How Britain wages war: John Pilger interrogates military tradition

The military has created a wall of silence around its frequent resort to barbaric practices.

Five photographs together break a silence. The first is of a former Gurkha regimental sergeant major, Tul Bahadur Pun, aged 87. He sits in a wheelchair outside 10 Downing Street. He holds a board full of medals, including the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery, which he won serving in the British army.

He has been refused entry to Britain and treatment for a serious heart ailment by the National Health Service: outrages rescinded only after a public campaign. On 25 June, he came to Down ing Street to hand his Victoria Cross back to the Prime Minister, but Gordon Brown refused to see him.

The second photograph is of a 12-year-old boy, one of three children. They are Kuchis, nomads of Afghanistan. They have been hit by Nato bombs, American or British, and nurses are trying to peel away their roasted skin with tweezers. On the night of 10 June, Nato planes struck again, killing at least 30 civilians in a single village: children, women, schoolteachers, students. On 4 July, another 22 civilians died like this. All, including the roasted children, are described as "militants" or "suspected Taliban". The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, says the invasion of Afghan istan is "the noble cause of the 21st century".

The third photograph is of a computer-generated aircraft carrier not yet built, one of two of the biggest ships ever ordered for the Royal Navy. The £4bn contract is shared by BAE Systems, whose sale of 72 fighter jets to the corrupt tyranny in Saudi Arabia has made Britain the biggest arms merchant on earth, selling mostly to oppressive regimes in poor countries. At a time of economic crisis, Browne describes the carriers as "an affordable expenditure".

The fourth photograph is of a young British soldier, Gavin Williams, who was "beasted" to death by three non-commissioned officers. This "informal summary punishment", which sent his body temperature to more than 41 degrees, was intended to "humiliate, push to the limit and hurt". The torture was described in court as a fact of army life.

The final photograph is of an Iraqi man, Baha Mousa, who was tortured to death by British soldiers. Taken during his post-mortem, it shows some of the 93 horrific injuries he suffered at the hands of men of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment who beat and abused him for 36 hours, including double-hooding him with hessian sacks in stifling heat. He was a hotel receptionist. Although his murder took place almost five years ago, it was only in May this year that the Ministry of Defence responded to the courts and agreed to an independent inquiry. A judge has described this as a "wall of silence".

A court martial convicted just one soldier of Mousa's "inhumane treatment", and he has since been quietly released. Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers, representing the families of Iraqis who have died in British custody, says the evidence is clear - abuse and torture by the British army is systemic.

Shiner and his colleagues have witness statements and corroborations of prima facie crimes of an especially atrocious kind usually associated with the Americans. "The more cases I am dealing with, the worse it gets," he says. These include an "incident" near the town of Majar al-Kabir in 2004, when British soldiers executed as many as 20 Iraqi prisoners after mutilating them. The latest is that of a 14-year-old boy who was forced to simulate anal and oral sex over a prolonged period.

"At the heart of the US and UK project," says Shiner, "is a desire to avoid accountability for what they want to do. Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary renditions are part of the same struggle to avoid accountability through jurisdiction." British soldiers, he says, use the same torture techniques as the Americans and deny that the European Convention on Human Rights, the Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on Torture apply to them. And British torture is "commonplace": so much so, that "the routine nature of this ill-treatment helps to explain why, despite the abuse of the soldiers and cries of the detainees being clearly audible, nobody, particularly in authority, took any notice".

 

 

Arcane rituals

 

Unbelievably, says Shiner, the Ministry of Defence under Tony Blair decided that the 1972 Heath government's ban on certain torture techniques applied only in the UK and Northern Ireland. Consequently, "many Iraqis were killed and tortured in UK detention facilities". Shiner is working on 46 horrific cases.

A wall of silence has always surrounded the British military, its arcane rituals, rites and practices and, above all, its contempt for the law and natural justice in its various imperial pursuits. For 80 years, the Ministry of Defence and compliant ministers refused to countenance posthumous pardons for terrified boys shot at dawn during the slaughter of the First World War. British soldiers used as guinea pigs during the testing of nuclear weapons in the Indian Ocean were abandoned, as were many others who suffered the toxic effects of the 1991 Gulf War. The treatment of Gurkha Tul Bahadur Pun is typical. Having been sent back to Nepal, many of these "soldiers of the Queen" have no pension, are deeply impoverished and are refused residence or medical help in the country for which they fought and for which 43,000 of them have died or been injured. The Gurkhas have won no fewer than 26 Victoria Crosses, yet Browne's "affordable expenditure" excludes them.

An even more imposing wall of silence ensures that the British public remains largely unaware of the industrial killing of civilians in Britain's modern colonial wars. In his landmark work Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses, the historian Mark Curtis uses three main categories: direct responsibility, indirect responsibility and active inaction.

