News.com is the nation’s only truly independent high traffic news Website.”  They have global, rather than local, ambitions.

Salem News’s Global Mission

“Salem-News.com is the premiere Independent Online Newsgroup in the United States. Salem-News.com is setting the standard for the future of news.

Truth
Justice
Peace

 

Salem News boasts 96 writers in 20 countries. It is somewhat difficult to negotiate the rather messy site – almost as bad as Lakbima News. One of the contributors is Gilad Atzmon, the Israeli jazzman, novelist, and activist whose musical work I greatly admire (he used to play with Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Robert Wyatt described him as a genius.)

Embedded – in Bed with Ronald McDonald

The editor of Salem News is Tim King, “a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com’s Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines.” When he set off to be  embedded with the 41st Combat Brigade of the Oregon National Guard in Kabul,  Salem News called for local businesses to sponsor his trip. “McDonalds Restaurants of Salem provided $1,100 toward the trip to Afghanistan. We hardly know how to thank them enough, but we know this is one organization that sees the value of bringing the stories of our Oregon soldiers home.”

It is somewhat bizarre that a libertarian news outlet should be grovelling in this manner to a bastion of global capitalism. I  am confident that Tim would have  condemned US war crimes that he witnessed but wonder if he has queasy feeling of complicity from the very fact of being embedded with good old boys from Oregon who are slaughtering Afghan civilians under the sponsorship of Ronald McDonald..

US War Crimes

Tim  certainly criticised the USA in an article about WikiLeaks revelations of an Apache helicopter attack on a group of unarmed Iraqi civilian journalists that showed the U.S. Army “absolutely decimating a group of eight, with apparent enthusiasm, and a desire to lay waste to the people on the ground. The helicopter crew continually asked for permission to attack the people, who were in no way acting a like a military force. The journalists had no reason to suspect that an American helicopter would actually attack and leave them all dead. The Apache crew fired at the wounded and chuckled over the results, while insulting the dead as they lay on the ground. I don’t say this often, but the government of the United States of America is as corrupt and wrong as any that has ever existed, whether Americans themselves can appreciate that or not. We have broken the world in ways that can never be mended and when we aren’t doing it militarily, we are behind environmental devastation, economic depression; you name it. Capitalism as a concept has run a bad course and western people leading sheltered lives have no idea what on earth they have been paying for. Thanks to groups like this, the truth does come forward. The importance of that can never be underestimated.”

Israel

King  came under criticism for Salem News’s line on Israel: “Reading Tim King’s response, it becomes clear, however, that editorial standards are somewhat confused at the Salem News.” He responded vigorously: “I guess taking other people’s land leads to endless problems, and that is the story of Israel. I view it all as a huge entitlement problem.”

Loose Talk Costs Lives

I am not going to argue that the Salem News is an apologist for the US government. I am not going to argue that Sri Lanka should not be criticised. However, one obvious flaw in the Salem News line is its somewhat loose use of the English language. You will note that in his piece on the killing of journalists in Iraq he wrote: “the U.S. Army absolutely decimating a group of eight”. “Decimate” used to mean “to select by lot and kill every tenth man”. How is that possible with a group of eight? Was the death toll really 0.8 people? In these decadent times the word decimate has become devalued. Because it sounds similar it has come to mean devastated or even mildly depressed.

Language is an organic thing, meanings change,  but I do get a bit “decimated” myself when the currency gets debased. Genocide is a  word that Salem News uses a lot in relation to Sri Lanka.

Genocide

“Our report on Sri Lanka’s genocide of the Tamil people and war crimes against Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam (LTTE), came at a time when the wagons of the Sri Lankan government are tilting over on their sides.” Again this is an example of the English language being abused. What does  it mean?

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent coined the term. Genocide is generally defined as “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial or religious group.”

Has this been happening in Sri Lanka? Has there been a systematic plan to eradicate the Tamil race?

At the end of the war, David Begg of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions managed to find the time in his busy schedule of dealing with the disappearance of the Irish economy down the toilet – redundancies, and pay and benefit cuts for his members – to urge the then Irish Foreign Minister, Mícheál Martin (he has since been consigned to the toilet) , to apply sanctions to faraway Sri Lanka as a protest against “genocide” and “concentration camps”. Begg’s letters seemed to suggest that he thought that all Sri Lankan Tamils had been confined to a narrow strip of beach to be shelled by government troops and then herded into extermination camps. This suggests a certain ignorance about Sri Lanka’s history and of the current situation. Trinity College, Dublin hosted a two-day hearing by the Permanent People’s Tribunal which delivered the judgement that the Sri Lanka government was guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The tribunal was further pondering the issue of genocide.

Genocide is a  word that Salem News uses a lot in relation to Sri Lanka.

“Our report on Sri Lanka’s genocide of the Tamil people and war crimes against Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam (LTTE), came at a time when the wagons of the Sri Lankan government are tilting over on their sides.”

Again this is an example of the English language being abused. What does  it mean? You notice that they are not talking about crimes against innocent Tamil civilians but crimes against the LTTE.

Has this been happening in Sri Lanka? Has there been a systematic plan to eradicate the Tamil race? As P{resident Rajapaksa said, why would he be providing camps, whatever the shortcomings of the IDP camps,  with food, health care, education, banks (with ATMs) if his plan was to exterminate the Tamil race in Sri Lanka?

Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?

Salem News says: “It carries with it a potential to reveal the truth about the Tamil people and their tragedy in seeking independence from the Sri Lankan government. Interestingly, and importantly, the Tamil people represent different nationalities and religions; they are diverse and not easily categorized. They have experienced grave suffering as a result of their ambitions to seek political independence in Sri Lanka since 1983, the year the 16-year long Civil War began.”

There is a certain element of tin ear about this. “Seeking independence from the Sri Lankan government” is not a usual formulation neither is “since the 16-year long Civil War began”. It was more than 16 years. Civil war may not be an accurate description.

Freedom  fighters have often been described as terrorists. Salem News says: “This is used by the Israelis against the Palestinians they displace; the Americans describe Arab freedom fighters trying to repel an occupation that has claimed over a million civilians on their soil with this word; it is the term China uses when describing Muslim ethnic minority Uyghurs seeking equal rights, and the list goes on. It is high time we stop describing those who fight for human freedom; against military occupations that violate international law, with this ugly, branding word.”

The LTTE were not the same as the oppressed Palestinians. Tamils live all over Sri Lanka. Except in the areas controlled by the LTTE, they had rights and freedom. Tamils held  positions of influence. The Sri Lankan army was the legitimate force of a democratically elected government.

According to Salem News: “The story of the Tamil Tigers LTTE may the most overblown in the usage of the word ‘terrorism‘ ever, and that is really saying something.” Again not very elegant English. I do not need to spell out to Sri Lankan readers that the LTTE were really terrorists.

I wonder how many members of the Tamil diaspora are providing funding for Salem News. There are certainly Tamils being offered up for marriage in Oregon.

“Preeti is sensitive, broad-minded and an outgoing individual. She has a passion for travel and enjoys listening to music. She likes hiking and has also completed 2 half marathons. She is a cheerful caring person who enjoys being surrounded by her family and friends. She has fantastic appreciation for art, culture, people and has a positive outlook towards life.”

I advise Lakbima News readers to set up a Google alert to find out what Salem News is saying about us. I advise Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Washington to comment on Salem News biased coverage of the country he represents.

Julie MacLusky

- Author and Blogger -

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