"Oh, what a lovely war"

IssueApril 2006


The soldiers

“Before I went to Iraq I was concerned about the legality of the invasion and the occupation. But whilst I was there, what I saw - the conduct of the war - was wrong, a lot of things were going wrong ... and my views became clearer and stronger, until it reached a point where I couldn't separate them from my job and I could no longer serve in Iraq.” - Former SAS trooper Ben Griffin speaking in mid-March about his decision to leave the military for reasons of conscience.

While Secretary of State for Defence John Reid was busy urging sympathy for the troops and asking us to try to “imagine what it must be like on the battlefield”, greater numbers of British and US forces have been voting with their feet and leaving the military. On 19 March the Independent on Sunday reported that the number of British soldiers reported AWOL has increased threefold since the invasion of Iraq; in the US more than 5,000 have simply vanished.

Both US and UK forces are said to be overstretched, and aggressive recruiting campaigns are taking place.

Principles of conscience

Principled refuseniks who decide to make their objection public, both here and in the US, are receiving very mixed responses from the military superiors. The cases of Ben Griffin, who received an honourable discharge after deciding not to return to Iraq, and that of Flt Lt Kendall-Smith, a military doctor who is facing court-martial for “wilfully disobeying a lawful order” [to return to Iraq], reflect this.

Kendall-Smith was told at a military court on 22 March that his defence - that he believed his orders were unlawful - was not a defence after all, when Judge Advocate Bayliss stated that it is not a defence to the charge that the “defendant believed that the order was unlawful”. This ruling appears to be in complete contravention of the spirit of the Fourth Nuremberg Principle, which states that “The fact that a person acted pursuant to an order of his government or of a superior does not relieve him of responsibility under international law, providing a moral choice was in fact open to him.”

Penalties of conscience

Meanwhile the five-yearly ritual of reviewing and amending the Armed Forces Bill is currently in process, with disciplinary provisions aimed squarely at those who go AWOL to avoid a “particular service”. This specifically includes “military occupations of a foreign country” - the punishment for which is a maximum of life imprisonment. Those who disobey “lawful” commands could receive a maximum of ten year' imprisonment.

In contrast, the proposed maximum penalty for “disgraceful conduct of a cruel or indecent kind”, for example of detainees such as the degrading treatment exposed at Abu Graihb, is just two years. At Ease - the advice service for members of the armed forces - says it is “concerned that the Bill is being largely ignored by the media, the public and, worst of all, by Members of Parliament of all parties” who may, as in previous years, ignore the “debate” and just endorse it in its proposed form.

“I know, because I was there”

Dissatisfaction amongst troops and their families appears to be growing. The MoD report into the killing of Fusilier Gordon Gentle - in which it was revealed that electronic jamming equipment which may have prevented the device which killed him being detonated had been ordered but not deployed - and the opening evidence at the inquest into the deaths of six Redcaps at al-Majar in 2003 (including Reg Keys's son, Thomas) have provoked sharp comments from family members.

In the US - where a February poll revealed that 72% of US troops serving in Iraq “think the US should exit the country within the next year”, more than one in four say the troops should “leave immediately” - the frustration of both those currently serving and veterans is palpable. Writing earlier this year for the US Iraq Veterans Against the War, former soldier Charlie Anderson expressed his anger at the blind patriotism of his fellow citizens when he commented “[It's said] I am not supporting the troops when I say that they should come home. But I am, because I know that there was no threat to our nation from Saddam Hussein, I know that he had no weapons of mass destruction, and I know that we were not welcomed in as liberators. I know that the war was not worth fighting. I know, because I fought there”.

Even after tours of Northern Ireland and Afghanistan, former SAS trooper Ben Griffin is clear about his motivations for leaving the forces: “Whilst I was [in Iraq] the US used helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks in close proximity to civilian populations ... I see this as reckless and possibly criminal ... I'm not saying the British forces are whiter than white [but] nowhere in the oath [of allegiance] does it say anything about obeying or following the orders of American generals, or doing the bidding of George Bush ... quite a few British soldiers feel the same way too. I didn't join the army eight years ago to conduct American foreign policy.”

The civilians

Iraq Bodycount - widely respected as providing as accurate statistics on the reported civilian death toll as can be collated - puts the number of Iraq civilians killed since March 2003 at between 33,000 and 38,000. Some analysts have put the figure substantially higher, notably the Lancet, which suggested in October 2004 that up to 100,000 Iraqis might have been killed.

While some areas of Iraq - notably the northern (Kurdish) areas - appear to be enjoying some of the promised gifts of “liberation”, the daily experience for many Iraqis - of water and electricity shortages and coalition and militia violence - is being held responsible for a “grinding down” of the population and for an increase in migration of Iraqis to other countries. Al Jazeera recently reported that “tens of thousands of mostly young Iraqi professionals, artisans, musicians, college professors and doctors have left in search of security and stability abroad”.

Internal displacement also remains a substantial issue, with the Iraqi Ministry of Immigration and Displacement reporting in March that more than 3,700 families had been displaced as a result of the ongoing sectarian violence.

Aid workers and journalists

Locally-based NGOs have complained at the rising level of threats against both international and local aid workers. Speaking to the UN's IRIN news service in March, Waleed Rashdi, spokesman for the Aid Agencies Association in Iraq, said “This week alone we were informed that five key Iraqi aid workers have abandoned their duties because of serious and constant threats against them. We face serious difficulties in doing our work because if we help people we receive threats, and if we don't help, we receive similar threats.”

Similarly, the work of journalists in the region is hampered by threats of violence. In a report published to coincide with the third anniversary of the invasion, the Committee to Protect Journalists stated that more than 90 media workers have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, “making it the deadliest conflict for the press in recent history”.