"The overall figure [since 1945] is between 8.6 and 13.5 million," Curtis writes. "Of these, Britain bears direct responsibility for between four million and six million deaths. This figure is, if anything, likely to be an underestimate. Not all British interventions have been included, because of lack of data." Since his study was published, the Iraq death toll has reached, by reliable measure, a million men, women and children.

The spiralling rise of militarism within Britain is rarely acknowledged, even by those alerting the public to legislation attacking basic civil liberties, such as the recently drafted Data Com muni cations Bill, which will give the government powers to keep records of all electronic communication. Like the plans for identity cards, this is in keeping what the Americans call "the national security state", which seeks the control of domestic dissent while pursuing military aggression abroad. The £4bn aircraft carriers are to have a "global role". For global read colonial. The Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office follow Washington's line almost to the letter, as in Browne's preposterous description of Afghanistan as a noble cause. In reality, the US-inspired Nato invasion has had two effects: the killing and dispossession of large numbers of Afghans, and the return of the opium trade, which the Taliban had banned. According to Hamid Karzai, the west's puppet leader, Britain's role in Helmand Province has led directly to the return of the Taliban.

 

 

Loans for arms

 

The militarising of how the British state perceives and treats other societies is vividly demonstrated in Africa, where ten out of 14 of the most impoverished and conflict-ridden countries are seduced into buying British arms and military equipment with "soft loans". Like the British royal family, the British Prime Minister simply follows the money. Having ritually condemned a despot in Zimbabwe for "human rights abuses" - in truth, for no longer serving as the west's business agent - and having obeyed the latest US dictum on Iran and Iraq, Brown set off recently for Saudi Arabia, exporter of Wahhabi fundamentalism and wheeler of fabulous arms deals.

To complement this, the Brown government is spending £11bn of taxpayers' money on a huge, pri vatised military academy in Wales, which will train foreign soldiers and mercenaries recruited to the bogus "war on terror". With arms companies such as Raytheon profiting, this will become Britain's "School of the Americas", a centre for counter-insurgency (terrorist) training and the design of future colonial adventures.

It has had almost no publicity.

Of course, the image of militarist Britain clashes with a benign national regard formed, wrote Tolstoy, "from infancy, by every possible means - class books, church services, sermons, speeches, books, papers, songs, poetry, monuments [leading to] people stupefied in the one direction". Much has changed since he wrote that. Or has it? The shabby, destructive colonial war in Afghanistan is now reported almost entirely through the British army, with squaddies always doing their Kipling best, and with the Afghan resistance routinely dismissed as "outsiders" and "invaders". Pictures of nomadic boys with Nato-roasted skin almost never appear in the press or on television, nor the after-effects of British thermobaric weapons, or "vacuum bombs", designed to suck the air out of human lungs. Instead, whole pages mourn a British military intelligence agent in Afghanis tan, because she happens to have been a 26-year-old woman, the first to die in active service since the 2001 invasion.

Baha Mousa, tortured to death by British soldiers, was also 26 years old. But he was different. His father, Daoud, says that the way the Ministry of Defence has behaved over his son's death convinces him that the British government regards the lives of others as "cheap". And he is right.

www.johnpilger.com

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’

New Statesman composite.
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What to read in 2017

From rebellion and religion to swimming and surrealism – these are the books to look out for in the new year.

How does the publishing industry reflect on such a politically momentous year? One urgent task is to tell us about our new leaders. Six months after the United Kingdom’s second female prime minister took office, Biteback supplies, on 24 January, her first serious biography, Theresa May: the Path to Power, by Rosa Prince. Given how little we know about this very private politician, it will be pored over for insights.

Sadiq Khan’s story is better known – I remember him saying something about being a “bus driver’s son” – but George Eaton, the New Statesman’s political editor, has delved deeper for his biography (Sadiq: the Making of a Mayor and London’s Rebirth, also from Biteback), based on exclusive access to Khan and more than 100 interviews with those around him. It is expected in May, to mark the one-year anniversary of Khan taking office as the first Muslim Mayor of London.

Since becoming a Labour MP in 1982 and joining a House of Commons that was 97 per cent male, Harriet Harman has fought for women’s rights and helped to drag parliamentary culture out of the Stone Age. Her account of those struggles, A Woman’s Work, will be published by Allen Lane next month. Jess Phillips, the 35-year-old self-described “gobby MP”, brings the feminist fight into the digital age with Everywoman (Hutchinson, March). At the “old guard” end, another Westminster memoir worth noting is Chris Patten’s First Confession (Allen Lane, June). And although it looked for a moment as if Vince Cable might have written a whole book about his time on Strictly, it turns out that Open Arms (Corvus, June) is a work of fiction: a political thriller about Westminster, India and big business.

