Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Iraq

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.”

 

Corbyn versus Mann

Colman's Column3

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday August 28 2015.

 

corbyn

I published an article in Ceylon Today recently hung on the peg of Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for the leadership of the UK Labour Party. I specifically dealt with Corbyn’s role in the Islington child abuse scandal of the 1980s and 1990s but my main interest was in the kind of reasoning that goes into political debate.

John Mann’s Case against Corbyn

John Mann MP issued an open letter to Corbyn on July 23 2015, in which he said: “The extent of the abuse was only uncovered through the tenacity and bravery of whistle-blowers, journalists and survivors which led to a number of independent inquiries and the damning Ian White report in 1995”. The gist of John Mann’s argument is that Corbyn is not fit to lead the Labour Party at a time when much attention in Parliament and the media will be generated by the Goddard Inquiry into historic sexual abuse of children. This is not because anyone suspects Corbyn of being an abuser himself but because he was not pro-active in helping the victims or in establishing an investigation and indeed obstructed investigations.

Smearing Mann

Mann’s letter struck a chord with me because I was working on child protection at the Department of Health from 1994 to 1997. I saw files and was privy to discussions about the Islington care homes scandal. I can endorse that the leader of Islington Council, Margaret Hodge, and the local MP, Jeremy Corbyn, were, to put it charitably, less than helpful to the Department’s investigations.

The first comment was that Mann was “not fond of us northerners”. He was born in Pudsey, Yorkshire and educated in Bradford. He represents the constituency of Bassetlaw, which is well north of Watford.

Mann’s opinion of Corbyn was thought to be undermined by the fact that he was supporting Yvette Cooper for leader. He makes no secret of this and surely he can support whoever he likes. But wait- someone else accuses Mann of the crime of “trying to influence the election”. Is that not allowed in a democracy?

Kevin Higgins

Because I agreed with Mann, that meant that I was fair game for smearing too. Kevin Higgins is an Irish poet who I had admired and whom I had thought of as a good (virtual) friend. Although he is an Irish citizen living in Galway, Higgins is strongly campaigning for Corbyn. He thought it was OK to call me a liar who was not to be believed on any topic. He said that I was suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. He called Mann “deranged”. He provided a link beside this assertion, which I thought would provide evidence of Mann’s insanity. The link led me to a very silly poem by Higgins in which he fantasises about Mann while sitting on the lavatory. Who is the mad one here?

Monster Mann

Generally, Corbyn’s supporters content themselves with attacking Mann rather than rebutting his arguments. One called him “Tory Labour lite”. Most think he is not a proper socialist. Some called him a “Blairite”. What is the cause of such hatred?

As I read about him in parliamentary sketches it strikes me that he is one of the awkward squad. I have had a good look at Mann’s voting record in the Commons. The big black marks are that he voted in favour of the invasion of Iraq and against an inquiry into it. On domestic issues, he is very much on the side of the angels, voting against benefit cuts and austerity measures in general. Mann was also vocal in criticising other MPs over the expenses scandal. He was responsible for lodging the complaint that resulted in an inquiry into Tory minister Maria Miller’s expenses claims.

He has organised numerous positive campaigns in his constituency, examples of which include campaigning to save Bassetlaw Hospital Accident and Emergency Department and helping former coal miners to get their compensation. Following reforms recommended by an inquiry he instigated, the number of heroin addicts in treatment in Bassetlaw rose from 2 to 400, and acquisitive crime fell by 75%.

In 2014 Mann was responsible for compiling a dossier of historic allegations of child abuse, detailing allegations about 12 former ministers that may have been involved. He said he believes some of them were “definitely child abusers”.

Agenda

I once worked with someone who was campaigning against female circumcision and her constant battle cry was that FGM should be “pushed up the management agenda”. Agenda is a vogue word and has become something sinister. However much I might protest that I am just an elderly  gentleman scholar living up a mountain in Sri Lanka, I am often accused of having an ‘agenda’. I have been accused of being sent to Sri Lanka by MI5 to undermine the Rajapaksa government. Others accused me of being on Gota’s payroll. I have been portrayed as a Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinist and a propagandist for the Tamil Tigers. Now I am apparently a dyed-in-the wool Daily Mail Tory out to destroy the Left in Britain.

Someone noted that my article was published in Ceylon Today and provided a link to an article about Sri Lanka being a haven for paedophiles. I think this was intended to smear me as a paedophile.

Evasion

The distinguished UK writer and TV dramatist Janey Preger wrote that my previous  article was a : “great piece… well-written and well-said”. She tried to share it with former Guardian journalist W Stephen Gilbert. Apparently, he disliked my article so much that he refused to read. How did he know that he disliked it so much if he had not read it?

Timing – Post propter hoc

A pseudonymous commenter (LightShedder) on my blog, after calling me vicious, asserted that Corbyn is on record as having called for an investigation at the time of the allegations. I know that his spokesman said this recently but I can find no record of Corbyn making such a demand in the I980s or 1990s. If anyone can provide me with a link to a contemporaneous call for an investigation, I will humbly eat my toupee. I asked LightShedder to help me with this, saying that I would publicly apologise if evidence is forthcoming. At the time of writing this I have received no response.

Someone referred me to a news item in the Belfast Telegraph about Corbyn calling for a standing commission on child abuse. Another bureaucratic entity might be just what is needed, but I doubt that it would help. The main problem is that Corbyn called for this on August 5 2015 – what did he call for in the 1990s?

One commenter seemed to be saying that because I said that I believed Mann’s allegations after seeing documentary evidence, the fact that I could not now produce this evidence   placed me in the same league as the totalitarian governments of the Soviet Union, China, Iran and the Tudors. This is insanely disproportionate.  My “evidence” is not necessary to the case presented about Corbyn’s lack of action. The issue has been in the public domain for a long time. This is not just conspiracy theorists. Social worker Liz Davies’s testimony is credible.

Dr Davies has been telling the Islington story for 30 years. That does not stop some Corbyn supporters saying “why did no-one mention this before? You are only bringing it up to smear Corbyn”. Because she is quoted in the Daily Mail, someone says it “can’t be true because it’s in the Mail.

