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He has been refused entry to Britain and treatment for a serious heart ailment by the National Health Service: outrages rescinded only after a public campaign.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’

CHARLIE FORGHAM-BAILEY FOR NEW STATESMAN
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This 85-year-old wants to climb Everest (again). Is it time to rethink old age?

Consider this. In 1914, the chance of a child living to 100 was 1 per cent. My son has a 50 per cent chance of making it to 104.

In 1952, the Swiss doctor and Alpinist Edouard Wyss-Dunant established the concept of the “death zone”, the altitude above which human beings are unable to acclimatise because of the lack of oxygen. The mark is generally set at 8,000 metres, a height exceeded by only 14 mountains, all of them in the Himalayan or Karakoram ranges in Asia. Of these, at that time, only Annapurna had been scaled, conquered in 1950. But by the end of the decade just two of the ­eight-thousanders were still up for grabs: Shishapangma in Tibet and Nepal’s Dhaulagiri, at 8,167 metres the world’s highest unclimbed peak.

Known as the “White Mountain”, and notorious for avalanches and fierce winds, Dhaulagiri had defeated seven previous expeditions before a Swiss-led attempt in 1960. The party included 13 climbers, with an average age of 30, and a handful of Nepalese sherpa guides. As was customary, the government also insisted they take along a liaison officer, in this case a 28-year-old former soldier called Min Bahadur Sherchan.

Climbing teams usually regarded the liaison officers as a hindrance, “happiest when there is little to do and much to earn”, as the expedition leader Max Eiselin noted in his book about the summit attempt.

But Sherchan, who learned English while serving with the Gurkhas in the ­British army, was different. “He was co-operative and precise and his strong Mongolian features suggested a capable mountaineer; he very quickly became one of us,” Eiselin wrote.

To avoid wasting energy hauling supplies up the mountain on foot, Eiselin brought from Switzerland a light aircraft capable of landing in the snow and taking off on very short runways. But after several successful deliveries, and with the team preparing for its assault on the summit, the plane went missing, presumed crashed.

Sherchan and a porter were sent down the mountain to try to find the wreckage, which they did, before descending to a village in the valley where they could notify the foreign ministry. Instead of staying there, they decided to head back up, equipped only with an ice axe and a ski stick.

With no climbing experience, no footprints to guide them or rope to arrest their falls, the pair spent three days and nights crossing treacherous ice fields and crevasse-streaked glaciers, striding ahead “past all the lurking dangers, like lost children full of the joy of life going unwittingly to their doom”, Eiselin wrote. “All they had was their great strength, good and warm clothing, and an almost frivolous trust in their God.”

Late on the fourth night of their march, in thick mist and -35° Celsius cold, the two men ascended the mountain’s north-east col and stumbled upon the expedition tents at 5,700 metres.

“It was easy for me. I was stronger than the sherpas,” Sherchan, who is now 85, recalls one morning in late February while sitting in the narrow storeroom of a supermarket in Aldershot, Hampshire.

As a non-climbing member of Eiselin’s team, he was not given the opportunity to accompany the six men who completed Dhaulagiri’s first ascent on 13 May 1960. But he did go on to become a celebrated mountaineer in his own right.

It took him 48 years. In 2008, aged 76, Sherchan climbed into the death zone for the first time, becoming the oldest person to scale Mount Everest. Now, nine years on, he is heading back for another attempt.

Standing up in the storeroom aisle, surrounded by packets of rice and bottles of cooking oil, the 85-year-old flexes his right arm. “Feel it,” he says, smiling. His bicep is as firm as a new tennis ball.

 

***

 

There’s a scene early on in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the boy’s four grandparents are lying in the same bed, “shrivelled as prunes, and as bony as skele­tons”. Like all extremely old people, they are delicate and weak, Roald Dahl reminds readers. This would have rung true when the book appeared in 1964 and also when my parents read it to me about 15 years later. Even for the most vital old people, a game of bowls was the limit of their exertions. What did seem fantastical to me were the ages of Charlie Bucket’s grandparents – all of them over 90, with Grandpa Joe 96 and a half. As a child, I knew nobody that old.

