The way Britain wages war

Four photographs recently published in Britain together break a silence. The first is of a former Gurkha soldier Tul Bahadur, aged 87. He sits in a wheelchair outside 10 Downing Street.

He holds a board full of medals, including the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery, which he won serving in the British Army. He has been refused entry to Britain and treatment for a serious heart ailment: outrages rescinded only after a public campaign. The other day he came to Downing Street to hand his Victoria Cross back to the Prime Minister, but Gordon Brown refused to see him.

The second photograph is of a 12-year-old boy, one of three Kuchi children, the nomads of Afghanistan. They had been hit by Nato bombs, American or British, and nurses are trying to peel away their roasted skin with tweezers. On the night of June 10, in a single village, bombers killed at least 30 civilians: children, women, schoolteachers, students. On July 4 bombers killed 22 civilians. A week later a wedding party of 47 was obliterated. The British public is mostly unaware of these horrors. Britain’s Defence Secretary, Des Browne, has described the invasion of Afghanistan as ”the noblest cause of the 21st century”.

The third photograph is of a computer-generated aircraft carrier not yet built, one of two of the biggest ships ordered for the Royal Navy. The £4-billion contract is shared by BAE Systems, which sold 72 fighter-bombers to the corrupt tyranny in Saudi Arabia. The sale made Britain the biggest arms merchant on Earth, selling mostly to oppressive regimes in poor countries. At a time of economic crisis, Browne describes the carriers as ”an affordable expenditure”.

The final photograph is of an Iraqi man, Baha Mousa, who was tortured to death by British soldiers. Taken during his post mortem, it shows some of the 93 horrific injuries he suffered at the hands of men of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, who beat and abused him for 36 hours, including double-hooding him with hessian sacks in stifling heat. He was a hotel receptionist. Although his murder took place almost five years ago, it was only in May this year that the ministry of defence responded to the courts and agreed to an independent inquiry. A judge has described an official ”wall of silence”. A court martial has convicted just one soldier of ”inhumane treatment” and he has since been quietly released. Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, representing the families of Iraqis who have died in British custody, says the evidence is clear — abuse and torture by the British army is systemic.

Shiner and his colleagues have witness statements and corroborations of prima facie crimes of an especially atrocious kind usually associated with the United States. ”The more cases I am dealing with, the worse it gets,” he says. These include an ”incident” near the town of Majat-al-Kabir when British soldiers executed 20 Iraqi prisoners after mutilating them. The latest is that of a 14-year-old boy who was forced to simulate anal and oral sex over a prolonged period.

”At the heart of the US and UK project,” says Shiner, ”is a desire to avoid accountability for what they want to do. Thus Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary renditions are part of the same struggle to avoid accountability through jurisdiction.”

British soldiers, he says, use the same torture techniques as the US while denying that the European Convention on Human Rights, the Human Rights Act and the Geneva Conventions apply to them. And torture is so common that ”the routine nature of this ill-treatment helps to explain why, despite the abuse of the soldiers and cries of the detainees being clearly audible, nobody [particularly in authority] took any notice”.

A wall of silence has always surrounded the British military, its arcane rituals, rites and practices and, above all, its contempt for natural justice in its numerous imperial pursuits. The treatment of its own, such as Gurkha Tul Bahadur, is not untypical. Dumped back in Nepal, many of these ”soldiers of the queen” have no pension, are deeply impoverished and refused residence and medical help in the country for which they fought and 45 000 of them have died; no fewer than 26 Victoria Crosses have been won by Gurkhas. Browne’s ”affordable expenditure” excludes them.

An even more imposing wall of silence ensures that, even today, the British public remains largely unaware of the industrial killing of civilians in Britain’s modern colonial wars. In his landmark work, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses (Vintage), historian Mark Curtis uses three main categories: direct responsibility, indirect responsibility and active inaction. ”The overall figure [since 1945] is between 8,6 and 13,5-million,” he writes. ”Of these, Britain bears direct responsibility for between four million and six million deaths. This figure is if anything likely to be an underestimate. Not all British interventions have been included because of lack of data.”

The spiralling rise of militarism within the British political class — as distinct from the public — complements the assault on civil liberties in recent years. Largely unnoticed, the Brown government is spending £14-billion on a huge privatised military academy in Wales, which will train, with taxpayers’ money, foreign militaries and mercenaries recruited to the ”war on terror”. With profits going to arms companies such as Raytheon, this will become Britain’s ”School of the Americas”, a centre for counter-insurgency training and the design of future colonial adventures.

This sense of a militarist Britain is cloaked by a benign national regard formed, wrote Tolstoy, ”from infancy, by every possible means — class books, services, sermons, speeches, books, papers, songs, poetry, monuments [leading to] people stupefied in the one direction”.

Much has changed since he wrote that. Or has it? The colonial war in Afghanistan is now reported almost entirely through the British army, with squaddies always doing their Kipling best, and the Afghan resistance dismissed as ”outsiders” and ”invaders”.

Pictures of nomadic boys with Nato-roasted skin almost never appear in the press or on television; neither do the after-effects of British thermobaric weapons, or ”vacuum bombs”, designed to suck the air out of human lungs. Instead full pages mourn and celebrate a British military intelligence agent, because she happened to be a 26-year-old woman, the first to die in Afghanistan.

Baha Mousa, tortured to death by British soldiers, was also 26 years old. But he is different. His father, Dawood, says that the way the ministry of defence has behaved towards his son’s death convinces him that the British government regards the lives of others as ”cheap”. And he is right.

South Africa takes an unacceptable risk
For small farmers all over the world, genetically modified (GM) seeds have been a disaster. In promoting GM and government subsidies for patented seeds huge, mostly American, multicorporations, have overseen the slow death of natural agriculture. Faced with this ”agripower”, untold numbers of farmers in India have lost their livelihood and taken their own lives.

In Europe cultivating GM crops faces a ban because it poses, say scientists, ”unacceptable risks”. A strain of GM maize has been banned outright in several European countries and is not grown at all in Britain. Studies show how the chemicals produced by these crops can contaminate the environment and the food we eat.

Why, then, is South Africa the only country within the South African Development Community growing GM maize, cotton and soya? Why is South Africa’s food industry already saturated with GM products which British supermarkets refuse to stock? Mariam Mayet of the African Centre of Biosafety says: ”When South Africa passed GMO legislation in 1997, most people weren’t aware of how contentious the technology would become — Everything is contaminated and, to make matters worse, labelling of GM content is not mandatory.”

South Africa has concluded trade agreements with mighty corporations, such as Monsanto, which promote the subsidisation of patented seeds. Small farmers are bound into an export-only system, abandoning subsistence agriculture — without having been warned of the dangers.

”It all looks very nice on paper,” says Mayet, ”but it is a clever ploy to get access to people’s land. Small-scale farmers who sign up for GM deals quickly lose control over seed management, production and eventually their land. This means they lose control over food sovereignty.”

”Food sovereignty” means the most basic human right to feed and sustain ourselves. One reason food prices are climbing all over the world is the market grip of corporations such as Monsanto, Dow and Cargill, the world’s biggest grain company. Another reason is the huge subsidy that the rich world’s agripower gets from governments, notably in the US and Europe — subsidies that are damned as heresy when developing governments dare to legislate protection of their own food supply.

Such hypocrisy defines the way those who make the policies of the rich world regard the rest of humanity. For South Africa the prospect is the eventual loss of all home subsistence production. That can means hunger and worse — unless someone says no.

With thanks to Kristin Palitza

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John Pilger
John Pilger is an award-winning journalist, filmmaker, and author.

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