Conclusion

Responses to my article brought a rich harvest of flawed thinking. I read those comments with a copy of philosopher Nigel Warburton’s Thinking from A to Z close at hand. Warburton covers the following tricks of bad argument: false dichotomy, ad hominem, referential ambiguity, disanalogy, assumption, bad company fallacy, enthymeme, lexical ambiguity, companions in guilt move. I recommend having the book to hand when reading about Sri Lankan politics too.

 

More on Torture

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday March 3 2015.

Colman's Column3

President George W. Bush : Look, I’m going to say it one more time…. Maybe I can be more clear. The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you. We’re a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at these laws, and that might provide comfort for you.  —Sea Island, Georgia, June 10, 2004

There have been a number of reports on the use of torture by the USA. There was a heavily redacted 2004 report from the Office of Professional Responsibility in the Department of Justice. In 2007, the ICRC (Red Cross) published its Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody. The ICRC said in the introduction, “that the consistency of the detailed allegations provided separately by each of the fourteen adds particular weight to the information provided.” There was a Senate Armed Services Committee report from 2008 about how the military used torture. There was a recent Senate report, or rather an executive summary, on CIA torture. There have been a dozen reports on torture practised at Abu Ghraib.

There is still no comprehensive public report on how the executive branch made decisions about torture.  Former US Vice-President Dick Cheney described the recent Senate report as “full of crap”. Cheney will have none of the argument that GW Bush was ignorant of the methods used by the CIA. “He was in fact an integral part of the program. He had to approve it before we went forward with it. I think he knew everything he needed to know and wanted to know about the program.” At one meeting, John Ashcroft, then attorney general, demanded of his colleagues, “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.”

These days we hear mealy-mouthed euphemisms, such as “alternative set of procedures”. The CIA, even after the damning Senate report, maintains that its “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not constitute torture. In the early days after 9/11, words went unminced. The CIA was already talking about torture before they even had a suspect on whom to practise.

The CIA did very little if any research about what kind of torture would work. There is no discussion springing from the need to torture particular people such as prisoners in hand who are unwilling to talk. Talk of torture itself started very soon after 9/11, when “high-value” detainees were not available.

When they did have someone to practise on, they went at it with a will. Abu Zubaydah, a thirty-one-year-old Palestinian from Gaza, was captured in March 2002 in Pakistan. Initially, he did provide some useful information  – that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, and that José Padilla was plotting to become a  dirty bomber. However, that was down to the FBI not the CIA (although they claimed credit) and the information did not come from torture. Two experienced FBI interrogators who had fluent Arabic and deep knowledge about al-Qaeda used traditional “rapport-building” techniques.

The CIA had Abu Zubaydah in their clutches first but were too dumb to realise how important he was. Afterwards, they attributed too much importance to him, convincing themselves he was the third or fourth man in al-Qaeda. In reality, he was not even a member of al-Qaeda, merely  a travel agent for al-Qaeda.

FBI expert Ali Soufan objected strenuously to rank amateurs like former military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen taking over the interrogation.  FBI people who knew what they were doing without torture pulled out of the questioning leaving it to amateurs using a “black site” in Thailand. The CIA were diverted by their misguided conviction that Abu Zubaydah was withholding information about attacks that would have killed thousands of people. They believed they had to torture him so that he would reveal information to justify their use of torture. Their use of torture was because he had not revealed any such information.

They deprived Abu Zubaydah  of sleep for 180 hours and waterboarded him eighty-three times, the last two sessions against the strenuous objections of the on-site interrogators, who judged correctly that he was completely compliant: he just had nothing more to reveal. He was mostly naked and cold, “sometimes with the air conditioning adjusted so that, one official said, he seemed to turn blue.” Zubaydah told the story himself. When loud music no longer played, “there was a constant loud hissing or crackling noise, which played twenty-four hours a day”. “I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. I was also repeatedly slapped in the face….”. They put him in a black box. “As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds.” Eventually, a doctor stopped the torture. “I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.”

Testimony from others who were tortured supports this. A clear method emerges from these accounts, based on forced nudity, isolation, bombardment with noise and light, deprivation of sleep and food, and repeated beatings.

CIA Director George Tenet regularly told the highest government officials specific procedures to be used on specific detainees. Shortly after Abu Zubaydah was captured, according to ABC News, CIA officers “briefed high-level officials in the National Security Council’s Principals Committee,” including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, who “then signed off on the [interrogation] plan.”

The CIA justified the torture of Abu Zubaydah as a success because their brutal techniques allowed them to alleviate their anxiety about how much he really knew. They did not get any more information through torture but eventually convinced themselves that he had no more information.

Articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times revealed a secret world of black sites, prisons on military bases around the world, into which kidnapped people disappeared. “We don’t kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them”. Extraordinary rendition meant the detainee shackled at hands and feet was transported to the airport by road and loaded onto a plane. Earphones would be placed over his ears, through which music would sometimes be played. He would be blindfolded with a cloth tied around the head and black goggles. The journey times ranged from one hour to over thirty hours. The detainee  and had to urinate and defecate into a diaper.

The US corrupted the world with this programme. A report by the Open Society Justice Initiative  shows that 54 countries, including Ireland, helped to facilitate the CIA’s secret detention, rendition and interrogation programme. They participated in by hosting CIA prisons on their territories; detaining, interrogating, torturing, and abusing individuals; assisting in the capture and transport of detainees or permitting the use of domestic airspace and airports for secret flights transporting detainees.

The CIA’s former acting general counsel, John Rizzo, was involved in the programme from the start until 2009. He had a career at the CIA since the 1970s and was a main author of the 2001 Memorandum of Notification to the president that gave the CIA broad power to torture. Bush (pace Cheney’s recent comments), according to the intelligence committee report, was not briefed in detail on the actual techniques until 2006. The original authorization for the torture programme seems to have come from the Memorandum of Notification, a presidential document drafted by the CIA itself and signed by Bush on September 17, 2001.

An internal CIA draft letter to the attorney general sought a formal declaration that there would be no prosecutions of torturers.  When the Justice Department’s Criminal Division refused to provide immunity, the CIA lied to the Justice Department and found lawyers who would do their bidding. John Yoo, the author of the original torture memo, told the Office of Professional Responsibility that he would not have judged waterboarding legal if he had known the truth about how brutal it was.