Today, as I read the book to my six-year-old son, it seems as though Dahl was merely ahead of his time regarding demographics. For much of the past 200 years, advances in tackling infant mortality and chronic diseases of the middle-aged, as well as improved nutrition, income and public health systems, have added two years to life expectancy every decade. As Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott note in their fascinating book, The 100-Year Life, published last year, we are now “in the midst of a extraordinary transition” in longevity.

Consider this. In 1914, the chance of a child living to 100 was 1 per cent. My son has a 50 per cent chance of making it to 104. Even someone my age – 42 – in the West has a near-even chance of living as long as Grandpa Joe, and a 60-year-old is as likely as not to witness another three decades on Earth. Within the next three years, for the first time, the global number of adults aged over 65 will exceed that of children under five.

This change in lifespans has huge implications for society. We will have to work longer and save more for retirement. And what of our health? Will we be confined to bed in our final years, delicate and weak, like Charlie’s grandparents? Probably not. As Gratton and Scott note, it’s not just that people will live longer: they will be healthier for even longer. Citing various studies, including US research that showed a sharp fall in the proportion of over-85-year-olds classified as disabled between 1984 and 2004, they write: “Older people seem to be fitter and also can achieve more as technology and public support improves.”

And some of them – the mountaineer Min Bahadur Sherchan and other “super-agers” – are demonstrating that “fitter” means not merely staying upright, but also fitter in the sporting sense. Their extraordinary achievements have led scientists to reassess the possibilities of performance and ageing.

Take Ed Whitlock. Born in London, he excelled at cross-country as a teenager. After moving to Canada following university, however, he stopped running, only taking it up again in his forties.

By then, he was already past his ­athletic peak. Michael Joyner, a ­physician-­researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota who studies human performance, says that our aerobic capacity – the functional capacity of our heart, lungs and blood vessels – generally declines by 10 per cent a decade from our thirties onwards. Our muscle tone drops in our forties and fifties, as does our speed, co-ordination and flexibility.

“We know, however, that the rate of decline into our seventies can be moderated by training and exercise,” Joyner told me.

After retiring in his sixties, Whitlock started to run seriously. In 2003, he became the first man over 70 to dip under three hours for a marathon. The next year, aged 73, he shaved four minutes off that time and clocked 2:54:48. It is regarded as one of the greatest runs ever by an athlete of any age.

A friendly, laid-back man of slight build and with flowing white hair, Whitlock had no coach and no strict diet and favoured well-worn shoes. What he was disciplined about was his training. Asked by a journalist for his secret to a happy marriage, he said: “It probably helps that I go out like a bloody fool and run for something like three hours every day.”

Whitlock’s times slowed, of course. But in October, aged 85, and just a few months before he died of prostate cancer, he ran a sub-four-hour marathon, the oldest person ever to do so.

At the same stage in her life, Olga Kotelko was barely getting started. In 2009 at the World Masters Games in Sydney, she ran the 100 metres in 23.95 seconds – at the age of 90 – faster than some of the finalists in the race for women a decade younger. Born in 1919, one of 11 siblings, she grew up on a farm in Canada and lived an active, if not sporty life until her late seventies, when she started to take track and field seriously.

According to a New York Times profile, she hit the gym three times a week and did punishing routines of planks, squats and bench presses. Even in her nineties she did push-ups and sit-ups, keeping her body strong and probably her mind, too. When researchers studied her brain in 2012, they found it had shrunk less than those of others her age. Two years later, aged 95, she became the oldest ever female competitor in the indoor sprints, long jump, high jump and triple jump at the World Masters Athletics Championships. (She died the following month.)

Perhaps the most remarkable late-life achievements of all are by ­Robert Marchand. Born in 1911, the five-foot Frenchman fought fires in Paris before being taken prisoner during the Second World War, drove trucks in Venezuela, chopped trees in Canada, and tended gardens and sold wine. Only after he retired at 70 did he return to cycling, his pastime as a young man. He rode most days, on the streets or on an indoor trainer, usually at a relaxed pace. He kept going through his eighties and his nineties, maintaining a diet heavy on fruit and vegetables and light on meat and coffee.

In 2012, he set the one-hour record for cyclists over 100, completing 15.1 miles. Then Véronique Billat stepped in. A professor of exercise science at the University of Paris-Saclay in France, Billat had found that older athletes could increase their aerobic fitness with intense exercise, but had never studied anyone as old as Marchand.

