After Majar al-Kabir

Why the deaths of six British soldiers in Iraq caused such a storm at home.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

It is still unclear how the six British Redcap military policemen killed in southern Iraq met their untimely deaths – whether they were killed after opening fire on an Iraqi crowd, whether they died in a ‘riotous incident’, or whether they were shot by ‘bitter ex-Ba’athists’. But the reaction to their deaths reveals much about Britain’s role in the war, about the shaky US/UK relationship, and about the confusion and uncertainty stalking postwar Iraq.

Reading some of the British coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that the troops were the victims of American arrogance rather than of Iraqi fury. ‘Why Brits have paid price for poor US strategy’, said a headline in the Daily Mirror (1). A Guardian leader argued that the British military in Iraq have been ‘compromised by the chaotic administration imposed by Washington’, claiming that ‘six British soldiers paid the tragic price for [Bush’s] ineptitude’ (2).

One commentator argues that ‘young British lives’ have been ‘sacrificed at the altar of US imperial designs’ (3). The Independent’s Robert Fisk suggests that, because US forces are ‘surrounded by their tanks and armour, protecting their marble occupation palace’, Iraqis have been forced to focus their ire on America’s ‘soft-target allies’ (4). In short, Iraqis really want to get their hands on the Yanks, but will reluctantly settle for Brits instead.

The six British deaths may have been tragic – but blaming gung-ho America for putting Brits at risk absolves Britain of responsibility for the state of southern Iraq. Britain provided an invading force of 45,000 for the Iraqi war. The six killings occurred in a part of Iraq that is largely controlled and policed by the British military. Indeed, British fighter jets have been patrolling this ‘no-fly’ part of Iraq for the past 12 years, during which time Majar al-Kabir, the town in which the six troops were killed, received its fair share of ‘stray’ British bombs.

Majar al-Kabir is north of Basra, the city that British forces were charged with pacifying during the war. In March, the British laid siege to Basra for two weeks, during which time they called in American helicopter gunships to fire ‘relentlessly’ into the city (5). According to one aid group, British forces put a ‘noose’ around Basra, very nearly ‘precipitating a humanitarian crisis’ (6). It is safe to assume that not everyone in and around Basra will be a fan of the British forces, even if they do wear berets instead of helmets and behave ‘less arrogantly’ than the Americans.

Iraq is a warzone – and it was made that way by British and American forces. Yet many refer to the killings in Majar al-Kabir as ‘murder’, as if the six troops were policemen on patrol in Bagshot rather than troops on patrol in Basra. On BBC Question Time, Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour Party stalwart and MP, said British forces have encountered some ‘savage’ attacks while simply trying to teach the Iraqis how to become good police officers. Viewing Britain as some kind of benign peacekeeping’n’policing force overlooks its responsibility for the current debacle.

The fact that six deaths in a war setting – in a highly unstable state like postwar Iraq – can cause such a stink at home suggests a deeper uncertainty on Britain’s part. The killings have caused a severe outbreak of handwringing: on the front pages of the papers, within military circles, and on the front- and backbenches of parliament. The killings may have been gruesome, but the reaction has gone beyond shock and horror. Many have asked why British forces are still there and when they will be coming home. This response suggests a certain reluctance to commit to the Iraqi venture, a cautiousness about getting stuck into postwar Iraq.

In the USA, there has been a similar response to American deaths. Some American commentators have raised the thorny issue of ‘body-bag syndrome’, where each American death is greeted as a terrible blow to US esteem. When coalition deaths in Iraq can cause such shockwaves at home, it suggests that there is little stomach, much less passion, for the Iraqi intervention – from troops’ families, to political commentators, to the war organisers themselves. It seems that the old French saying ‘C’est la guerre’, capturing the notion that war is dirty and bloody, but sometimes worth it, doesn’t cut it today, when many seem uncomfortable with the idea of fighting and dying for a cause – whatever that cause might be.

Contrary to the facts, British commentators continue to see the Iraqi war as an entirely American venture, which is now making victims of British troops as well as Iraqi civilians. And they are not alone. Sections of the British military itself responded to the six deaths in Majar al-Kabir by upbraiding Washington for failing to devise an exit strategy and arguing that US forces are still acting in a warlike fashion instead of trying to win hearts and minds. For all the talk of British/American unity, the six deaths have exposed some holes in the supposed solidarity over Iraq.

According to Air Marshal Sir Tim Garden, the six Brits died as a result of ‘poor US strategy’. He argues that ‘using hard military firepower to keep the peace, as the USA seems to, is likely to be counterproductive…the US leadership in Iraq has not been very clever…the new US supremo, Paul Bremmer, has made things worse’ (7). According to the Daily Telegraph, senior British military officials urgently want out of Iraq. ‘Britain will not abandon the Americans’, says the Telegraph. ‘But it desperately wants Washington to come up with an exit strategy.’ (8) As it happens, for all the claims about America’s ‘imperial designs’, US forces want out of Iraq too.

Whatever happened to standing shoulder-to-shoulder on Iraq? To the much-heralded ‘coalition of the willing’ led by Britain and America united? Those things might sound nice on paper, in the love-ins between Bush and Blair – but they don’t seem to have cut it in Iraq. It is one thing for Bush and Blair to conjure up solidarity on the White House lawn, but soldiers and commanders need action and direction in order to feel united. Soldiers on the ground need aims and goals, missions and timescales, in order to build up wartime solidarity – all of which have been missing in the mess that is postwar Iraq. Now, as Iraq spins further out of control, Britons and Americans are reduced to squabbling like schoolkids over who screwed up worse, and whether one side is now causing the other to be killed by irate Iraqis

Whatever the inquiry into the six British deaths discovers, it is clear already that some in the British camp blame America and view their US counterparts with increasing suspicion. Some coalition.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) ‘Why Brits have paid price for poor US strategy’, Daily Mirror, 25 June 2003

(2) Death and chaos in Iraq, Guardian, 25 June 2003

(3) Bring the British troops home, Sami Ramadani, Guardian, 26 June 2003

(4) Now it’s the nice guys who are getting hurt, Robert Fisk, New Zealand Herald, 26 June 2003

(5) See Rewriting Basra, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) See Rewriting Basra, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) ‘Why Brits have paid price for poor US strategy’, Daily Mirror, 25 June 2003

(8) British honeymoon ends in bloodshed, Daily Telegraph, 25 June 2003

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Topics World


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