In 1994, the US signed the Convention against Torture. This not only prohibits torture but also requires that it be investigated and punished. On his second day in office, Obama announced plans to close the Guantánamo detention facility within a year and to end immediately George W. Bush’s authorization of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”.  Although Obama once famously commented that “we tortured some folks” and that “I believe waterboarding was torture”, he has taken no action against the torturers. There are obvious avenues for investigation and possible prosecution, though the Obama administration shows no interest taking them.

This avoidance means that, practically speaking, torture remains an option for policymakers rather than a criminal offense. CIA director John Brennan has explicitly refused to rule out the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques under a future administration. The message to future presidents facing a serious security threat is that the prohibition of torture can be ignored without consequence. Abusive security forces from around the world are likely to take heart from that precedent as well.

Michael White was lambasted when he wrote in the Guardian: “it is also a day of redemption for the American system of imperfectly accountable government and that country’s many enemies should remember that as they hurl bricks and demand the prosecution of offenders”.

In his recent book Pay Any Price, investigative journalist James Risen described two of the most consequential aspects of American national security policy after September 11: the organized torture of al-Qaeda suspects in secret CIA prisons and the mass surveillance of communications by Americans carried out by the National Security Agency. There is a third consequence- attempts to muzzle the media. The Department of Justice prosecuted and imprisoned about half a dozen press sources for disclosing classified information  about mass surveillance and torture.

At his first inauguration, Barack Obama rejected “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Fine words. Risen writes:  “The rush to transform the United States from an open society to a walled fortress, prompted by the 9/11 attacks and propelled by billions of dollars spent on homeland security”, has left little room for serious public debate about “how best to balance security, civil liberties and freedom of movement. It is no longer much of a debate—security always wins.”

They Work for You

This article was published in The Nation on Sunday, 26 February 2012

 

Sanjana Hattotuwa wrote in The Nation about the need for oversight of parliament by civil society in Sri Lanka. I covered a similar theme a few weeks back in an article on monitory democracy, a theme developed by Professor John Keane of Westminster University. Keane has written: “The new institutions of monitory democracy are further defined by their overall commitment to strengthening the diversity and influence of citizens’ voices and choices in decisions that affect their lives – regardless of the outcome of elections.”

 

A good example of the way the internet can be used to monitor politicians is a website called They Work for You, which gives detailed information about the doings and not-doings of Westminster MPs.

 
Check it out at http://www.theyworkforyou.com/

 

 

They Work For You lets you find out what your MP…is doing in your name, read debates, written answers, see what’s coming up in Parliament, and sign up for email alerts when there’s past or future activity on someone or something you’re interested in.”

 
As a test of what They Work for You could deliver, I checked out Siobhain McDonagh MP, who represents the constituency of Mitcham and Morden, and set up an alert.

 

Recent alerts show that Ms. McDonagh instigated an adjournment debate on government policy on football governance and the case of AFC Wimbledon. McDonagh’s constituency covers part of the London Borough of Merton, which includes Wimbledon. She waxed nostalgic about The Crazy Gang, Wimbledon football club, a team whose violent image was epitomised by a picture of Vinny Jones squeezing Paul Gascoigne’s testicles. Vinny moved on, not to squeeze testicles in the Sri Lankan parliament, but to Hollywood, where he made a fortune out of pretend thuggery. Just as one wonders why McDonagh is interfering in Sri Lanka , one wonders why she is interfering in that football club now. AFC Wimbledon moved to Croydon in 1991, when I was still living in Wimbledon and socialising with Ron Wood in the Leather Bottle pub. The Dons have played in Milton Keynes since 2003.

 

 

On March 24, 2009, McDonagh said in the House of Commons: “As the Sri Lankan Government have not been willing to end the conflict, I would like my Government to call for their suspension from the Commonwealth.” She referred to the president of Sri Lanka as “a probable war crimes suspect”. She has referred to Sri Lanka as a “failing dictatorship”. She boasted: “the leadership of my right hon. friend Mr. Brown brought an end to GSP Plus…voted against the IMF’s $2.5 billion deal with Sri Lanka, and prevented it from hosting a Commonwealth summit. Britain must not lose that lead.”

 

 

McDonagh started out as clerical officer in Balham in the Department of Health and Social Security. She was first elected to parliament in 1997, after being selected through an all-woman short-list. This method of selection was declared illegal in January 1996, as it breached sex discrimination laws, but she did not withdraw. McDonagh attracted criticism in April 2000 for spending an average of £32,000 per year of public money to send out what Tory John Redwood described as “self-promotion”.

 

 

After the 2005 election, she served as PPS to Defence Secretary John Reid. From May 2006 to June 2007 she was PPS to the Home Secretary. Gordon Brown made her Assistant Whip in 2007 but she was sacked (while being interviewed on Channel 4) for plotting to overthrow Brown.

 

 

She made a speech in Parliament saying she makes “no apology for concentrating on local issues”. Local issues include Sri Lanka because of the large number of Tamils in her constituency. On 16 June 2011, she made representations against “the deportation by the UK Border Agency of my constituent Jenach Gopinath back to Sri Lanka, whose Government are suspected of war crimes against Tamils, including the killing of 40,000 Tamil citizens”.

 

 

Siobhain McDonagh’s libertarianism and concern for human rights seems very selective. She voted very strongly against a fully-elected House of Lords. In spite of her campaign to stop Tamil constituents from being deported, she had voted very strongly for a stricter asylum system. Strangely, too, she voted for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws and for introducing ID cards. Even stranger, she voted very strongly for the Iraq invasion, and against an investigation into the Iraq war.

 

 

During a Commons debate on October 21, 2005, she said: “Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made. I think that deposing a murderous tyrant such as Saddam Hussein and introducing democracy to that part of the world was the right thing to do. I know that some people disagree.”‘

 

 

And yet, she claimed, ‘We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, “You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later”.

 

 

Could They Work for You be a model for monitoring Sri Lankan politicians, I wonder?

