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has been refused entry to Britain and treatment for a serious heart ailment by the National Health Service: outrages rescinded only after a public campaign.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

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Deep blue

Why Theresa May is only the second most powerful politician in Maidenhead.

The last train to London Paddington left Cookham at 8.31am a couple of Fridays ago. And in this case, last train means last train. The Bourne End Flyer, the direct service from the pretty little branch that veers away from the Great Western main line at Maidenhead, is no more. Henceforth, passengers will have to trudge off one train at Maidenhead station twice a day and on to another: not a catastrophe, but a hindrance, a small loss of douceur de vivre.

There were no fanfares for the final Flyer, no mourners, no anger. Great Western sent a couple of staff members to offer counselling and new timetables to the commuters of Bourne End, Cookham and Furze Platt, who looked weary, resigned and dead-eyed as commuters do on a Friday morning. The arguments had come late last year when the earlier direct train had bitten the dust, coinciding with a decision to charge for parking at Cookham. “I think it’s going to be OK now,” said Barry, the cheery ticket clerk. “But I’ve got a Plan B. If there’s any trouble, I’ll hide in the broom cupboard.”

Protesters were partly mollified by the offer of a dedicated train waiting at Maidenhead for them. “It will be reasonably civilised, but not as civilised,” said Paul Willmott, an old-school Cookham-to-the-City type. “And I suspect it will work fine for about six months.”

Cookham, one of the most beautiful and insanely expensive villages, even by the standards of Thames-side East Berkshire, has had in this case to pay the price of progress: with mainline electrification and the coming of Crossrail two and a half years hence, scabby little branch-line diesels are not welcome on the shiny new railway.

Cookham’s station – with its whispered announcements so as not to annoy the neighbours – is on the outer edge of the Maidenhead constituency, which is already being transformed by the impending new line. Some local people, and not just Cookhamites, suspect the benefits of Crossrail are being overhyped. It will certainly be easier to get from Maidenhead to the City. But the trains will be like those on the Overground: stopping everywhere; seats facing inwards, and not many of them; no tables, and so work will be near impossible; no loos. For many travellers there will be no gain at all.

But it is important to remember the essential and underappreciated genius of railway privatisation. In the days of British Rail, every leaf on the line, every wrong kind of snowflake, had to be explained away by the government. Now ministers just shrug. So no one in Cookham seemed to be blaming the Prime Minister, or the MP for Maidenhead, who, for the past 11 months, just happens to have been the same person.

***

What happy chance that Theresa May was selected as the candidate for Maidenhead! You could almost make a slogan out of it, except for the somewhat dated anatomical connotations of the town’s name. (The name actually comes from “Maiden Hythe”, meaning “new wharf”.) There is something almost virginal about Maidenhead’s image, too: I’d imagined the town as rather tea shoppe‑y, Tunbridge Wellsy maybe. No, Windsor – its partner in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead – may still be a nice-pot-of-tea kind of place; but Maidenhead is very much wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee.

It is clearly proud of its PM-MP. Her elevation last year might not have given the town quite the thrill Leicester got from winning the Premier League, but it could almost be on a par with Maidenhead United being champions of the National League South – which they are. It gives the place a little reflected glory and its voters a warm glow. New prime ministers normally get a local electoral bounce; even Gordon Brown had a swing in his favour in 2010.

And the local people do seem to like, or at least admire, her. On the High Street, practically everyone seemed to have an anecdote to offer and often a selfie to back it up. “She’s a lovely person. And she’s the right person for the country,” Michael Reynolds on the fruit stall insisted. “And we’re open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. And she buys her strawberries here. Taste them. They’re beautiful. English.” And if May noticed that Reynolds was selling his cherries by the pound rather than the kilo, she didn’t make a fuss about it. Brexit already seems to mean Brexit in Maidenhead.

You would expect her to be an assiduous constituency member, and she is. She remembers names; she has been spotted queuing at the chemist’s to pick up her own prescription. But there is a school of thought that this was not always so: that she took Maidenhead for granted after winning the newly created seat in 1997 by nearly 12,000 votes, which the Liberal Democrats slashed to 3,000 four years later. After that, according to one source, “she never missed a school fete, and she didn’t wait to be invited – she just turned up”. By 2015 the majority was up to 29,000.

