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 New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times