Mark Thomas - Who really supports "our boys"?

Support "our boys"? I want UK troops back where they belong, away from the danger of being killed an

Those of you who attended the million and a half anti-war march in London in February will remember the quizzical glances shot at the Lib Dems.

It wasn't just that many hadn't been on a demonstration before - indeed, for some of them it was the first time that they had attended a social gathering with more than three people present.

It wasn't just their odd placards: "Lib Dems say: No war for oil (unless the UN says so and we cut harmful emissions with tougher filter and exhaust checks)."

No, it was the realisation that their presence within the peace movement was going to be a brief one. Charles Kennedy's position on the war, to oppose it and then support it once our troops go in, is such opportunistic nonsense that it makes Clare Short look principled and consistent by comparison.

In turn, Short is the only politician who can do the same job for Robin Cook, who has finally discovered an ethical dimension to British foreign policy - a mere five and a half years too late.

Without the much-vaunted second resolution, allegedly giving Britain the legal right to use military force, Blair is forced to rely on people's instincts to rally round the flag and "support our boys" - to back his support for Bush's war. Amid the barrage of propaganda streaming out from the government and most of the media, it is worth remembering that those who scream "support our boys" loudest rarely give a damn for them.

The Ministry of Defence, currently committing UK troops to war, was in the high court on 5 February, challenging the now legally recognised status of Gulf war syndrome, whose existence it has consistently denied for 12 years.

So ask a Gulf war veteran who has pissed depleted uranium particles if he feels supported.

Where are those people who are screaming "support our boys" when ex-servicemen and women fall through the safety net to form the highest group among the homeless? When was the last time the Sun ran a headline about the alarming number of post-traumatic stress disorder cases coming out of the armed forces?

Opponents of the war truly "support our boys" because they want them away from the dangers of being killed and maimed and away from the greater possibility of killing and maiming civilians. I want UK troops where they belong, back home playing table football or bouncing on trampolines, and jumping vaulting horses live in the Blue Peter studio.

Let us cast our minds back to the activities of that ardent supporter of "our boys", the arms company BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace). Back in the 1990s, BAE was helping to arm Saddam Hussein through a company called Arab British Dynamics (ABD). ABD was a joint-venture company formed in 1978 by the Arab Organisation for Industrialisation (an Egyptian- based firm backed by Gulf funding) and BAE, which owned 30 per cent of the venture.

According to Jane's, the defence bible, BAE withdrew from the company in 1992 when the post-Gulf war British government discovered that ABD was helping Saddam Hussein with his Scud missile programme.

More important, though, is ABD's development and marketing of its anti-tank guided missile, called the Swingfire. It appears that BAE provided the technology for the Swingfire, which was developed under British licence. In 1983, the Financial Times noted that Swingfire missiles were supposedly heading to Sudan and Iraq. Jane's has subsequently confirmed Saddam Hussein's possession of the weapons. So BAE helped Saddam with his anti-tank missiles as well as his Scuds. Incredibly, no laws were broken as no parts, equipment or components were exported.

Then, in December 2001, a Daily Telegraph report appeared listing some of the items found at a "cleared" al-Qaeda centre in Afghanistan. Among the items were a "glossy brochure for Arab British Dynamics extolling the benefits of the company's Swingfire guided missile" and an operating manual for the system. Thus, it is possible that al-Qaeda could have Swingfire missiles, thanks to BAE. The government's Export Control Act does not cover the issue of licensed production of arms; so as long as nothing actually leaves the UK, British companies can export their technology and create foreign-based companies to avoid any UK or EU rules governing arms exports.

They can arm the dictators, who will oppress the people, whose liberation will serve as the excuse to send "our boys" to face the missiles they sold and try to bomb the civilians to freedom. You can be sure of one thing: other than family and friends, anyone who shouts "support our boys" is either a fool or a callous cynic of the worst kind.