 

The Cage by Gordon Weiss

This article was published in the Sunday Island on May 11, 2013
It may seem to be a little late to be reviewing Gordon Weiss’s book. It was published a while ago but is still relevant and still misleading people. While I was reading the new publication from the International Diaspora Group (IDAG-S) on counting the dead in Sri Lanka, I thought I would revisit what Weiss had to say on the subject.

 

Numbers Game

 

In this book, Weiss begins with a caveat: “I have not dealt in close detail with the matter of figures of dead and wounded, how they are calculated and how reliable those sources might be. I make the point in the text that it is for others to get closer to that particular particle of truth”.

 

Despite this disclaimer, throughout the book, Weiss repeats the mantra that 10,000 to 40,000 civilians were killed.

 

Weiss was, and is, a major player in the numbers game. When he was working for the UN in Colombo, he went on record as saying the number of civilian casualties was 7,000. This became the official figure quoted by the UN General Secretary’s New York spokesperson, Michelle Monas, who told Inner City Press reporter Matthew Lee, “We have no way of knowing the exact count”. When Weiss left the UN and returned to Australia and began writing this book he increased the figure to 15,000, which he then upped to 40,000, a figure that a whole range of media outlets, including BBC and NDTV, ran with. Journalists confused the issue by failing to make clear whether information came from “an employee of the UN” or “a former employee of the UN”, rather than “the UN”.

 

In The Cage, Weiss writes: “Despite the prospect that the Tamil Tigers might be forcing the Tamil doctors or the UN staff, to give inflated figures of the dead and wounded, the accumulation of events and casualties seemed consistent”. Having raised the possibility that figures were inflated, he gives himself licence to inflate further.

 

Earlier on the same page, a press release by Navi Pillay is quoted saying that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Weiss gives this spin: “Critically, the civilian death toll Pillay quoted finally established a baseline that had some kind of official imprimatur and weakened government efforts to confine solid numbers to the realm of speculation and confusion”. Pillay’s statement did not take us out of the realms of speculation because she said “as many as 2,800 may have been killed”. That is speculation. What does establishing a “baseline” mean? Does it mean that because Pillay says “as many as 2,800 may have been killed” that gives Weiss licence to say 10,000 to 4,000 and Frances Harrison to say 147,000?

 
Gordon Weiss’s lower estimate of 7,000 civilian deaths, made in 2009, was challenged by Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, who stated in New York on 24 March 2009 that this figure could not be verified. In spite of this, Weiss throughout The Cage routinely talks of “between 10,000 and 40,000”, which is meaningless.

 

Lack of Expertise

 

“In Sri Lanka, even though I could not bear witness, I was close enough to the levers of action to believe that they [children] were being wounded and killed in large numbers each day”.

 
That’s not what it says on the tin. The cover blurb says: “Gordon Weiss witnessed the conflict at first hand as a UN spokesman in Colombo”.

 

The bibliography is both long and deep. If he has actually read all those publications he is a better man than I am. I wonder how he found the time. The notes are also extensive and informative although open to debate in some instances.

 

Weiss was not a witness. Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.

 

Praise for Sri Lankan Army

 

Weiss has good things to say about the Sri Lankan Army. “On the whole, however, the vast majority of people who escaped seem to have been received with relative restraint and care by the front-line SLA troops who quickly passed them up the line for tea, rice and first aid. The faceless enemy, such a source of terror for the young peasant men and women of southern Sri Lanka who made up the majority of the troops, were suddenly given a human aspect, as thin, bedraggled and women clutching children to their breasts and pleading in a foreign tongue fell at their feet”.

 

Note that Weiss cannot say that those who “escaped” were treated with care. It has to have the begrudging modifier “relative”. Relative to what? Relative to the care given by the LTTE from whom they had escaped?

 

He later repeats similar sentiments but drops the begrudgery. “During the course of research for this book, dozens of Tamils described the Sinhalese as inherently kind and gentle people. The front-line soldiers who received the first civilians as they escaped to government lines, those who guarded them in the camps and the civilian and military doctors who provided vital treatment distinguished themselves most commonly through their mercy and care”.

 

“It remains a credit to many of the front-line SLA soldiers that, despite odd cruel exceptions, 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”.

 

Conclusion

 

Weiss quotes Timothy Garton Ash: “Liberal internationalism… means developing norms and rules by which most states will abide, preferably made explicit in international law and sustained by international organisations. It posits some basic rights that belong to every human being on this planet…It seeks to build peace between nations on these foundations”.

 

I am a great admirer of Timothy Garton Ash. I have even set up a Google alert so that I can read all of his articles. Let us not forget, however, that Timothy Garton Ash supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the “Coalition of the Willing”. Remind me what the reason for that invasion was. First of all, Iraq was somehow behind 9/11; then Saddam had WMD; when those excuses proved spurious the invasion was retrospectively justified as being about “basic rights that belong to every human being on this planet”.

 

Weiss puts his own spin on this: “The choice between strategies when fighting an insurgency is relatively straightforward”. Weiss believes that liberal democracies choose the “hearts and minds” strategy. I am reminded of General Westmoreland’s maxim: “Grab ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”. Ask the people of My Lai how the liberal democracy that is the USA conducted “counterinsurgency” in Vietnam. Weiss sermonises: “Counterinsurgencies are fought by liberal democracies in places like Afghanistan. Their leaders and decision makers understand that they are ultimately answerable to constituencies that might, like the French in the Algerian war of independence, withdraw support if they become too murderous”. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was hugely unpopular with British voters but they did not get a chance to vote on it. MPs like Siobhain McDonagh, who endlessly campaigns against Sri Lanka, voted in favour of the Iraq invasion and against an inquiry into it.

 

Despite praising the conduct of most SLA soldiers, Weiss in the end accuses the winning side of exceptional brutality, not fitting in with his sense of how liberal democracies would fight insurgency. As Sanjana Hattotuwa said in his Groundviews review: “Weiss offers no larger analysis of this tragic fragmentation between spontaneous compassion and calculated mass scale atrocity, and its effects on the civilians caught in direct or cross-fire.”

 

Has The Cage had an influence? It generated great interest in foreign embassies in Colombo. As Sanjana told me: “Several embassies had block booked 20 – 30 copies of the book, which resulted in higher than planned demand. This may have given rise to the perception at the time the book was hard to get, which it was, but not because of heavy handed Govt censorship.”