The Liberal Democrats also had control of the unitary council but that, too, is long gone: current line-up – Con 53, Old Windsor Residents’ Association 2, independent 1, LD 1. The upshot is that Theresa May is not the most powerful, nor even the most talked-about politician in Maidenhead. That honour belongs to one Simon Dudley, the leader of the royal borough council.

***

Maidenhead, you must understand, has never been sleepy. The new wharf was an entrepôt and the town around it eventually acquired a surprisingly louche reputation: a sort of ­mini-Brighton. “Are you married, or are you from Maidenhead?” was one expression, and it had nothing to do with virginity. In the early 20th century, Skindles Hotel, just across the river, was famous/infamous for illicit assignations.

But Skindles has lately been demolished and is being replaced by “superb apartments”, as indeed, it seems, is just about every available site in the town itself. Maidenhead is already an extraordinary mix of architectural styles and eras, though aesthetically the path has been downward since soon after Smyth’s almshouses were built along the Great West Road in 1659.

Now Maidenhead’s population of 73,000 is, according to Dudley, on course to rise by between 30 and 50 per cent by the 2030s, as a result of a Crossrail-led boom. The biggest single component of that is ­expected to comprise what is now Maidenhead Golf Club, which has 132 acres leased from the council within walking distance of the train station. The council is buying out the lease and offering a windfall for the 700-odd club members, thought to be roughly £20,000 to £30,000, which may or may not be put towards building a replacement course, though a dozen of the members could just get together and buy themselves a studio flat instead.

The gain for the borough will be far greater. “I’m a golfer,” Simon Dudley says. “Sending JCBs in to dig up golf courses is not my idea of fun. But there is a fiduciary duty on councils to maximise their assets and to meet housing needs. There is an oversupply of golf courses in the south-east and a chronic housing shortage.” He thinks it could be the best property deal for the ratepayer that any council has ever done. There are, almost needless to say, rumours that some councillors are also doing well out of Maidenhead’s boom, as has been the case in English local government since the first planning committee meeting in the ­Witenagemot, circa 600AD.

Dudley is 53, an investment banker and a man who exudes an aura of authority and drive way beyond that of most council leaders in May’s Britain, struggling to decide whether to burn all the library books or reduce dustbin collection to a biannual service. I found him helpful and charming, and he says all the right things about “affordable” homes and the need for infrastructure. But, as one clued-up local put it: “My reading of the development plan is that it will be absolutely fine as long as the population of Maidenhead never go out, never have children, never need a car park and never need any medical attention.”

And Dudley himself is, to say the least, controversial. “Deadly Dudley” is one nickname; I often heard the word “bully”, and not just from opponents. Early this year, the Times reported that Leo Walters, a well-respected Conservative councillor, had been sacked – by Dudley himself, he said – as the chairman of the council’s housing scrutiny panel, after Walters emailed panel members to point out that a Freedom of Information response had shown that 86 per cent of the planned development would be on green-belt land.

“There are suggestions that you are, um, a little over-forceful,” I told Dudley nervously. “Every decision is made by the Conservative group,” he replied. “They have just re-elected me unopposed as leader. Anyone could have stood against me.”

Indeed, Theresa May is not the only person round here to have been chosen unopposed as party leader.

And there is widespread agreement that something needs to be done about the town centre. Maidenhead’s problem, as someone put it, is that it is a riverside town a mile from the river. A beautification scheme has already turned a series of forgotten tributaries into features – and the residents, in a town that has an M&S but not many alternatives, share the council’s enthusiasm for bringing in more big chain stores. The borough is already much admired for its schools. And here is an issue that really does lead straight to the gates of Downing Street.