Last year, Miles Cole assembled a cover for the NS in which Iain Duncan Smith, Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan figured as the three heads of a Brexit hydra. How blessed we are that the last two have books out: Hannan’s Europe primer What Next (out now) is joined by Carswell’s “radical manifesto” Rebel in April, both published – appropriately – by Head of Zeus.

What next, indeed? For the US, it’s too early to answer that question, but Melville House has put together a gutsy collection, What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump’s America, with contributions by 27 leading progressives, including Bernie Sanders and Gloria Steinem, suggesting paths of resistance. It’s due to be published on 17 January, just before the presidential inauguration.

Resistance will be in the air, not least because 2017 is the centenary of the two uprisings that became known as the Russian Revolution (in February and October). The avalanche that began last year will continue with Victor Sebestyen’s Lenin the Dictator: an Intimate Portrait (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, February), Robert Service’s The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution (Macmillan, also February) and China Miéville’s narrative take on the events of 1917, October: the Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, May). Other books on Lenin are due from Tariq Ali (The Dilemmas of Lenin, Verso, April) and Slavoj Žižek (Lenin 2017, Verso, July). His ideas were built on those of Marx, so it’s neat that 2017 also marks the 150th anniversary of Das Kapital. New reflections on that work include Marx and Capital by David Harvey (Profile, July).

In 1917 Russia was in the grip of financial crisis, revolution and terror and a world war was raging. A century later, are we going the same way? It is clear, at least, that many of our liberal assumptions about progress are being upturned. Age of Anger: a History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra (Allen Lane, January) explores the origins of our “great wave of paranoid hatreds”, while populist politics and nationalism are examined in The Road to Somewhere (Hurst, March) by David Goodhart, The Rise of the ­Outsiders: the Anti-Establishment and Its March to Power (Atlantic, June) by Steve Richards and Grave New World: the End of Globalisation and the Return of Economic Conflict (Yale University Press, May) by Stephen D King. The former Economist editor Bill Emmott offers a slightly less gloomy spin in The Fate of the West, which considers the decline but also the possible “revival” of liberal democracy (Profile, March).

Having got his grandly titled history of the eurozone – And the Weak Suffer What They Must? – out of the way last year, the former Greek finance minister Yanis ­Varoufakis unleashes the gossip, telling the “extraordinary tale of brinkmanship and backstabbing” behind the 2015 EU negotiations in Adults in the Room (Bodley Head, May). A fellow economist, Evan Davis of Newsnight, adopts the phrase of 2016 for his book Post-Truth (Little, Brown, August), about how “bullshit” became “the communications strategy of our imes”.

There is plenty of “post-truth” written about Britain’s Muslims, as was illustrated last month when the Mail Online paid out £150,000 to a family that the columnist Katie Hopkins had accused groundlessly of having extremist links. Attempts to bring some honesty and clarity come from Sayeeda Warsi, Britain’s first Muslim cabinet minister, in The Enemy Within (Allen Lane, March), and Omar Saif Ghobash, in his Letters to a Young Muslim (Picador, January). Another counterblast to those who see Islam as incapable of modernising, The Islamic Enlightenment (Bodley Head, February) by Christopher de Bellaigue shows that, from the 19th century onwards, the faith has been transformed by progressive thinking.

These books will sadly be outweighed by writings on Islamic State, of which The Way of the Strangers by the Atlantic correspondent Graeme Wood (Allen Lane, January) is the most anticipated. Catherine Nixey has found a historical parallel with the destruction wreaked by IS: The Darkening Age (Macmillan, September) describes how a militant religion “comprehensively and deliberately extinguished” the teachings of the classical world, “ushering in centuries of unquestioning adherence to ‘one true faith’”. That religion was, of course, Christianity.

In biography, we will get two grand surrealists and two great engineers. The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead (Virago, April) coincides with the centenary of the painter and writer, while ­Jenny Uglow takes on the author of “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” in Edward Lear: a Life of Art and Nonsense (Faber & Faber, October). Bloomsbury pits two engineering geniuses, one Scottish and the other American, against each other, with Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover (January) – which celebrates the “colossus of roads” and designer of the 1826 Menai Suspension Bridge – and Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge (June), in which the NS contributing writer Erica Wagner tells the story of Washington Roebling against a backdrop of civil war, family strife and superhuman achievement in construction. Peter Ackroyd is already London’s biographer laureate but in Queer City (Chatto & Windus, May), he views the capital through its gay population, from the pleasure-filled lupanaria (“wolf dens”) of Roman times to the present day.