She tested his VO2 max – a measure of how efficiently our bodies use oxygen, and a strong indicator of fitness – and his pedaling power. She then gave him a new training regimen. Four in five of his workouts were still performed at an easy pace, but for the other one he pedalled much faster. After two years, and 6,000 miles on the bike, ­Billat tested Marchand again.

He had improved his peak power output by 39 per cent. His VO2 max was 13 per cent higher and in the same range as a sedentary man less than half his age. Marchand then made another attempt at the world record, now aged 102. This time he covered 16.7 miles.

In a paper published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in December, Billat and her fellow researchers said they had proved for the first time that it was possible to improve the performance of a centenarian through better training. Beyond breaking records, the quest for progress served to “add life to the life”, rather than trying to “kill the death”, they wrote.

“Robert treats each minute of life as though it’s his last,” Billat told me. “And he does not take himself too seriously.”

She credits the surge in competitive older athletes to several factors: an increase in ­leisure time, better health, the popularity of sports such as running and, crucially, disposable income. But she wonders whether it will continue if pensions become smaller.

“Super-agers” such as Whitlock, Kotelko and Marchand also share another characteristic, says Joyner, the physician at the Mayo Clinic. “If you look at a lot of them, they are humble on one level but also, in a way, pleasantly aggressive. It’s like: ‘Limitations? Who says?’”

 

***

 

That could be Min Bahadur Sherchan’s motto. He grew up poor in the village of Tatopani in the central Nepali district of Myagdi. In 1948, aged 17, and having spent a total of two months in school, he was recruited by the British army and sent for training in the Malay Peninsula before joining the Queen’s Gurkha Signals.

After five years he returned to Nepal ­hoping to study and then see the world. When his plans fell through he became involved in politics and, through his government contacts, was assigned to the Dhaulagiri expedition.

Afterwards, Sherchan forgot about moun­taineering and set about providing for his wife and seven children. He established an apple farm, which failed. “People thought I was crazy,” he says. “Apples were then a new thing in Nepal.”

Overseeing road construction was less interesting but paid the bills. By the time Sherchan retired he was living in the capital, Kathmandu. Though he often drank alcohol, he had never smoked and he kept up a stretching regime. He felt fit. And one day, when he was 72, something clicked in his head. “I should summit Everest. Yes, why not summit Everest?”

At that point, nobody older than 65 had climbed the peak. Ignoring protests from his wife, children and friends, he began to prepare, walking alone across Nepal from north to south and east to west to prove his fitness. He struggled to convince the government, though, and only in 2008 was the permit for his “Senior Citizen Everest Expedition” approved. The climb went smoothly and on 25 May of that year he crossed into the death zone and stood on the summit.

Back home, Sherchan resolved to stay healthy in case he had the chance to climb again, cutting rice from his diet in favour of maize, wheat and other grains, and cooking all his own food. Every night he drank a glass of hot milk with sugar.

In 2013 he saw his opportunity. The 80-year-old Japanese adventurer Yuichiro Miura, whose record Sherchan had broken, announced that he would attempt Everest again. Sherchan decided to defend his title. (He is a year older than Miura.)

Miura reached the top and took the record – though he had to be airlifted to safety on the descent. But Sherchan didn’t get to climb because of a bureaucratic mix-up with dates. He tried again in 2015, but the terrible earthquake that struck Nepal ended the climbing season early.

In mid-April, Sherchan will once more head to base camp. He is confident of success, thanks to his fitness regime. At the supermarket in Aldershot, owned by an ex-Gurkha hosting his brief fundraising visit to the UK, he demonstrates the twice-daily workout he has performed for the past five years: swinging his arms marching style, lifting them from his sides and rotating them in circles, stretching his hands above his head, doing squats and bicep curls.

Since the start of the year he has added two-hour walks carrying a 25-kilogram backpack to his training, in the hills or up and down the stairs of a five-storey building.

Does he not feel that age is against him? “Three things can stop you on Everest: your heart, breathing issues or the altitude,” he says. “I don’t have problems with any of these, and though I don’t have any special powers, I’m fit and have determination.”

He hopes to make Nepal proud and inspire elderly people. And even if he doesn’t make it this time, there’s always next year.

“Until I’m 87, it will be OK. After that, you never know.”

Xan Rice is the features editor of the New Statesman

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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