***

Not merely is there no John Lewis or Debenhams; there are hardly any worthwhile independent shops. One of the exceptions is Goyals, purveyors of uniforms to local schools – and some further afield – for the past 51 years. Seema Goyal, ­daughter-in-law of the founder, and now the boss, very proudly showed me not just her selfies with the Prime Minister but also the PM’s speech as the guest of honour at a recent dinner where the shop’s golden jubilee was celebrated. “I think it shows what hard work and dedication and service to your customers can do,” May told the diners marking the occasion, very Mayishly.

This is very much a school uniform town. Before 9am on Maidenhead station, almost the only people wearing ties were the children, and they all seemed to have their top button done up as well. The blazers hanging round the walls of Goyals make a rather fetching colour scheme: the blues predominate, as is only fitting in Maidenhead, and they certainly outnumber the reds. There are several shades of green but no yellows at all. And yet the schools in the royal borough are comprehensives.

Tony Hill is standing for the Lib Dems the third time but is probably still better known locally as the long-standing former head of Furze Platt Senior School. He knows May of old, which makes him all the more surprised that she is insisting on bringing back grammar schools. “What she will do is sit and listen, and she will listen and she will listen, and she will shift slightly and shift slightly, and she will drop on whatever gives her electoral advantage,” Hill says.

And yet. “We have six comprehensives in the borough, most of them ranked outstanding. There are two mixed, one boys’, one girls’, one church and now even a boarding comprehensive. It’s a terrific system. They compete against each other for customers. And she wants to ruin it. If they bring in a grammar school, all those lovely schools will become secondary moderns. Aspiring young teachers will know that if they want to teach brighter children, they’ll have to go to the grammar school. And they’ll go.”

Simon Dudley says that 130 children cross the nearby county boundary to join the Buckinghamshire selective system, which hardly sounds like overwhelming demand to me. Some of them are said to start being tutored to pass the eleven-plus as five-year-olds, which is a bit late; really pushy Bucks mothers would never be that relaxed. May’s views on grammar schools appear to be uncharacteristically rigid, and that could cause her difficulties even in her own backyard. “I certainly want bright children to flourish,” says Jonathan Romain, rabbi to the town’s Jewish community. “But there isn’t a crying need for a grammar school because bright children are already being well served. There is no popular clamour for one.”

Romain is a respected figure in the town and the chairman of Maidenhead’s traditional election hustings, organised by the various churches. Interfaith dialogue is strong here: Romain has said a prayer at the mosque; the imam has done the same at the synagogue, and the deity unleashed no vengeful thunderbolts on either occasion. This may say a couple of things about Maidenhead. In a footloose, money-oriented town of this kind, religion is more of an optional extra than a fundamental creed. But that perhaps gives the clergy an additional role in compensating for a certain shallowness in civil society: the more time people spend on the London train, the less time they have to spend on community life.

That said, Maidenhead has one advantage unmatched almost anywhere else in Britain. The Maidenhead Advertiser is owned by a charitable trust. In these dark days for local journalism, it is still edited in Maidenhead, not in Manchester or Mumbai. It still employs a fair number of journalists, and it is vigilant, inquisitive and informative. It really ought to have a more community-minded town in which to operate.

***

For what it’s worth, Labour was May’s closest pursuer in 2015. Its candidate this time is an affable and very community-minded bloke called Pat McDonald. He lives on the furthest edge of town in the ex-council-house estate of Woodlands Park, one of Labour’s least worst areas (where a three-bedder has just been advertised for £425,000). He can’t canvass on Thursday evenings because he helps at the youth club.

He was out in his own area that Friday night, though, knocking on doors near his own home: “I’m Pat McDonald, your local local candidate.” Some of his neighbours knew him well enough to laugh at that and take a poster. Other doors opened more narrowly. A few just shook their heads and hissed: “Corbyn.” One woman he had ­interrupted did hairdressing at home. “I’m just doing a colour,” she said apologetically. “I’m just doing something,” said someone else more enigmatically. “I’m just getting in the shower,” said a man, who looked ­fully clothed. “Sorry, I’m standing here half naked,” said a woman, who did not ­offer proof.

It is hard to believe that anyone in Maidenhead has ever opened the door to Theresa May and said that. 

Matthew Engel’s latest book, “That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English”, is newly published by Profile

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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