Sexuality errs towards the non-binary these days and a raft of books reflects that. Trans Like Me by C N Lester (Virago, May) is joined by The Gender Games by Juno Dawson (Two Roads, July) and Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee (Canongate, May). There’s possibly more fun to be had in One of the Boys by the comic actor Robert Webb (Canongate, July), a coming-of-age memoir that builds on a piece he wrote for the NS in 2014: “How not to be a boy”.

Two other memoirs stand out. When the cultural theorist Stuart Hall died in 2014 he left behind a manuscript – Familiar Stranger: a Life Between Two Islands (Allen Lane, April) tells the story of his early life, from growing up in 1930s Jamaica to dealing with the thorny politics of 1950s and 1960s England. Glimpses of a great English institution are given in Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre (Jonathan Cape, May) by Nicholas Hytner, who stepped down as artistic director in 2015.

Beyond our cities, we have become a nation of dippers and 2017 is the year of the swim-moir. There’s Turning: a Swimming Memoir by Jessica J Lee (Virago, May), Leap In: a Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim by Alexandra Heminsley (Hutchinson, January) and I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice (Chatto & Windus, July), an Irish writer’s account of her “Tragic Wives’ Swimming Club”. In June Philip Hoare, the King Neptune of literature, returns with RisingTideFallingStar (Fourth Estate), a wide-ranging examination of our relationship with this watery planet.

On dry land, too, big ideas flourish. In Selfie (Picador, June) Will Storr traces the roots of our “age of perfectionism”, and Adam Alter’s Irresistible (Bodley Head, March) looks at addiction in the ­internet age. Bullshit Jobs: a Theory by David Graeber (Allen Lane, September) explains why we are trapped in a cycle of meaningless work, and in The Knowledge Illusion (Macmillan, April) the cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach claim that true intelligence “resides not in the individual but in the collective mind.”

The essay continues to enjoy a renaissance. There are offerings from the author of The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, Faber & Faber, April); Rebecca Solnit, whose Mother of All Questions (Granta, October) is a collection of “further feminist essays”; Teju Cole, whose “multimedia diary” Blind Spot, coming from Faber & Faber in July, pairs images with text; and Martin Amis, who has assembled his criticism and reportage from 1986 to 2016 in The Rub of Time (due from Jonathan Cape in the autumn). Amis is also working on a novel about three of his friends – Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow and Philip Larkin – all of whom have died since he began writing it. “That gives me a theme,” he said recently. “Death.”

In fiction, the year begins with Paul Auster’s first novel in seven years, 4 3 2 1 (Faber & Faber, January), charting a baby boomer’s four divergent life paths. From the US, too (now that an American has won the Man Booker Prize we’d better pay closer attention), there comes Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury, March), the debut novel by the short-story supremo George Saunders. Set in 1862 in a cemetery in Washington, it has drawn high praise from first readers. Also arriving with Stateside acclaim is Homegoing (Viking, January), a story of two sisters and the slave trade in the Gold Coast by the first-time novelist Yaa Gyasi.

If we are – pace Stephen D King and others – seeing the end of globalisation, it’s not showing in fiction, which in 2017 feels anything but insular. The Indian author Arun­dhati Roy returns to fiction, 20 years after The God of Small Things, with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton, June), described as “a love story and a provocation”, while the new novel by the Man Booker-shortlisted author Neel Mukherjee, A State of Freedom (Chatto & Windus, September), is a “fierce and often devastating portrayal of contemporary India”. From Turkey, Orhan Pamuk’s The Red-Haired Woman (Faber & Faber, September) is a short philosophical novel about a murder that took place 30 years ago near Istanbul. Emerging from the Iraq War is Spoils (Jonathan Cape, May), a debut novel by a former US sergeant, Brian Van Reet, centring on three characters: a young female soldier, a jihadi and a male tank crewman. Germany and the UK are the settings for the first novel by the prize-winning biographer (and contributor to these pages) Lucy Hughes-Hallett – Peculiar Ground (Fourth Estate, May), which spans the 17th and 20th centuries.

And here’s a rare event: the publication of fiction from North Korea. A cache of stories by the dissident writer “Bandi” has been smuggled out and translated by Deborah Smith, and will be published by Serpent’s Tail in March under the title The Accusation. (Smith also translates Han Kang, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016; a new novel by the South Korean writer is to come from Portobello in November.)

Elsewhere, strong literary names dot the lists. There are novels by Jon McGregor (Reservoir 13, Fourth Estate, April), Hari Kunz­ru (White Tears, Hamish Hamilton, April), Will Self (Phone, Viking, June), William Boyd (The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, Viking, September) and Ali Smith (Winter, Hamish Hamilton, November). We just have to hope that bookshops aren’t too busy ordering extra copies of Into the Water (Doubleday, May), Paula Hawkins’s follow-up to The Girl on the Train, to notice.

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain