Richard North, 21/12/2012  

Guardian 000-mus.jpg

One can take a certain amount of pride in the activities of the best of our troops, and even argue that the very best are as good as any in the world. But I have never had any time for the meme, so often uttered by MPs in the House, that our troops (all of them) are the best in the world, nor for that matter The Sun sobriquet, "Our brave boys".

Of our solders (and military generally), some are brave, some are diligent and some are extremely skilled and dedicated. Others, as one might expect of any large organisation, are dross – people you would cross the street to avoid.

And, it seems, the dross was very much in evidence in the early days of the occupation of southern Iraq, with the loss-making Guardian telling us that the MoD has paid out millions to Iraqi citizens, after allegations of torture, settled over 400 cases at a cost of £14 million.

With a further 700 claims expected, human rights groups are claiming that the sheer numbers show that the abuse by British troops was systematic. And, even though organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross made early complaints, nothing was done to check the abuse.

Even from this distance, this blog was picking up disturbing reports in November 2006, based on Dutch reports from the British zone of occupation. But, by Sepatember 2009 we were hearing from Gen. Mike Jackson the claim that the (then) one proven case of abuse (Baha Mousa) was an "isolated incident", and not a reflection of Army policy at the time – when now, even the attending physician has been struck off.

No one expects soldiers to be saints, and nor can one avoid systems occasionally going off the rails, especially in times of great stress. The real test of a system, therefore, is its ability to detect its own faults, to implement timely remedies and to compensate those affected.

In this case, though, it appears that the abuse of Iraqi citizens continued throughout the five-year British occupation, during which period – and subsequently – there have been prolonged attempts at a cover-up. On all counts, the system has failed.

How much of that abuse actually fuelled the ongoing insurgency in Iraq can only be speculation, but a good case can be made that it did trigger some of the violence that cost British lives. What is even more disturbing is the feeling that the current investigations and compensation payments are simply a face-saving exercise. The underlying system hasn't changed, and nothing has been learned form the experience.

And that is very much a sign of the times. Again and again, we hear of dire failures in "household name" organisations – the BBC being only one of many. Again and again, we hear the mantra "lessons learned", but nothing really changes, and we are back again in the same old messes, only to have more "lessons learned".

This time, it is the Army, an organisation with a reputation for excellence which has been seriously tarnished. But the malaise spreads far wider, and is so far unchecked. If we cannot deal with it, then the whole of our society is at risk.


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