Maysan Revisited: What good will come of it?

  Lawyers are not a popular breed, especially when they are perceived to be chasing ambulances. But in some cases they can actually help, although not always in the way you might expect.

Take, for example, an incident in which six British soldiers died when their outpost at Al Majarr Al Kabir, in Maysan province of Iraq was overrun by local tribesmen. It sounds like an Al Majar Al Kabirevent from Britain’s colonial past but in fact it took place on 24 June 2003.

The subsequent Board of Inquiry conducted its work thoroughly and “found that the incident at Al Majarr Al Kabir was a surprise attack, which could not reasonably have been predicted”.

The inquest in 2006 recorded a verdict of unlawful killing. The British Army learnt and implemented its lessons. The six soldiers were remembered along with the other 173 British deaths in Iraq between 2003-2009, during what was known as Operation TELIC.

That was it, until 31 July 2013 when Sky News announced “Murdered Red Cap’s Family To Sue Government”.

Following the landmark judgement from the Supreme Court in June, which ruled that soldiers at war in foreign lands were covered by human rights laws and therefore owed a duty of care, the family of Corporal Russell Aston is suing the British Government for negligence.

The lawyers will no doubt be looking forward to this. For some it will be the crusading instinct of testing their skill against the boundaries of the law. Others will be salivating at the thought of all the potential “no win, no fee” work ready to be scooped from past and future conflict. All will be anticipating some healthy fees. However, lawyers aside, what good will come of this legal action?

Will the family benefit? I doubt that the court case will provide much comfort to them, despite the £250,000 sum that Sky News is quoting in compensation. I don’t believe that it’s about the money.

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Photograph by Felix Spender

The adversarial nature of the court means that it will be win or lose and the stakes are high for the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Losing will perpetuate the family’s anguish and  winning will come at a price. I have never met anyone who has found tribunals or litigation less than traumatic, even if they end up on the winning side.

The best solution for the family would have been to resolve the conflict through mediation. This private, informal, consensual approach would almost certainly have delivered the answers needed by the family.

Sadly, it’s probably too late now, but if they were to change their minds North Light Solutions would support them.

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Photograph by Felix Spender

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 focussed the Army on unacceptable deaths under the Health and Safety umbrella . It forced commanders to take legal responsibilities for equipment and training through a system of competent army authorities. It became incumbent on all the Armed Services to make sure that individuals were properly prepared for operations and that equipment was fit for purpose.

If such an authority had been in place in 2003 it is probable that failings such as the lack of body armour, highlighted at the inquest of Sergeant Steven Roberts, who was killed by friendly fire in March 2003, would never have occurred.So a legally defined duty of care for soldiers on the battlefield should be a good thing. No more half measures, just proper support.

The MOD will be concerned that the legal action will result in an outflow of cash in damaging legal actions. Army commanders will be concerned that additional legislation would limit their freedom of action in operational theatres. And yet maybe that would not be such a bad thing.

The Army’s operation in Iraq was not the British Army’s finest hour, despite the best efforts of the youngsters on the ground.

British operations were shown to be under-resourced and under-committed. The withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2003 to garrison a peaceful Northern Ireland, just as the insurgency broke out in Southern Iraq, seems to me to have been a significant misjudgement.

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US Army Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles entered service in 2007.

The British Army showed none of the agility of the US forces who, once they realised they had got it wrong, were able to write the doctrine, design and procure the equipment and retain the force while our soldiers were still trundling round in the ill suited SNATCH Land Rovers.

A successful action will force the Army and the MOD, in particular, to look more carefully at resourcing operations. The political cap on manpower will have to match the task. No more “just enough, just in time” logistics that turn into “too little, too late.” 

Military priorities will have to be reviewed as new operations emerge. Allies will have to be asked about their intent; no more mates going to a party but business partners working together over clearly defined aims. The decision makers – politicians, civil servants and senior officers – will have to be accountable.

Nobody would be naive enough to believe that the risk could be taken out of military operations but we should all subscribe to the belief that if we are going to do it, we must do it right.

So will any good come from this action? As I said earlier, the family will find it devastating and I sincerely wish they would take the less adversarial course of mediation to meet their needs.

For the rest, I think it could be a catalyst for positive change and I will raise a glass if the family wins.

