Britain is up to its neck in this mire

We should not pretend that we can come out of the war unsullied

Jackie Ashley
Thursday April 3, 2003
The Guardian


It's hot out there. Damned hot. On the one side, beastly Ba'athists - and on the other, bloodthirsty and trigger-happy American cowboys. In between, struggling to behave decently in a world gone mad are our own British soldiers, effortlessly making friends with the locals, wryly dismissive of their US allies, brimful of compassion and pluck.

This is barely an exaggeration of how an important sub-theme of the Iraq war is being written up. Day after day now, we are reading stories about how the British are better. We are better at not killing our own side: most of the "blue on blue" deaths are caused by Americans. We are better at not killing innocent Iraqi civilians: it was US troops who failed to fire early-warning shots and so killed those women and children at a checkpoint. (Of course there are many more American troops out there, which tips the odds anyway.)

We are better at winning over hearts and minds: the Americans wear intimidating sunglasses and stay inside their armoured vehicles, while the British take off their helmets at the first opportunity, don picturesque regimental tam o'shanters and stride boldly into the middle of Iraqi crowds, handing out their own chocolate rations.

From Umm Qasr to the suburbs of Basra, it is British forces who have been busy distributing aid and working to get the water flowing again, while the American vengeance machine thunders north.

Yet if we British are better at making up, we are apparently better at killing, too, whether it's "a clean shot to the head" as one reporter cheerfully describes one Iraqi's death, almost like a six in cricket; or the dirty, dangerous business of street fighting, picked up by British regiments over the years in Northern Ireland.

Donald Rumsfeld, who so recently suggested the British contribution might not matter much in the coming war, is now said to feel the British troops in Basra have been superb, while American generals apparently indulge in "soul-searching" about their troops' performance. An anonymous British army source proudly explains: "The average British infantryman is far better. They're a tribe of feral monsters, but they're highly disciplined monsters. You don't want to get in their way."

We are also better, apparently, at history and culture. Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Collins, of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish, provided the spine-tingling talk about Iraq being an ancient land where the invading armies should tread lightly, and said men who killed unnecessarily would have "the mark of Cain" on them forever. Our diplomats have a tradition of supposed pro-Arab sympathies and links with countries like Syria and Iran, beyond the simple Israel-first thinking of the White House. This self-congratulation can confuse the reader: we British are, it seems, a nation led by wise diplomats, whose armies are commanded by poets and staffed by feral monsters - yet monsters who abruptly turn into sentimental aid workers at the drop of a helmet.

I can well believe that British troops are better-trained and readier to empathise with local people than US ones. The proportion of them killed by American mistakes is an eloquent fact. But it is not "dissing" the troops to say that as a country we are letting ourselves off very lightly indeed.

Never mind, as we flush with outrage at the thought of Iraq using chemical weapons, that no one ever expected this war to be run by the rules of a 1950s cricket match. Never mind our own colonial role in the modern tragedy of Iraqi history, or that, whatever the private Arabist sympathies of some people in the Foreign Office, we have gone along, every inch of the way, with Washington's plan for the Middle East.

What should concern us is the implication that somehow, in the midst of a very dirty war, when soldiers and civilians are being burned and torn to death, we British can somehow walk through the middle of the inferno in white suits, untouched and unsullied. There is a dangerous Pontius Pilate-like washing of our hands. It is the Iraqis who fight dishonourably, hiding behind women and children. It is the Americans who fight recklessly. But us? We're clean.

Let's not kid ourselves: we are in this up to our elbows. Our troops may be behaving professionally and well, but it is British missiles and British pilots too, who rain down death on Iraqi cities. It is British tanks and British soldiers too, who are fighting, street by street, through impoverished districts of bewildered and innocent people. It is a British war, as well as an American one, which is bringing still greater hunger, thirst, fear and death to people who had little enough to start with. And if things get even worse when we reach Baghdad, that is Britain's responsibility - our democracy, our politicians, and us as voters. The anger of the Arab world doesn't distinguish between us and the Americans. And we fool ourselves if we do, too.

jackie.ashley@guardian.co.uk