Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The 'Frightened Fifteen' and the Death of a Dream

The last member of my family to serve his country was my grandfather, who fought in North Africa in the 1940s. He was away from home for four years and on his return, his six year old son ran to his mother, terrified at the arrival of this haggard man at the doorstep. My father was six when he first laid eyes on his father. Ever since i have held our defence personnel in the highest regard, admiring their courage and patriotism in placing their love of Queen and country above their own personal safety.

The most depressing aspect of the "frightened fifteen" is not their capture (though senior heads must surely role for the gross incompetence involved), nor is it the diplomacy that secured their release (Tony Blair actually handled the situation extremely well and Iran ended up losing this particular propaganda skirmish) but their immediate surrender, their willingness to say anything to secure their release, their eagerness to profit from their cowardice, and the MoD's willingness to exploit the sailors for propaganda purposes.

I had lived in what was clearly a dream world where our troops were above this frightened-rabbit behaviour, where honour and pride counted for something, where loyalty to the unit and courage in the line of adversity elevated our service personnel to something sacred.

When one joins any branch of the UK military, one has to sign the Official Secrets Act. Not only does this act preclude you from speaking freely about the work you do as a member of HM Armed Forces, it also places restrictions on such talk for up to ten years after cessation of military/defence service. Furthermore, those who join the Army or the Royal Navy are well aware that capture and, alas, fatalities are a possible scenario before the conclusion of their career. In short, our soldiers and sailors know what they are signing up for and we love and admire them for this. As a result, they have enjoyed the 100% support of the British public.

Up until now, that is.

Seaman Faye Turney has told how she "felt like a traitor" when she was forced to write "confession" letters shown on Iranian television and how she wrote a letter criticising the Blair government for its role in Iraq. Asked what form her interrogation took, she said,

"It took two forms: you had Mr Nice Guy who wanted to be your best mate; he was concerned at the fact that I hadn't been eating. And then you've got the guys who were like, 'Do you want to see your daughter again?' And that's the way they use that against you. And that was horrible."

Arthur Batchelor, 20, the youngest of the British sailors to be held captive, told the Daily Mirror about his "nightmare" at the hands of his captors and how he "cried like a baby" in his cell. He told the newspaper,

"A guard kept flicking my neck with his index finger and thumb. I thought the worst, we've all seen the videos. I was frozen in terror and just stared into the darkness of my blindfold."

"Cried like a baby"? "Nightmare"? What must our enemies be thinking?

Sally Veck, whose 19-year-old daughter Eleanor Dlugosz was killed in Iraq, criticised the MoD for letting the sailors and marines profit from their ordeal. She told The Times that

"If you are a member of the military, it is your duty to serve your country. You should do your duty and not expect to make money by selling stories."

Well, that was always my opinion, but maybe i'm just old-fashioned.

The Guardian quotes former Colonel Tim Collins, who commanded the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment in Iraq, and made that "eve of battle speech" he is I think spot on.

"This episode has brought disgrace on the British armed forces and it comes from complete ineptitude at the top."

Incidentally, Britain lost four men and women in Basra on the day the "frightened fifteen" were released and their families will get next to nothing. Nor will they be granted access to the media.

Even PR agent Max Clifford, who confirmed some of the group had already approached him for advice, had the good grace to be totally bemused by events saying,

"The surprise was that the Ministry of Defence encouraged them to do this".

At this point, it is worth reminding ourselves of the last five years served in Vietnam by Presidential hopeful, John McCain.

On October 26, 1967, John McCain's A-4 Skyhawk was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile. He broke both arms and a leg after ejecting from his plane. After he regained consciousness, a mob gathered around him, spat on him, kicked him and stripped him of his clothing. He was then tortured by North Vietnamese soldiers, who bayonetted him in his left foot and groin. His shoulder was crushed by a rifle butt. He was then transported to the Hoa Lo Prison. Once McCain arrived at the Hanoi Hilton, he was placed in a cell and interrogated daily.

When McCain refused to provide any information to his captors, he was beaten until he lost consciousness. When the North Vietnamese discovered his father was the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command, commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, he was offered a chance to return home. McCain turned down the offer of repatriation.

McCain signed an anti-American propaganda message which was written in Vietnamese, but only as a result of rigorous and brutal torture methods, which to this day have left him incapable of raising his arms above his head. According to McCain, signing the propaganda message is something he most regrets during his time as a POW. After McCain signed the statement, the Vietnamese decided they could not use it. They tried to force him to sign a second statement, and this time he refused. He received two to three beatings per week because of his continued refusal.

McCain was held as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five-and-a-half years, mostly in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, and was finally released from captivity in 1973, having been a POW for almost an extra five years due to his earlier refusal to accept an out of turn repatriation offer.

Update; The Ministry of Defence has banned personnel from selling their stories to the media until a review of the rules governing the issue is completed. The head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannat, is understood to have banned all soldiers from selling their stories to the media.

I feel a huge sadness in the realisation that our armed forces are no different from me and you. I guess i should have known better. But the ending of a dream is always hard to take.