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Tuesday 10 April 2007

Brendan O’Neill

A lean, mean victim-making machine


The saga of the 15 British servicemen, and the sale of their tales of woe from Iran, reveals a British military that is all at sea.

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What is Britain’s role in the world today? Judging from the Iranian captives saga, it is to play the victim. The most startling thing about the two-week period during which 15 British sailors were held hostage by Iran, paraded before TV cameras and then set free complete with shiny new suits and goody-bags is the extent to which British politicians, the British military and individual British soldiers played the victim card. Bereft of any clear mission in world affairs, and lacking the power or prestige it once had, Britain increasingly engages around the world through the politics of victimhood, presenting itself as being at the mercy of dark forces beyond its control who apparently pose a threat to Our Fragile Boys (and girl).

Following the release of the servicemen last week, and the sale of some of their stories to the press over the Easter weekend, there has been a backlash against their alleged ‘wimpishness’. ‘The detainees were co-opted as propaganda tools [by Iran] with alarming ease’, said Marina Hyde in the Guardian. Referring to the servicemen’s willingness to admit in front of Iranian TV cameras that they illegally crossed into Iranian waters – and that they were terribly sorry for doing so – Hyde asked: ‘Whatever happened to only divulging one’s name, rank and number?’ (1) Commentator David Cox said the whole sorry confessing-for-Iranian-TV thing showed that Britons have neither honour nor any shame: ‘We, the British, are prepared to betray our traditions, truth, duty, dignity, decency…. We think it is fine to say anything to save our skins.’ (2)

Such accusations of wimpish behaviour are understandable. The 14 men and one woman seized by the Iranians seem rather breathtakingly naive and unworldly. Leading seaman Faye Turney said in her interviews with the Sun and ITV1’s Tonight With Trevor McDonald that she had ‘no choice’ but to confess on Iranian TV that she and her crew had illegally crossed into Iranian waters, because otherwise she was told she would be put on trial as a British spy. Hold on, that means she did have a choice: she could either blab her ‘guilt’ for the cameras or stay silent, refuse to play along, and face trial in an Iranian court (a highly unlikely prospect). Where earlier generations of soldiers would probably have opted to keep schtoom – including in times of real war, when trial or torture or even execution were possibilities – Turney and her crew decided shockingly quickly to point at maps showing their illegal antics and to write long letters of apology to the Iranian people.

Far from coming across as stoic, the servicemen seem to have been consumed by individual fear. Turney says that while she was cooped up in an Iranian cell she heard the sound of wood being sawed and nails being hammered, and thought to herself: ‘They are making my coffin.’ She also became convinced that she would be raped. This reveals little about what the Iranians were actually planning, but a lot about Ms Turney’s mindset: perhaps she has heard one too many scare stories about the weird wogs of the Middle East; certainly she seems to have been instantly terrified by her predicament. Twenty-year-old operator maintainer Arthur Batchelor also says he feared being raped and killed. He told the Daily Mirror that he ‘cried and cried like a baby’ in his cell, and one of the worst parts of his 10 days in captivity was being nicknamed ‘Mr Bean’ by his Iranian ‘tormentors’ (3). Batchelor also complained that the goody bags the Iranians gave to him and his fellow servicemen were a ‘load of rubbish’. He says he would much prefer to have back his iPod, which the Iranians ‘pinched’ and which contained his and his girlfriend’s special song – ‘Hold Me Tonight’ by Angel One (4).

There is no doubt the 15 servicemen had a deeply unpleasant time in Iran. Yet some of the ‘horrors’ they have talked about in their media stories sound more like school bullying than the brutal repression of a wicked Islamic state. Mr Bean namecalling, stolen iPods, crying like babies – when paid-up members of the British military describe such things as ‘mental torture’ and ‘hell’, you do wonder what kind of training for captivity situations they have received (if any). In the past, British civilians, it seems, coped rather better with captivity than have these 15 servicemen. Terry Waite and John McCarthy were held hostage by militants in Lebanon for four and five years respectively in the late 1980s and early 90s, and they spent much of that time chained to a sink in complete darkness. Yet when they were freed they did not define themselves as victims.

However, too much of the backlash against the 15 servicemen and their sold stories has focused on their alleged personal failings. Turney is judged by some to be ‘too weak’ for the British military; Batchelor has had the Mick ripped out of him for his ‘crying like a baby’ comment and his fears for his stolen iPod. Or the servicemen are lambasted for hawking their tales of woe to the tabloids. One blogger says they have fallen for Rupert Murdoch’s buck almost as quickly as they ‘gave in’ to the Iranians. This overlooks the fact that, in both their self-promotion as victims and their selling of their stories, the servicemen are following the victim-oriented strategy adopted by the British political and military elite over the past two weeks.

The British authorities sought to play the role of the victim almost as soon as the 15 servicemen were seized. Far from taking action, or even sabre-rattling over ‘evil’ Iran’s wicked seizure of British troops, officials tried to present Britain as a technically wronged party whose seamen had only been sailing in waters they had a right to be in. They released aerial photographs allegedly showing that the British boats were in Iraqi waters in the Persian Gulf, not Iranian waters. (These photos were a desperate salvo by Britain in what was effectively a PR war of images. Where the Iranians released maps, letters handwritten by the servicemen and video footage, the Brits fought back with snapshots from the sky and their own maps.) The British government also asked the United Nations to condemn Iran’s actions. This seemed to blow out of the water any idea that Britain is a gung-ho, go-it-alone, unilateral world power. Like a second-rate power being bullied by a threatening regime, Britain looked to the UN – the schoolteacher of world affairs – for help.