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Photograph by Felix Spender

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Women in Battle: Progress or Retrograde Step

Last week the US Secretary of State for Defence announced that the US armed forces would allow women to serve in small group combat units, which President Obama and many other commentators have welcomed as a “historic step”. There is no doubt that this is a historic step, but does it move humanity forwards or backwards?

The subsequent discussion in the British media focused on the familiar topics of equal rights across the genders, of which this is just another facet, physical issues and effects of group cohesiveness of women serving alongside men in combat.

A senior journalist dismissed anyone who disagreed with the step as a stegosaurus, but there is more to the discussion than simple gender equality. There is the whole aspect of the development of civilisation.

The facts are these. British women already serve on the front line, many have engaged the enemy with their weapons, some have been wounded and a few have died.

British soldiers in Afghanistan

British soldiers in Afghanistan

Women live alongside men and share the hardship in Afghanistan. Women have mental endurance and act with comparable courage; some have received medals in recognition of their gallantry in the face of the enemy.

Women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that they can hack it with the men.

However, women are hampered by a weaker physique and were identified, in an Army

British infantrymen on patrol in Afghanistan

British infantrymen on patrol in Afghanistan

study in 2002, as being more prone to muscular-skeletal injuries than their male counter parts. This would be exacerbated by service in the infantry where typical fighting loads are in excess of 60 lbs per man; a weight that has remained fairly consistent since the days of Marius’s Mules in the first century BC.

That said, I have no doubt that there would be a cohort of women who would have the physique and durability to serve alongside men in combat units. The question is, should they?

In addressing this, it is important to understand that women serving in the front line would be stepping into very different territory when they take up close combat roles.  Currently women, along with 60% of the men, serve in roles that support combat – signallers, artillery, intelligence, engineers and  logistics.

British engineers building a bridge in Afghanistan

British engineers building a bridge in Afghanistan

Although their primary role may be in front line, they are usually one step removed from the killing; engineers building a bridge will only fight to enable them to complete their task. This is fundamentally different from the combat – infantry and armoured – units whose raison d’être is to seek out the enemy and kill them as efficiently as possible.

This is brutal and dehumanising work, as described by Captain Doug Beattie * “I heard the detonation and sprinted forward following the path of the grenade. Engulfed by dust and smoke I opened fire spraying all round the room…..I could just make out the prone body of a Taliban fighter….I leant forward and thrust my bayonet towards the body as hard as I could…..There was barely any resistance, the sharpened blade sliding deeper, quickly disappearing.” Savage work indeed, but this is the stark reality of infantry work and few who are involved in it are left unaffected.

British infantrymen fighting at close quarters

British infantrymen fighting at close quarters

Since the First World War Britain has done much, in the interests of humanity and efficiency, to reduce the pool of manpower exposed to close combat.  We no longer deploy youngsters below the age of 18 on operational tours nor do we deliberately expose older individuals to close combat. It is highly improbable that Boy Cornwell ** and Lieutenant Colonel Douglas-Hamilton *** would get an opportunity to win a Victoria Cross in today’s forces.

This brings me back to women, who have been exempted from close combat by culture and tradition. Is it right to draw them into this trade where the emphasis is on killing, when we have taken such steps to narrow the parameters of service in response to social advances?  Is this a step forward for civilisation or is it a retrograde step for society in the name of gender equality?

Many intelligent and ambitious young women will argue hard that in the interests of equality, women should have the right to take their place alongside men if they are able to do so. They will point out that we have already crossed the Rubicon with women fighter pilots and Apache crews but these activities lack the intimacy of close combat and may be easier to rationalise.

Apache helicopter on patrol

Apache helicopter on patrol

The issue may turn out to be a side show with service in combat units a niche calling for women. However, it is an issue that needs more thought than just rolling out the mantra of equality.  Women need to consider whether they want to be XX equal or XY light. The debate needs to be about where we move humanity – forwards or backwards.

I will leave you with a litmus test. Consider how you would react when your daughter, sister or niece announces that she wishes to follow a career in a close combat unit. I know what I would say.

* Captain Doug Beattie served with the Royal Irish Regiment and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in Afghanistan.  He recorded his exploits in his book An Ordinary Soldier.

 ** Boy Cornwell was a 16 year old sailor who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

 *** Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas-Hamilton was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for leading his battalion at the Battle of Loos in 1915. He was 52 years old.

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