Iraq, the MOD and class warfare

How the 'positive' story of the Iraq war could be taught to British children


Few would now dispute the case for the US-led invasion of Iraq was built on misinformation and half-truths but nearly five years on from the dodgy dossier, the government’s propaganda offensive has opened on a new front: the classroom.

"After Iraq was expelled from Kuwait, the United Nations passed a cease-fire resolution. This resolution obligated Iraq to discontinue its nuclear weapons program. Iraq did not honour the cease-fire agreement by surrendering their weapons of mass destruction, and so resolution 678 was revived by the US government."

"Invasion was necessary to allow the opportunity to remove Saddam Hussein, an oppressive dictator, from power, and to bring democracy to Iraq."

This isn’t an extract from Blair’s diaries or a White House press release. It comes from Defence Dynamics, an online teaching resource of forty lesson plans produced by the Ministry of Defence, which it hopes will reach thousands of GCSE classes from this September.

Now newstatesman.com has obtained a draft of an English lesson devised by children’s advertising agency Kids Connections, which has been commissioned by the MoD to produce and market the £200,000 project.

Part of a module entitled ‘Promoting peace and security in Iraq’ it instructs classes to hold a vote on the war, and to produce a piece writing arguing for or against the withdrawal of soldiers from the Gulf.

The teachers’ notes state: "Most students will vote against the ongoing maintenance of troops. Ask students to justify their opinions."

It continues: "Throughout the lesson, students should come to understand that this activity is representative of democracy on a micro scale and by voting, they have exercised their democratic right, a right that is newly available to Iraqis."

A student ‘fact sheet’ states that the occupation has resulted in “Over 150 healthcare facilities completed and many more are in progress. 20 hospitals rehabilitated. Immunisation programme re-started in 2003. 70 million new text books distributed to schools. Sewage and wastewater treatment plants operating again.”

Yet this rosy picture seems woefully at odds with a report by the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq, backed by Oxfam, which states that Iraq is facing a humanitarian crisis "of alarming scale and severity".

It finds that four million Iraqis are ‘food-insecure’ and that four million have fled, creating "the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world". The number of Iraqis without access to adequate water supplies has risen from 50 percent to 70 percent since 2003, while 80 percent lack effective sanitation; and of 180 hospitals countrywide, “90 percent lack key resources including medical and surgical supplies". Whilst one of the resources, an anti-war newspaper article, notes that a majority of Iraqis do not support the occupation, no mention of this human catastrophe, nor of the 600,000 Iraqi dead and the daily car bombings, hostage takings and assassinations, is made in the draft.

It is not known how closely the MoD has controlled the content of the lesson plans, or whether the original brief stipulated that it should aim to portray the occupation in an positive light.

On 2 August Schools Students Against the War (SSAW) part of the original Stop the War Coalition and now dedicated to campaigning against recruitment in schools, demonstrated outside the Camden offices of Kids Connections, whose clients include Asda, Nestle and Npower. A letter demanding that they sever relations with the MoD signed by Tony Benn and Lyndsey German was to be handed over. When no-one appeared it was pushed through the letter box.

"We are angry that the Army is being so underhand in getting children to join up under a false impression of what Iraq has become” said Tali Janner-Klausner, convener of SSAW. “The military has no place in education.”

Kids Connections last night declined to comment.

In February the New Statesman revealed how a retention crisis that saw a 12,000 soldiers leaving the Army last year alone, was forcing the military recruiters to target children as young as 14 via their Camouflage youth information scheme and schools visits to barracks.

Defence Dynamics has been introduced to replace the Defence Schools Presentation Teams, which toured 460 secondary schools a year at a cost of £2.1m. Derek Twigg, parliamentary undersecretary of state for defence, told Parliament that the teams “allow us to get our message over about the importance of defence” and that “civilian and military staff are seen as excellent role models and there are consequently significant benefits for future recruiting.”

He further noted that Defence Dynamics “will enable us to reach many more children than are visited by the touring Defence Presentation Schools Teams, and at a significantly lower cost.”

However, the MoD denies that Defence Dynamics is an attempt to target potential soldiers. A letter from Twigg to Conservative MP Mark Harper stated “Neither the Presentation Teams nor Defence Dynamics have a direct link to recruiting into the Armed Forces, and it is not their purpose. We therefore have not measured a recruiting effect as the teams’ purpose is to increase awareness and understanding of our work.”

Asked why else the MoD would wish to increase awareness of its work amongst school children, a spokesman said: “I can’t explain it any other way: it’s literally to raise our profile and let people know what we do, the same as any other company.”

“We recognise that this isn’t necessarily a direct attempt at recruitment” says Sam Fairbairn, who organised the demo. “It’s propaganda to give a falsely positive image of Iraq, so when the Army attends careers days children have been softened up and are less hostile to the military.”

Kids Connections had asked the Stop the War Coalition to contribute a leaflet from a 2006 demo to the English teaching resources, stating that “there is categorically no recruitment agenda to this initiative.” The Coalition declined, citing the “inherent pro-war bias within the project.”

The MoD is by no means the first controversial group to target schools: British Nuclear Fuels, BP and arms manufacturers BAe and Rolls Royce have also produced online teaching resources explaining the importance of their work.

Despite claims by the MoD that pilot schemes have had a ‘very positive’ feedback, teachers are unimpressed.

“As a lesson plan it’s insanely complicated,” says Victoria Elliott, a secondary English teacher. “The focus is not really on the skills supposedly being taught, but is instead about getting information across, which is completely irrelevant to English teaching.”

“Lots of firms try and get us to use their material but it always reflects their interests and agenda. The insidious comments about Iraqi’s new-found democracy made me laugh aloud. I certainly wouldn’t allow myself to be used a recruiting sergeant in the classroom.”

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.