|ISSUE 51 SPRING 2006
|a real champaign moment|
- a real champaign moment
You would think he had better things to do than gripe on Channel 4 News. Much of UK’s military bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, a shortage of recruits, and the widespread unpopularity of what people in his charge were doing: it’s surprising that the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson (‘the Prince of Darkness’ to his troops), found time to rush to the studios and pronounce on a matter of relative insignificance. ’I am slightly saddened that there doesn’t seem to have been a note of gratitude for the soldiers who risked their lives to save those lives,’ he said, referring to pacifist hostages recently rescued from captivity in Iraq.
Only a very few people are in a position to know exactly what was said after the SAS burst in on the three Christian Peacemakers – and even they may not have precise recollections. People at the Christian Peacemaker Teams’ head office, however, were quite clear about their prompt expression of thanks. The MoD, challenged about Jackson’s reproach, explained that ‘information about the thanks had not filtered through to the MoD when General Jackson made his statement’. They added: ‘to be fair, he did not actually say that no expression of gratitude has been made.’ So much for military intelligence….
What’s rather more interesting is why Jackson felt the need to make such a comment. Was the general’s action perhaps a calculated attempt to rally some public support for his embattled institution? Not much good news has come out of Iraq since the staged toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue, so singing the praises of the brave SAS lads who rescued a handful of civilians might be thought worth an outing in front of the cameras.
Singing to the US navy in 1944, Bing Crosby outlined the plan: you have to ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with Mr In-Between’. The Telegraph, loyal to a fault, did its own bit of accentuating the positive for General Jackson: ‘The full gamut of Britain's intelligence services was involved in the hunt for the hostages, in an operation that cost millions. Agents from MI6, MI5, the Joint Communications Headquarters at Cheltenham and soldiers from the Special Air Service and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment were all involved in the three-month hunt.’ For many this became the accepted version of events. It neatly eliminated the negative – that the rescue appeared to be the result of a last minute tip-off and the kidnappers had scarpered. The millions spent on a hunt that actually failed were soon forgotten.
The general’s tone of voice may have been authoritative, but to carp about lack of gratitude from three frightened and disoriented men who had been held captive for 119 days showed lack of understanding. Unless, of course, he was playing to popular prejudices: hopeless peaceniks rescued at great risk by troops whose energy and resources were meant for more ‘important’ activities.
In the USA they have ‘Operation Gratitude’. This was founded in March 2003 by Carolyn Blashek, who ‘realised the importance for the troops to feel support from the folks back home’. And as a result of her efforts perhaps they do. It must surely be demoralising for any group toiling supposedly on our behalf to feel criticised and unsupported. Think of social workers, teachers and others like them, often pilloried in the media and given little sympathy or moral support for the often difficult jobs they do.
America also has its ‘Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund’ whose US chairman, Arnold Fisher, has just become a KGB. So has Richard Armitage, former US deputy Secretary of State, also known for his part in the Iran-Contra scandal (the illegal sale of arms to Iran). Sundry US generals have also received knighthoods. What message do these honours convey? The wrong one, surely. Or maybe they’re no more than an inexpensive way by which Tony Blair can show his gratitude to people who have been of use.
When speaking of the dead and injured in war it is difficult to separate the private from the public, the personal from the official. Commemorations of the ‘million British dead’ after the First World War developed a public language of remembrance whose concepts entered the private domain – and have since turned into incantations (‘fallen heroes’, ‘glorious dead’) that shut down the ability to call a spade a spade. Part of the PPU’s work is to alert people to this at every opportunity. ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,’ John Donne famously wrote in 1623. His sentiment appeals, but how many have meant it as he did, or have felt thus diminished?
It was certainly put aside by the statesmen and politicians who decided on the war, by the millions who supported the war, by the generals who gave the orders and by the soldiers who went out to kill. Donne’s words have painful meaning for the families and friends of those who were killed. But the emotions of the rest have been stirred by a deceit: the supposed ‘nobility’, ‘honour’, and ‘valour’ of war. Soldiers invaded another country and killed, directly or indirectly, men, women and children: a fact that has been made almost unmentionable.
But official sensitivity did not and does not extend to the war-injured, at least where cost is concerned. Dozens of charities were formed (later to coalesce into the British Legion) after the First World War, to help injured ex-soldiers. Such assistance was needed: while the state praised the disabled veterans with fine words it was considerably less free with financial support.
Today the cost of caring for injured forces personnel is far greater: too great to be fully met or even adequate. Today, injuries are more serious but life expectancy greater. The US administration has been trying to ‘hide’ the huge number of severely wounded this century – 17,000 so far. 20% of these have serious head and brain injuries. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates the cost of caring for injured US veterans of the Iraq war to be at least $35 billion. He says the cost of the Iraq war will be $1,026 trillion (if troops withdraw by 2010, that is). As for Britain, there is a formidably complicated tariff of payments and compensations for injuries; it has also been announced that if a widow sues the MoD over her husbands’ death her widow’s pension will be cut.
The release of the three pacifist hostages was described as a ‘champagne moment’. A few days earlier, MPs had begun debating how to replace the UK's Trident nuclear weapons system, at an estimated cost of £25 billion. General Jackson’s view on the difference between conventional and nuclear weapons is straightforward: to him they are ‘somewhat apples and oranges’. A weapon is a weapon, as long as it does the job. No doubt more champagne corks will pop as the contracts for the new submarines and missiles are signed. No doubt there will be little haggling over the price of this weaponry, and even less over the human cost of war.