When the Iranians showed the servicemen on Iranian TV – eating, chatting, confessing to having crossed into Iranian waters – Hazel Blears, a hopeful in the contest to become deputy leader of the Labour Party, said it was ‘one of the most wicked things I have seen’ (5). She clearly needs to get out more. The image of Britain as a victim of Iranian aggression filtered through the media coverage. Turney was turned into the nation’s Victim Mummy, who was cruelly being kept from her young daughter by ‘demented’ Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Sun even described the Iranian videos showing Turney in a Muslim veil pointing at a map as a ‘war crime’ (6). Thus, we had the rather surreal situation where Britain – which has a fairly large military and naval presence in the Persian Gulf, having recently fought a war in Iraq and with some of its troops still occupying parts of that country – presenting itself as a victim in the Gulf. In talking up how scared, cajoled and victimised they were, Turney, Batchelor and the others are playing a role already written for them by politicians and the media.

Commentators have also got on their high horses over the fact that the servicemen sold their stories. (Turney is said to have made £100,000 from her deal with the Sun and ITV1.) As David Aaronovitch says in The Times (London), some journalists have been ‘sitting astride a steed so high that I feared lest the fire brigade, even using its most extensible ladders, be unable to get [them] back down again’ (7). Such high-and-mighty moralism was especially apparent on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, where presenter James Naughtie demanded of Labour MP and former soldier Eric Joyce: ‘Is there anything, after 10 years of your government, that is not for sale?’

Bashing Turney and Co. for making money off their Iranian adventure might make some feel rebellious, but it’s a one-sided and naive stance. Again, the servicemen are taking their cue from the authorities, who have been engaged in a PR war against Iran for the past two weeks. They have used images of the servicemen’s whereabouts in the Persian Gulf, and stories about how worried their families are, to score some points against Iran. Indeed, the Navy, seemingly under advice from prime minister Tony Blair’s spindoctors, gave the go-ahead for the servicemen to sell their stories. This was a see-through attempt to reclaim some moral highground. Worried that Britain was losing the PR war, and battered by claims that they had been humiliated by the Iranians, British officials pushed the servicemen’s sorrowful stories into the public sphere in the hope that they would ratchet up some empathy and understanding. (Notably, they upfronted the one female’s story, and also the tearful tale of the youngest male member of the crew.) It backfired badly. Now defence secretary Des Browne has imposed a temporary ban on soldiers selling stories to the media.

Moreover, Britain’s presence in the Gulf can be seen largely as a piece of PR puff. As we have argued on spiked, the war in Iraq represented the internationalisation of the politics of spin: witness how the Coalition forces were primarily concerned with getting a ‘defining image’ of the war in Iraq, whether it be cheering crowds in Basra or shots of statues of Saddam being pulled to the ground (see Hollow victory in the war that never was, by Mick Hume). Those chastising the 15 servicemen for spinning their stories of victimhood for a pay cheque overlook the fact that Britain’s bombing of Iraq, and more recently its war of words (or at least of photos) with Iran, are also the products of spin. Encouraged by Navy and Labour officials, Turney and the others can be seen as continuing the not-so-good fight in Britain’s PR war against ‘evil’.

The 15 servicemen are easy targets. The truth is that they are creations of contemporary British military and political culture. Perhaps the most striking thing is the servicemen’s sense of dislocation from the Iraq war. Turney said in her interviews that she doesn’t know much about politics or Iraq but just wants to do her ‘job’ as a leading seaman. Batchelor was repeatedly asked by the Iranians if he supported the Iraq war and he replied that he was ‘just a serviceman doing his job’. These are a new breed of soldier, recruited at a time when the British military sells itself effectively as a social-outreach programme which provides skills and education to its soldiers and help and ‘humanitarian relief’ to beleaguered populations overseas (see These boots were made for talking about, by Brendan O’Neill). Turney and the others, recruited less as hardnosed fighters than as caring men and women in uniform, will probably not have expected to have ended up in a hairy situation involving guns and prison cells and tough questioning by Iranian ‘tormentors’. At the same time, it is now widely expected that servicemen will be damaged by the experience of war or other such hardship. In academic and political debate, as well as in popular culture, the talk is of ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ and ‘Gulf War Syndrome’, of war ‘leaving behind the wasted hearts and minds of the young who have heeded its call’ (8).

In viewing themselves as ‘jobbing’ men and women with little connection or commitment even to the Iraq war, the servicemen show that joining the military in Britain has lost its meaning and purchase. In describing themselves as victims who cried and were terrified, the servicemen express the idea that military action mentally damages and scars those who undertake it. In the stories of the 15 servicemen, we can glimpse the British military’s own self-immolation, where it seems incapable of recruiting men actually to fight for something solid or training them to be tough, robust, resolute. The question is: what message is Britain sending to the world in its efforts to out-PR Iran with pity-inducing victim stories? Certainly the revelation that young British soldiers ‘cry and cry like babies’ when taken hostage will hardly, in the words of The Times, ‘serve as a disincentive to kidnapping British troops’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

(1) Whatever happened to name, rank and number?, Guardian, 7 April 2007

(2) Our shameless culture, Comment Is Free, 9 April 2007

(3) The Iranians pinched my iPod, Daily Mirror, 9 April 2007

(4) The Iranians pinched my iPod, Daily Mirror, 9 April 2007

(5) Comment on BBC1’s Question Time, 29 March 2007

(6) See ‘Evil’ Iran vs a British mum, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) Don’ t be surprised. This is Big Brother in uniform, The Times, 10 April 2007

(8) War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges, Public Affairs, 2002

 


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