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No shooting please, we’re British

The storm over the movement of Black Watch troops in Iraq suggests the British elite is happy to support a war so long as it doesn't have to fight one.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

‘Just say no.’ That was the Guardian’s considered advice to the UK government over the redeployment of British Black Watch troops from Basra to central Iraq to take the place of Americans who have to go off and fight insurgents. Defence secretary Geoff Hoon confirmed yesterday that 500 troops and 350 support personnel will move to the US sector, freeing up US soldiers to (allegedly) launch a new offensive against Fallujah (1).

But it wasn’t only sceptical-about-war newspapers that urged a ‘no’ to the movement of Brits to a reportedly riskier part of Iraq; so did many of those who said ‘yes’ to invading Iraq in the first place, including members of parliament who voted for the war and military officials who have overseen much of the war. Some in the British establishment seem happy to support a war, so long as they don’t have to fight in it.

The stink over the Black Watch redeployment reveals far more about the state of mind in Westminster than it does about the state of affairs in Iraq. Ministers, officials and journalists complain that the Brits will be at greater risk in central Iraq than they were down south – but what is the job of a soldier if not to take risks in a war setting, especially one that his own leaders helped to create? It is a profound uncertainty about the war at home, rather than any real rise in danger in Iraq, that has caused such consternation about the Black Watch movement.

The Black Watch troops are not being asked to do anything especially hairy, at least not by wartime standards. For all the talk of being dragged into a quagmire or, in the words of one report, being ‘sucked into a Vietnam-style war’ (2), in fact the soldiers are making a temporary move, expected to last around two months, to patrol an area 25 miles south of Baghdad. The US sector may be less pleasant than Basra, but the Black Watch are unlikely to come up against anything they haven’t been trained for.

One reason why such standard postwar ugliness – whether it’s insurgents firing at US troops in Fallujah or British troops being asked to patrol hostile territory south of Baghdad – can be discussed in such apocalyptic terms is because the coalition thought Iraq would be a walk in the park. They prepared for a war without much fighting or bloodshed or military engagement at all, with a strategy that stressed avoiding risky action and hand-to-hand combat. As a result of such wishful thinking, any kind of danger can come across as terrifying.

Consider Basra, where most of the Brits have been based for the past 18 months. Before the war coalition officials talked about Basra as a pushover. They hoped that the city’s Shias would welcome Western forces with ‘open arms’, allowing the coalition to ‘capitalise on any scene of liberation and beam it to a sceptical world’ (3). The reality – a sometimes hostile and disgruntled population, with pockets of resistance here and there – now appears overbearing, not because these forces are any match for the British, but because the British didn’t expect to encounter many hostile forces at all.

Indeed, the British response to hostility in Basra has been to retreat to barracks. In August and September, when there were clashes between British troops and supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, the Daily Telegraph reported that ‘after three [British] deaths in as many weeks, the British army has stopped patrolling the streets of Basra’. They took to moving around in armoured vehicles, ‘on patrols not more than 100 yards from base’. When Basra residents demanded the expulsion of ‘al-Sadr’s people’, British Major Ian Clooney said: ‘I can understand what the Iraqis are saying, but confronting violence with violence is not going to work….’ (4)

One American general has reportedly denounced the British approach as ‘risk-averse’ and ‘institutionalised cowardice’ (5). Yet for all the claims that US forces are imposing their imperialist will on Iraq, their campaign too has appeared faltering and defensive. Much of America’s occupation has been conducted from behind high walls or from helicopter gunships.

One report describes how hundreds of American troops spend their time in Saddam’s old palaces or guarding the ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad, a cordoned-off part of the city centre, massively guarded and for the exclusive use of coalition officials, only occasionally venturing out. Earlier this year a poll asked Iraqis what they thought of coalition forces – 77 per cent said they had never had an encounter with a soldier from the coalition (6). Indeed, it is striking that the supposedly more gung-ho Americans should need 850 Brits as back up. The Americans have 135,000 troops in Iraq. Where are they all? What are they doing?

In both the American and British camps, the talk of quagmires, of new Vietnams, of unacceptably risky redeployments, is not a rational response to what’s happening on the ground, which is not any more grisly than what has occurred in other wars. Rather it’s a product of the coalition’s misguided belief that it could fight a war with the war bit taken out. This week the Los Angeles Times reported that President Bush apparently told televangelist Pat Robertson in private before the war started that ‘we’re not going to have any casualties’ in Iraq; if this is true, it is hardly surprising that casualties, or injuries or risky redeployments, are seen as both unexpected and unacceptable.

The fuss over the Black Watch redeployment also points to deep divisions within the British elite over the war in Iraq. It appears that news of the redeployment was leaked by the military itself to the BBC, a week before the government planned to make an announcement, because military commanders are concerned about the ‘prospect of a movement of [British] forces into the Sunni triangle’, or of a ‘sharp increase in military fatalities’ (7). (Perhaps they also believe, like Major Ian Clooney in Basra, that violence solves nothing.)

Behind the Black Watch controversy lurks a clash between the government and the military. According to John Kampfner, political editor of the New Statesman: ‘For all the public show of agreement between officers and their political masters, rarely in the recent history of the British armed forces can the disdain of the top brass towards ministers have been so open as it is now…. What exercises them more than anything is the idea that they are seen as willing tools of a prime minister who uses the military as the vehicle for his “delusions of international grandeur”. These last words are not mine.’ (8)

This is a quite extraordinary state of affairs – a government that apologetically redeploys troops while its apparently anti-violence military tries to scupper the plan. This shows the extent to which it was doubt and uncertainty at home that made the movement of a few hundred troops abroad into the storm of the month.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) US welcomes US troop deployment, BBC News, 22 October 2004

(2) Black Watch ordered to join US cordon for assault on Fallujah, Independent, 22 October 2004

(3) Taking Basra key to strategy, LA Daily News, 18 March 2003

(4) British trapped in Basra vacuum, Daily Telegraph, 30 August 2004

(5) A very British occupation, BBC News, 19 October 2004

(6) See Another dodgy dossier, Brendan O’Neill, Guardian, 25 March 2004

(7) Redeployment of our troops may be the final nail in coffin, Glasgow Herald, 22 October 2004

(8) Redeployment of our troops may be the final nail in coffin, Glasgow Herald, 22 October 2004

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Topics Politics

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