 

More on the subject of deadly accountancy and accountability after the launch of the IDAG-S paper.

 

The Englishwoman Who Invented Iraq

 

 

This article was published in the Sunday Island on October 1, 2011

 

bell

Last week I wrote in the Sunday Island about an Englishwoman (albeit of Irish stock – Siobhain McDonagh) who supported the LTTE’s plan to redraw Sri Lanka’s borders at the same time as supporting her master Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq. Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh wanted the boundaries of Sri Lanka altered along the spurious lines of the minute from “that madman Cleghorn” to please her Tamil constituents. She was happy for Britain to impose “democracy” on Iraq and to allow British soldiers to behave as they pleased. She voted against an investigation into the Iraq war, saying: ” we cannot start changing the law for every future conflict because we feel guilty about how we behaved in the last one. We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs. We have to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the brave men and women in Mitcham and Morden and elsewhere”.

 
Look at a map of Africa and see the unnaturally straight lines that demarcate different nations, without regard to natural features or the ethnic origins of the population. Look at a map of Ireland and note how the northernmost county of the island of Ireland is not located in the artificial statelet of “Northern Ireland” but in the Republic because the Catholic majority would have undermined loyalist hegemony. Map-making is an essential tool of the colonial project. Brian Friel in his brilliant play Translations showed how the army imposed Britain’s will on Ireland by redrawing the maps and translating place names from Irish.

 
Another Englishwoman who had a malign influence on Iraq was Gertrude Bell. Many of the problems of the Middle East today can be blamed on that one woman.

 
She was commissioned in 1919 to analyse the situation in Mesopotamia in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. On the basis of her analysis, the nation of Iraq was born, created in 1920 from the three Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, which were conquered and occupied by the British during World War I.

 
The map was drawn in such a way because it was feared that the Shi’ite majority, with its nomadic, tribal base, was too volatile. Bell had no doubt that the final authority should rest with the Sunni minority, “otherwise you would have a theocratic state, which would be the very devil.” The British thought that by denying the Kurds an autonomous state they would be protecting their oil interests in the Kurdish homeland around Mosul.
The tensions created by these map-drawing decisions still exist today causing hundreds of thousands of deaths.

 
Bell became known to the Arabs as Al Khatun, “The Lady”, from her pre-war travels in the desert lands. Who was this woman who said of her relationship with Faisal, the king of the new nation of Iraq:  “You may rely upon one thing — I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain”?

 
Mark Sykes, the MP who negotiated the Sykes-Picot agreement with France to determine control of former Ottoman territory in the Middle East, described Bell as a “silly chattering windbag of conceited, gushing flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass.”

 
While one could not condone such misogyny and while one might marvel at Bell’s achievements in such a male-chauvinist milieu, it would be a mistake to see her as a proto-feminist. She was honorary secretary of the Anti-suffrage League, firmly believing that women were not ready to be entrusted with the vote.

 
Gertrude Bell was born in 1868 in Washington, County Durham, and raised in Yorkshire. Her father was one of the richest men in Britain. Her grandfather was a friend of Darwin and her stepmother wrote plays about working-class suffering. Bell herself was a devout atheist steeped in radical thought.

 
In 1899 she began serious alpine climbing in Switzerland, conquering seven summits in the Englehorner range, one of which is still named after her. She once clung to a rope in a blizzard for fifty-three hours and contracted severe   frostbite in her unsuccessful ascent of the northeast face of the Finsteraarhorn. She produced a detailed survey of the Abbasid castle of Ukhadair, in Iraq, and wrote a popular travel book.

 
She fell in love, when a virgin of 42, with a married military hero, Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie. In 1913, she toured the Arabian Peninsula, becoming one of few foreigners to survive the Nejd desert and the hostile Arabian tribes, and to enter the remote city of Hail, in north-central Saudi Arabia.

 
The British appointed her as their senior political officer in Basra during the First World War when she was 46. Apart from a few months as a Red Cross volunteer in France, she had never previously had a job. She had an impressive academic record but none of her training was in international affairs, government or management. Yet from 1916 to 1926, Gertrude Bell won the affection of Arab statesmen and the admiration of her superiors, founded a national museum, selected the leadership, and drew the borders of a new state. In her letters, she was remarkably prescient about the difficulties faced in 2003 by the Coalition of the Willing.

 
Unlike the occupying forces of 2003 she was knowledgeable about the area. She was a fluent Arabic speaker and had the experience of a decade of travels in the Middle East and four years in the British mandate administration in Iraq. Yet she never pretended in her letters to be in a position to understand or control events. She emphasised the weaknesses of the previous Ottoman administration; the persistence of the tribal system; the divisions between urban and rural areas. Bell showed how the cultural insensitivity of British soldiers exacerbated hatred.

 
She knew that the occupation could not be sustained but she could not contemplate total withdrawal. She recognised that British colonial control was unworkable and that there must somehow be an Arab government. These themes are strangely familiar in Iraq today.

 
The British did a lot of damage in the Middle East even in the 1920s and 1930s. They sowed the seeds of conflict in Sri Lanka by their divide and rule tactics. They favoured educated Tamils and gave the majority Sinhalese a minority complex for which they later over-compensated. In Iraq the British encouraged urbane, Western-educated, Jews who staffed the civil service, ran the economy and helped lay the foundations of the modern Iraqi state.

 
Iraq’s first minister of finance was a Jew. Sir Sassoon Eskell, KBE, along with Bell and TE Lawrence, was instrumental in the creation and the establishment of the state of Iraq after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He himself, founded the nascent Iraqi government’s legal and financial structure. Jews were important in developing the judicial and postal systems. Records from the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce show that 10 out of its 19 members in 1947 were Jews and the first musical band formed for Baghdad’s nascent radio in the 1930s consisted mainly of Jews.Jews were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant positions in the bureaucracy which in many cases led to resentment by the Iraqi population.

 
As friends of the British, Iraq’s Jews, like Sri Lankan Tamils, were an easy scapegoat for anti-colonial fury. This was exploited by Nazi Germany which craved Iraqi oil. Iraqi Jews were portrayed in the Iraqi press and radio as a fifth column, especially after the death of King Faisal in 1933. Faisal’s son and successor, King Ghazi, who styled himself a Pan-Arabist and dabbled in Nazi doctrine, imposed a tax on Jews whenever they left the country. Ghazi befriended Hitler’s ambassador to Baghdad, Fritz Grobba.

 
The British used the ersatz Iraqi monarchy for their own purposes and forced upon it a series of humiliating ‘agreements’ in which the country’s sovereignty was signed away, and British dominance guaranteed. The British tried to keep control of the oil discovered in Kirkuk by forcing the Anglo-Iraq Treaty of 1930 on the King and ensured that foreign policy was directed by British advisers, mainly, notably Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, for whom Bell had an unrequited passion.

 
It seems that Britain does not learn lessons from its long history. By removing the tyrant who was holding the whole shaky enterprise together, they caused the disintegration of the artificial nation, Iraq, they had forged for their own purposes. Italy forged a fragile colonial nation out of fractious tribal territories in Libya. Britain contributed to future problems by removing the tyrant who was holding it together.

 
When Bell returned to Britain in 1925 she suffered from poor health and the economic depression had undermined the family wealth. She returned to Iraq and suffered from pleurisy. It is surmised that while she was in England she was diagnosed with lung cancer (she was a heavy smoker).

 
On July 12, 1926, she killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.
She was buried in the British cemetery at Bab al-Sharji.

 
In February 2011, eccentric German film director Werner Herzog was said to be in “serious discussions” with Australian actress Naomi Watts for his upcoming project about Bell titled Queen of the Desert. At the end of March, it was reported that Ridley Scott was planning a film about Bell and had hired screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, the man responsible for The Constant Gardener, to write the script.

 
Perhaps one day there will be a movie about Siobhain McDonagh.

 

Why does Everybody Hate Sri Lanka?

A Facebook friend asked me to explain why the Sri Lankan government has come under such criticism. A recent example was David Cameron’s November 2013 visit to Sri Lanka for CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of government Meeting). “Can you tell me why you think the country is coming in for criticism? Did the Tamil Tigers manage to get favourable international media coverage? Can you fill me in a little on how they were defeated and why Sri Lanka gets criticised for that?”

I have written about this in the past and, after receiving that question, canvassed the views of my Sri Lankan contacts.

“No one likes us, we don’t care”

In the late 70s, Millwall football fans in the Cold Blow Lane stand  used to sing this to the tune of Rod Stewart’s (We Are) Sailing (written by the Sutherland Brothers). This was in response to sustained criticism of their behaviour and the media assumption that Millwall fans were the worst kind of hooligans. Various commentators, including Rod Liddle, have questioned why the name of Millwall became synonymous with hooliganism, creating a siege mentality amongst ordinary, law-abiding Millwall fans.

South London writer Michael Collins wrote: “At the end of the 19th century around the time Millwall FC was formed, middle-class journalists used to descend on the area like Baudelaireian flaneurs, to report on the urban working class as though they were discovering natives from the remote islands of the Empire.”

It is interesting that Rod Liddle is one of the few English journalists to have criticised David Cameron’s flaneurist behaviour in Colombo recently. Liddle wrote in The Spectator back in 2005 about a riot at a game between Liverpool and Millwall after which three Liverpool supporters were jailed. The FA exonerated Liverpool and fined Millwall. Liddle commented: “the FA wished to make a political point and saw Millwall – a small club, unfashionable and not especially popular as an ideal target.”

Here is the title of Liddle’s recent article on the London Sunday Times blog about Cameron’s behaviour in Sri Lanka: “That s the president of Sri Lanka, PM, not one of your fags”. American readers should note that “fag” refers in this instance to the system of servitude in English schools for toffs like Cameron. A fag at Eton would be bullied by the Bullingdon Club.

Genuine Concern

I will have a look at the simplest answer first. What if criticisms of Sri Lanka are fair? What if Cameron, William Hague and Alistair Burt are acting from a genuine concern for human rights? What if Stephen Harper and Barack Obama genuinely want to see justice done in Sri Lanka?

There are certainly many things that could be improved in Sri Lanka.

  • The 18th amendment to the constitution was a bad idea.
  • The impeachment of the Chief Justice showed the government in a bad light.
  • It is not good for the army to shoot dead unarmed protesters.
  • For ordinary people the never-ending grind of rising prices is debilitating.

One of my respondents said: “I think, perhaps the UK is concerned that more civilians have been killed than they were assured would be, and they feel some guilt for not having intervened in 2009”.

Unfortunately, Cameron, Harper and Obama invite the charge of hypocrisy by focusing on what happened in the final months of the military action that defeated the Tamil Tigers. People in Sri Lanka are likely to say what about Iraq, Kenya, Guantanamo, drone strikes?

Cameron’s thinking seems to be directed by simplistic sound bites that totally discount the realities of war.

Jealousy

The Sri Lankan government was proud of its victory and keen to share its experience with the world. The Ministry of Defence organised seminars to which it invited foreign observers. The third of these was held in September 2013. There were many calls from human rights organisations to boycott the seminars. US Defense Attaché to Sri Lanka, LTC Lawrence Smith, attended the 2011 seminar and questioned the credibility of surrender offers made by senior LTTE leaders. He got in trouble because of it. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: “My understanding is that the defense attaché was there as an observer and a note taker. His comments reflected his personal opinions. There’s no change in the policy of the United States, and his remarks do not reflect any change in our policy.”

In his article in The Atlantic dated 1 July 2009 entitled To Catch a Tiger, Robert D Kaplan acknowledged the success of the Sri Lankan government in defeating the Tamil Tigers. Kaplan admitted that tiny, cash-strapped Sri Lanka, generally thought of as ”third world” or ”developing”, has succeeded where the mighty USA has failed. The man who dominated Sri Lankan life for the worse for thirty years, Vellupillai Prabakharan, leader of the Tamil Tigers, was dead, while Osama Bin Laden was, at the time, still living, a free man.

Kaplan asks if the US can learn from Sri Lanka’s success but answers:

”These are methods the U.S. should never use.”

My detailed critique of Kaplan is here: https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/fantasies-of-virtue/

The gist of my critique is that the US has, indeed, used methods far worse.

A respondent in Colombo says: “as you know, the Sri Lankan side refused  to carry out the wishes of the UK and US embassies during those last hours of the ending of the war. They now think that we should be taught a lesson for being naughty. It’s stupid and shows a total misreading of the realities on the ground of that time.”

Domestic Electoral Considerations

Many of the Sri Lankans that I canvassed for this article made the point that western politicians were motivated by electoral concerns.

A respondent who lives in Toronto, a hot-bed of pro-LTTE activity, told me: “The only answer that I can give would be the ‘local politics’ in any country…It is a fact that the elite and the influential and the rich, English-speaking Tamils live either in Colombo or in England /Canada…“All these English politicians have figured out that the diaspora is a deciding factor in winning elections.  … They need the diaspora which has money to spend on them and get them to power. The Tamil diaspora is pretty much active in Toronto, unlike the Lazy/divided/ Sinhala Buddhist diaspora”.

A Sri Lanka resident echoed that view: “LTTE supporters among the Diaspora are part of the electoral constituencies of some of the political leadership in the UK, Canada and the US and are exerting pressure on them.”

The release by WikiLeaks of a batch of diplomatic cables endorsed this view.  Then UK foreign secretary, David Miliband visited Sri Lanka towards the end of the war against the LTTE, pressing for a ceasefire and negotiations. Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa scolded him and reminded him that Sri Lanka was no longer a British colony. The cables reveal that Miliband exerted his influence to get Sri Lanka’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games rejected: the UK did not want Sri Lanka to be given legitimacy for its actions in defeating the Tamil Tigers. Another cable revealed that Miliband supported US efforts to delay an IMF loan to Sri Lanka.

In a cable dated 7 May 2009, the British Foreign Office “Sri Lanka team leader”, Tim Waite, wrote that, with UK elections soon due, and with many Tamils living in marginal UK constituencies, the UK government was calling for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka and would later pay close attention to the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. Miliband said that he was spending 60% of his time on Sri Lanka. Miliband and his aides wrote about “ratcheting up” the case for humanitarian relief efforts: “[That] cable,” said one Sri Lankan writer, “exposes how a matter of a few thousand British votes took priority over the fate of a small state battling against a ruthless terrorist enemy”

Before the November 2013 CHOGM, Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh had warned Cameron that UK participation in Colombo would be nothing but endorsement of the massacre of civilians. McDonagh represents Mitcham and Morden in the  south London Borough of Merton (an area in which I lived for ten years). She likes to present an image of left-wing libertarianism and sell herself as a champion of human rights. However, her voting record in the House of Commons tells a different story. Siobhain McDonagh voted very strongly FOR the Iraq invasion, very strongly AGAINST an investigation into the Iraq war, very strongly FOR Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, very strongly FOR introducing ID cards, very strongly FOR a stricter asylum system. Her libertarianism and concern for human rights seems very selective.

The Wimbledon Guardian, which I fondly remember as being full of rapes and perverts (how unlike the Wimbledon I knew and loved) reported that McDonagh was given a petition signed by 196 residents at Morden’s Civic Centre on October 10 2008. “Representatives from the British Tamil Forum met Siobhain McDonagh to ask for support in tackling human rights abuses. They asked her to join the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils, a group of MPs campaigning to highlight the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka.”

The subtext is that McDonagh recognised that the support of pro-LTTE campaigners might be useful to her in her constituency. Hers is by no means a safe Labour seat. She won it from Conservative Dame Angela Rumbold on her third attempt. It would require a 16.4% swing for her to lose it. McDonagh had a majority of 13,666 in 2010. A Tamil with Muslim support, Rathy Alagaratnam, was an independent who ran against her in 2010 and 2005. McDonagh’s parliamentary work-rate is not impressive. She is below average for the number of times she has spoken in debates, and for her written questions. She is well below average for the number of times she has voted in the Commons.

Geopolitics

Robert O Blake was US ambassador in Colombo at war’s end. Later, he moved to the State Department. Blake caused some alarm in Sri Lanka when he made a statement before the Senate subcommittee on the Middle East (West Asia) and South Asia. His address included a telling phrase. This was the first time he had  gone on record to publicly state, “Positioned directly on the shipping routes that carry petroleum products and other trade from the Gulf to East Asia, Sri Lanka remains of strategic interest to the US.”

Once in Sri Lanka, he tried to soft-pedal. ”In my official meetings today, I assured the Sri Lankan government that the US is committed to a strong long-term partnership with Sri Lanka and that reports of our alleged support for ‘regime change’ have no basis whatsoever. I expressed support for the government’s efforts to recover from its devastating civil war, and encouraged further steps towards reconciliation, and a peaceful, united, democratic Sri Lanka. I think the government has made some positive progress. It is very important that this progress be sustained. ”

One of my respondents noted “a certain amount of concern with regard to SL’s lean towards China, and away from India, the latter being ‘one of us, as it were”.

Profit and Globalisation

A respondent who had migrated to Australia but is now back in Colombo told me: “UK is hell-bent on criticizing us to make the LTTE rump in UK happy. Their dream was to see the creation of an Eelam here. Many Western nations are angry with us because they profited from this war by being able to sell arms but today it is not possible thanks to peace. No matter what we do, UK will think that we are still their colony!”

Another respondent who lives in Sri Lanka told me: “The neo-colonial powers want to push through globalisation, which reduces national sovereignty, and hence the power of governments to interfere with global corporations. Weak governments are made weaker by separatism. Western criticism of the GoSL was muted while JR (President Jayewardene) was in power, although it began to get shriller after Sri Lanka strayed into India’s ambit. However, the real escalation of criticism took place after Sri Lanka became part of China’s zone of influence.”

Arrogance and Hypocrisy

When David Miliband became foreign secretary in June 2007, there were already allegations about possible British involvement in overseas torture by other countries’ intelligence services. Ironically, the UK’s involvement in the revolution in Libya brought to light evidence of its dirty dealings with Quadaffi. Libyan Islamist Sami al-Saadi, also known as Abu Munthir, claims that in 2004, he and his family were detained by MI6 and handed over to authorities in Libya, who tortured him. Documents show that MI5 gave Tripoli reports on Libyan dissidents living in Britain and identified at least one organisation using UK telephone numbers.

In the London Review of Books, Gareth Pierce wrote about Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian given leave to reside in the UK. “British intelligence and the Americans and Moroccans for 18 months slashed the most intimate parts of his body with razors, burned him with boiling liquids, stretched his limbs causing unimaginable agony, and bombarded him with ferocious sound.” Binyam Mohamed claimed Moroccan interrogators tortured him by using scalpels or razor blades to repeatedly cut his penis and chest.

As David Miliband was personal advisor to Tony Blair while Labour was in opposition and played a major role in the election victory of 1997, it seems unlikely that he was unaware of what was happening before he became foreign secretary.

Philippe Sands was Binyam Mohamed’s lawyer. He wrote that Miliband cannot avoid charges of complicity demonstrated by his actions as foreign secretary: “he could have announced that he wanted to establish a proper inquiry. He didn’t do that – and was a senior member of a government that later actively resisted calls for an inquiry. That is not to say he was idle throughout this period; he seems to have put considerable energy into defending a number of claims in the English courts relating to torture against his department.”

A special investigation, published in the 29 August issue of the New Statesman, showed how British troops regularly handed over suspected insurgents to the Afghan authorities with little guarantee that they would not be tortured.

Miliband personally approved some interrogations involving countries with poor human rights records. While campaigning for the Labour leadership Miliband was forced to confront claims that he allowed the interrogation of three terror suspects who allege they were tortured in Bangladesh and Egypt. Faisal Mostafa, a chemistry lecturer from Manchester, who has twice been cleared of terrorism offences in court, was detained in Bangladesh. He claims he was hung upside down and electrocuted while interrogators interrogated him about two Islamist groups.

Sands wrote: “Many would not be surprised if all roads led to Tony Blair (who described Guantánamo as ‘understandable’ in his memoir)…It is not unusual to hear the suggestion that Miliband’s actions may have been motivated in part by a desire to protect the reputation of his colleagues… His attitude to the Iraq war is equally unhappy, invoking the refrain that ‘if I knew then what I know now I would have voted against’. This recognises that the war was the wrong decision but falls well short of an expression of regret”.

The British adopted a rather superior tone about the Americans in Iraq. They claimed that British  experience in Northern Ireland made them experts at counter-insurgency in urban areas. News reports now coming out suggest that their methods included under-cover agents shooting unarmed civilians.

Gareth Pierce on the UK’s hypocrisy: “We inhabit the most secretive of democracies, which has developed the most comprehensive of structures for hiding its misdeeds, shielding them always from view behind the curtain of ‘national security’. From here on in we should be aware of the game of hide and seek in which the government hopes to ensure that we should never find out its true culpability.”

The Press

Professor Michael Roberts makes the point that western journalists felt a sense of solidarity with beleaguered Sri Lankan journalists and were unlikely to give the Rajapaksa government the benefit of any doubt. I have dealt in detail elsewhere with the distorted churnalism that emerged as a result of this.

Professor Roberts cites the example of an article in the London Times in early July 2009, by Jeremy Page. Page told the world that 1,400 people were dying every week at the Menik Farm IDP camp. No evidence was provided to support this. No evidence could be provided because it was just not true. Page quickly moved on to deal with the Eastern province where there were no camps and the war had ended two years previously. The government had asked the Red Cross to scale down its operations in the east because the situation was under control. Page elided this with the canard about deaths at Menik Farm to give the impression that the government was callously booting out the Red Cross while people were dying.

The LTTE propaganda machine took global advantage of this.The western media were and are prone to see the Tamils (and thus the LTTE) as underdogs. My Toronto respondent said this: “ The LTTE collected millions during their tenure so that money still can be used to fight a different kind of war…. Many media organizations have been bought by the diaspora to work from them for example CP24 here in Toronto has connections , and the money can buy publicity easily while the truth takes a long time to emerge of its own.”

Displacement and Diversion

My Toronto respondent continued: “The US/UK  are getting hit for their own human rights blunders so they need something to hold on to. Even at the UN, while Syria was burning, they paid attention to Sri Lanka where there is peace now. They will make a big issue next time to play the cover up game of their own for sure. This will not stop for another generation until such time our kids grow up as they are the only diaspora that was not affected by war. They get the education they deserve and will one day work against it.”

Siobhan McDonagh tried to explain her support for the invasion of Iraq and her opposition to an inquiry: “Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made. I think that deposing a murderous tyrant such as Saddam Hussein and introducing democracy to that part of the world was the right thing to do.” That seems to distance herself from any direct personal responsibility. McDonagh declared: “We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs.” How about deposing that murderous tyrant Prabakharan? What about the Sri Lankan soldiers who fought in good faith?

Confirmation of the hypocrisy of the US, UK and EU always plays well in Sri Lanka; and the WikiLeaks cables revealed what everyone already knew about the use of cluster bombs and abuse of civilians by the US and UK. Freedom of speech is an important issue for the West when it deals with Sri Lanka, and there was much legitimate concern about the murder of the Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. Yet western politicians have called for Julian Assange to be assassinated and the whistleblower Chelsea (Bradley) Manning has not been  treated kindly.

Rod Liddle

I will leave the last word with Rod Liddle:  “Ah, off you go, Dave. The reason that you can go to Jaffna at all is that this Rajapaksa-wallah, over the course of three years, eliminated the terrorist threat of the Tamil Tigers. The country is now at peace, not merely economically stable but with a rate of economic growth that would inflame the loins of George Osborne. I dare say Rajapaksa has been a ruthless authoritarian, that not everything he has accomplished would earn the approval of the European Court of Human Rights. But for 26 years the murderous, maniacal Tamil Tigers waged war in Sri Lanka  -assassinations, suicide attacks, using children as hostages, planting bombs. And they were able to do so thanks to the money that flooded in largely from the UK via the Tamil diaspora in, mostly, London.

For decades we turned a blind eye to the relentless fundraising for these terrorists and the Tamil Tigers were themselves only proscribed as a terrorist organisation (rather than lauded as freedom fighters) in 2001, a year, incidentally, when we all opened our eyes to terrorism. So maybe after ticking off this gentleman for the way he runs his country, a short apology from Cameron might not go amiss.”

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.

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