“We're all so tired”

The lack of stability and security in several regions caused by fighting between Sunni and Shia militias, combined with arbitrary arrests and detentions by coalition forces - there are 15,000 Iraqis currently reported detained by the US military in facilities within Iraq - appears to be creating a pretty miserable environment.

Writing on the third anniversary of the invasion, Baghdad blogger Riverbend commented, “The real fear is the mentality of so many people lately - the rift that seems to have worked its way through the very heart of the country, dividing people. ... I don't think anyone imagined three years ago that things could be quite this bad today. The last few weeks have been ridden with tension. I'm so tired of it all - we're all tired.

Three years later and the nightmares of bombings and of shock and awe have evolved into another sort of nightmare ... It's difficult to define what worries us most now. Even the most cynical war critics couldn't imagine the country being this bad three years after the war...”

Social pressure

While there are obvious potential hazards in the daily lives of Iraqi men and boys - for example being mistaken for an “insurgent” of one form or another - Iraqi women and girls face a different set of gendered, societal challenges.

In a major report published by Amnesty International in February this year, the human rights organisation comments that “Women in Iraq live in fear of violence as the conflict intensifies and insecurity spirals .... The lawlessness and increased killings, abductions and rapes that followed the overthrow of the government of Saddam Hussein have restricted women's freedom of movement ... Women face discriminatory laws and practices that deny them equal justice or protection from violence in the family and community. A backlash from conservative social and political forces threatens to stifle their attempts to gain new freedoms.”

Uncomfortably numb

It is hard to suggest a positive prognosis for Iraqi society at the moment. Undoubtedly some things are improving in some areas, but on the whole the mood seems deflated and resigned.

Firas Al-Atraqchi, a “Canadian journalist of Iraqi heritage”, writing at opendemocracy.net in mid-March had this to say: “Iraqi society, already debilitated by 13 years of sanctions, has been traumatised to the point of numbness.

This is the Iraq of today. Not a free, liberated, prosperous country but one of mayhem, malice and mismanagement.”

The campaigners and protestors

On the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in hundreds of protests around the world. From Basra to Berlin, ordinary people made their voices heard in opposition to the ongoing occupation and to raise related concerns such as the posturing over Iran, racist attacks at home, and the ongoing corporate carve-up of Iraq.

Just a few days earlier an estimated 2,500 took to the streets of Mosul in Iraq in protest at the ongoing sectarian violence and in an effort to show unity between different ethnic and religious groupings. One of the protest organisers, Mahmoud Zein, is quoted saying, “We are here today from different areas, representing different beliefs, but with the same goals: peace and prosperity for our families and the country.”

Practical resistance

From the high point of the massive antiwar marches in February 2003 to the inevitable diminishing numbers as time goes by, the fact that a global anti-war movement both continues to exist and obstinately refuses to “move on” is probably not quite how the war-makers envisaged things three years on.

However, over the past three years, away from - and often deliberately ignored by - the mainstream media spotlight, resistance of a more practical nature has been continuing without pause. From mass acts of civil disobedience to individual acts of war tax resistance, from those who occupied, sabotaged and disrupted the military's infrastructure, to those who have decided that they can no longer concsionably serve in the armed forces, many have risen to the challenge of moving beyond protest and to more practical forms of resistance.

Ongoing campaigning

Fast-forward three years to this March and those small-scale acts of resistance continue around the world.

During that month, two activists were arrested after disrupting a US House Appropriations Committee hearing to consider an additional $67 billion in supplemental funding for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (it was approved). Later in the month more than fifty were arrested after scaling fences around the Pentagon during anti-war protests.

In Britain, the Peace Tax Seven's legal case, arguing that “UK law recognises freedom of conscience as a basic human right, in such as way as to empower individual taxpayers to deny the use of their taxes to prepare for war”, rumbles on through the courts system. Individual cases for withholding war taxes are being heard in the lower courts - for example Robin Brookes is due to appear at Swindon County Court on 3 April for a preliminary hearing, to contest the Inland Revenue's demand for withheld taxes.

And the question of whether the illegality of the war can be used in defence of those charged with sabotaging, or conspiring to sabotage, military equipment, and obstructing military operations, is currently being deliberated by the Law Lords, with an answer expected this month.

Campaigns working against both the corporate carve-up and the rearmament of Iraq, have continued throughout the occupation. A recent report published by Corporate Watch asserts that “just as privatisation and the private finance initiative (PFI) in the UK have opened up a new arena of profits, so the restructuring of Iraq's economy is providing fertile opportunities for an army of consultants”.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade's “Call the Shots” campaign - focusing on the Defence Export Services Organisation, which exists to sell arms for companies and to lobby for arms exports within government - revealed in 2006 that “DESO engagement with the customer [Iraq] was good, and improving”. No doubt the arms dealers are rubbing their hands with glee with this emerging and compliant market.

Back out on the streets: as this issue of Peace News went to press the Mass Action Group were preparing to carry out a collective act of civil disobedience in London to mark the second anniversary of the attack on Fallujah.

Struggle continues

Between 11 September 2001 and the spring of 2003 - from Afghanistan to the looming invasion of Iraq - Peace News published several articles encouraging practical war resistance and commenting on the implications that both the war on terror and the expected war on Iraq would have for the peace movement.

Writing in Peace News in December 2002, Milan Rai commented “We must do all we can to stop this war, but we must not lose hope or lose heart if the United States wins a decisive and rapid victory ... Today the international anti-war movement faces major challenges ... If we can show that we will remain united and strong, if we can remain a powerful antiwar movement despite the reverses that may yet confront us, if we demonstrate the tenacity needed to build an even stronger movement after this crisis, that will help to deter the warmongers.”

Nonviolent practical resistance to this, and all wars, remains as urgent now as it was then.