War, vulture capitalism and how to really play a harp – part I

First the harp, since I have a small clip of a wonderful musician called Diego Laverde Rojas from Columbia, who was playing in Old St Tube station last night.

Like me many of you I often just walk past buskers, even good ones, following my imagined prioritisation of things (or just being late to a meeting). But… what could be more important than standing listening to a virtuoso player in the underground on a cold night, conjuring up traditional dances of South America on the least likely instrument? Thanks Diego, you made my night, and I am sure you will make many others happy. [Of course I asked him if I could upload the video of him. He’s a lovely guy to talk to. I was so stunned by his playing I completely forget to give him a few more coins. Londoners, please help me make up for that!]

And now for the dark side.

I attended a talk at the Greens Party headquarters in London, with three speakers. I’ll deal with each speaker in separate posts.

The first was Ben Griffin, a former British SAS paratrooper, known here in the UK for having refused to return to Iraq in 2006 because he saw the modus operandi of the US as unacceptable, primarily due to indiscriminate violence against innocent Iraqi citizens who US soldiers considered to be subhuman.

What’s happening in US-led war zones today – terrorist creation

Now before going on, we need to just mention who Ben Griffin is. He’s an SAS soldier who served in Northern Ireland, Macedonia, Afghanistan and Iraq. We all know the SAS (US equivalent: Green Berets) are the ultimate elite, men of steel who can pretty much go to the limit of what is humanly possible in the toughest military situations. When you see and hear someone like Griffin in the flesh, you do think: this person is relaxed, thoughtful, ultra-disciplined, and yes, probably made of steel. My point being that for someone like that to leave the life he was made for (at one level), for the reasons he stated, is a supremely courageous act.

Ben was talking last night as the coordinator of Veterans for Peace UK, an organisation he started on the inspiration of the US-based Veterans for Peace. Here’s a very short version of what he had to say in the far too short 20 minutes he had to talk to us.

  • The training of all soldiers aims to do three things: install automatic obedience to orders; ingrained loyalty to your unit; the ability to kill effectively. Although he didn’t use a word like ‘brainwashing’ or ‘programming’ it was pretty clear that this is more or less what he meant.
  • The training of elite soldiers further instills in them to think that ‘normal’ soldiers, navy, any soldier whose active service is mostly or completely ‘within the wire’ (i.e. within controlled bases in places like Iraq, Afghanistan etc), are rubbish, not fit to even watch the special forces train, and that civilians are even worse – fat, lazy comfortable bastards (actually he used a stronger word). “Imagine how we were trained to think of citizens of other countries” was his last observation in this section.
  • Fast forward to his time in Iraq: within his unit, they spent a lot of time (as far as I understand, either under ultimate US command, or within a US-designed programme of intervention) breaking into the houses of civilians and terrorising them – separating out all males over a certain age, taking anything of supposed intelligence value from the house; conducting rough interrogations on the spot, and ultimately sending many of the men to places like Abu Ghraib for ‘proper interrogation’ i.e. torture, and for some, from there to the real places of torture we are only just finding out about in the last few years.
  • He realised at some point that what they were doing was completely wrong – that in most cases, they were simply terrorising innocent people – doing exactly what the Iraq Intervention was nominally against. You can see interviews with him on his wikipedia page, and elsewhere.
  • The terrorising of civilians by allied forces (presumably something like we see in modern war movies like Blackhawk Down, the various Afghanistan films) has gone from being an exceptional operational MO to a standard one, but with a modern difference – rather than ‘detention’, which is expensive and difficult, and risks embarrassments such as the Abu Ghraib torture scandal – assassination (particularly by drones) is now a preferred method of dealing with risky individuals and groups.

This excerpt from an interview with the Sunday Telegraph in March 2006 shows he was not alone in his thoughts at the time:

On Wednesday, the pre-trial hearing will begin into the court martial of Flt Lt Malcolm Kendall-Smith, a Royal Air Force doctor who has refused to return to Iraq for a third tour of duty on the grounds that the war is illegal. Mr Griffin’s allegations came as the Foreign Office minister Kim Howells, visiting Basra yesterday, admitted that Iraq was now “a mess”.

If two such service personnel actually made the decision to say ‘no more’, we can safely assume that many, at least among the British thought the same thing, and I think we have to assume that among many of the ‘trigger-happy’ US troops there must have been some understanding that they were doing things in a profoundly wrong way.

Now, many millions of people, myself included already understood in 2003 that the war had no justification, that there were no WMD, and that the most likely outcome was going to be to create terrorism, not reduce it. I distinctly remember thinking this at the time of the million person marches around the world. Everybody was against this war, and yet it happened. We knew it would create more terrorism than it solved (who believed it would solve any?)

What I didn’t know – what I learned last night – was that the current way the allies, primarily the US, approach war (currently mostly in Islamic countries, but tomorrow, who knows?) is by relatively unconstrained violence and terror to innocent civilians.

That means that the modern warfare of the good guys (that’s supposed to be us)

  • are generating its own abhorrent terror in the homes and lives of typically poor people in foreign countries and
  • has become a machine for manufacturing new terrorists.

This couldn’t be more opposite than what most of the public naively think is going on, and it couldn’t really be more morally wrong. Once our own interventions start targeting non-combatants, we have lost all moral rights.

Ben mentioned the shocking fact that many of today’s ISIS generals were non-religious Iraqi generals who converted to political Islam in places like Abu Ghraib.

I knew the US/Allies were creating terrorists, but I had no idea how efficiently. They directly created ISIS, right within the Bucca prison in Iraq. Here’s the story on that.

Veterans for Peace UK

But let’s get back to Veterans for Peace UK. I’m still just learning about this organisation, but have a look at its statement of purpose:

We, having dutifully served our nation, do hereby affirm our greater responsibility to serve the cause of world peace. To this end we will work, with others:

  • Toward increasing public awareness of the costs of war
  • To restrain our government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations
  • To end the arms race and to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons
  • To seek justice for veterans and victims of war
  • To abolish war as an instrument of national policy

To achieve these goals, members of Veterans For Peace pledge to use nonviolent means and to maintain an organisation that is both democratic and open, with the understanding that all members are trusted to act in the best interests of the group for the larger purpose of world peace.

Now, if some civilian wrote that, you’d think, that’s nice, but what do you know about war? The above is written by veterans of active service. Read it again with that in mind. Sounds different doesn’t it? Also read their statement of non-violence. These statements are actually a small version of how countries should think. These veterans are actually completely capable of extreme violence – that’s what they were trained for. Choosing non-violence when you have the opposite capacity is something profound: it’s a conscious considered choice, not just some easy aspirational statement. What if the UK and European nations were to adopt that way of thinking as countries?

These statements, being as they are by ex-active serving armed forces, remind me of the film The Gatekeepers, consisting of lengthy interviews on Israel’s endless fight against insurgency and terrorism. The ultimate message: Israel will never succeed in the West Bank, and is probably creating more terrorists, not fewer. Why is it important? Because the interviewees are six ex-heads of Shin Bet, the internal security service.

If we wanted to formulate policy at a country level on war, foreign intervention, and the costs of violence, nuclear armaments and so on, we need to listen to intelligent people who return from theatres of war and tell us that it’s not working. We need to be thoughtful and reflective on what military force we need, where we need to deploy it (in defence), and particularly end the horrific mess Western countries are creating by their current military engagements.

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