21 October 2006

Speaking truth to power

By Marguerite Finn

"Forward the Light Brigade! / Was there a man dismay'd? / Not tho' the soldier knew / Someone had blunder'd:

Their's not to make reply, / Their's not to reason why, / Their's but to do and die: / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred."

(Alfred, Lord Tennyson 1854)

With these familiar words, Tennyson immortalised the slaughter of British soldiers in the disastrous battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War (1854-1856).

Victorians reading the poem would have been well aware of Tennyson's implied criticism of the military command that had served the soldiers so ill. Yet for all that, they – and succeeding generations – did nothing to move away from a culture of war. For most of the 150 odd years since then, countries of the world – particularly the so called 'developed world' - have been locked into a mind-set of perpetual war.

Could it be that General Sir Richard Dannatt, UK Chief of the General Staff, has finally broken this mould? If so, this nation - and civil society as a whole - should be grateful to him. He spoke the unvarnished truth about the war in Iraq to a public sick of official lies and spin.

By speaking out, General Dannatt is ensuring that the British army will not suffer the same fate as Lord Cardigan’s men in the ill-advised Charge of the Light Brigade when, due to 'arrogant incompetence', the bulk of the brigade was lost in just 25 minutes – although in that case the arrogant incompetence was of a military rather than political variety. The situation in which the British Army finds itself today is a bit different: they are pinned down in a vicious, unnecessary and un-winnable war, entered into under false pretences at the behest of the US for their own political agenda. The point is: both now and at Balaclava, the fault was bad decision-making at the top.

Counterpunch has produced a horrifying review of the current situation in Iraq where some 655,000 people have died since the US/UK invasion in 2003; law and order does not exist and there are now so many bodies that their disposal has become a problem of waste management. Furthermore:

  • Eight million Iraqis live on less than $1 per day;
  • 96pc of Iraq's 28m people survive on basic food rations;
  • 500,000 residents of Baghdad only have water for a few hours a day;
  • 250,000 families in Basra have no homes and live with other families;
  • Iraq's electricity generating grid is in a state of collapse;
In October 2006, UN Under Secretary General, Jan Egeland, reported 1,000 Iraqis fleeing their homes every day.

$8.8bn given to the US-led provisional authority (CPA), headed by Paul Bremer, to rebuild Iraq disappeared without trace. Health services, once the most advanced in the Middle East, have effectively collapsed under the US/British occupation. More than 25pc of doctors have left the country or been killed since the invasion. Those remaining are shot at, threatened or kidnapped every day. Of the 180 health clinics the US pledged to build by December 2005, only four have been completed and none have opened. Hospitals are short of medicines, disinfectants, instruments, bed-sheets.

In one paediatric hospital in Baghdad, sick children are crammed three into a single bed; sewage leaks on to the floors of the operating rooms; flies hover around beds that smell of wet bandages. The Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) contains specific provisions about the delivery of healthcare services in occupied territories. Article 55 states that the occupying power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population. Article 56 states that the occupying power has the duty to maintain medical and hospital services and to combat the spread of disease. There has been an abject failure to carry out even minimal humanitarian duties.

Is it surprising that General Dannatt wants UK forces to leave Iraq sooner rather than later? An honourable man, rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition – and maybe even with Kipling’s words in mind – he prefers to withdraw his troops from this dishonourable adventure:

"By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you."

(Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden 1899)

A radical change in thinking is now required. We cannot ourselves grow until we admit that by invading Iraq in 2003, we made a bad situation much worse. We now need to develop a just, ethical and independent foreign policy, seeking international co-operation, eschewing aggression and discarding the hypocrisy of nuclear deterrence.