Thursday, February 16, 2006

Army, lies and videotape — familiar ring?

Brian Feeney:

They didn't have handycams in the 1970s. Would it have made a difference if they had existed? Probably not. There were miles of video footage of British soldiers beating people here – baseball bats were their preferred weapon though anything available would do, boots, fists, heads, bottles, torches, rifles-butts. You name it, they used it.

There's television footage from the 1970s of a young thug in British army battledress beating a man more than twice his age down the New Lodge Road with a baseball bat. Not low-quality, grainy, pixellated footage like the assault in Iraq but plain, clear broadcast quality. The result? Nothing.

People in nationalist districts here can only laugh at the hypocrisy of the reporting of assaults in Iraq and the responses from Tony Blair.

You could write the script. 'Finest army in the world. Trained to the highest standards. Thuggish behaviour not a reflection of the vast majority of soldiers. British army best in the world at, wait for it, winning hearts and minds.' One silly reporter intoned with a straight face that the British soldier honed his skills at winning hearts and minds on, yes, the streets of Belfast and Crossmaglen. Yuk.

For the record, the British army was guilty of systematic torture here 35 years ago and the British government had to defend itself in international tribunals against the case brought by the Irish government which ran on into the mid-1970s. The umpteen inquiries instituted into army and police brutality came to nothing of course.

One memorably decided that the matter of its inquiry was not torture because the perpetrators didn't take a pleasure in it. So it was only inhumane and degrading treatment. So that's OK then.

Alongside the systematic torture inflicted on nationalists in 1971 was the constant, casual, daily brutality meted out by individual soldiers and also organised violence by notoriously savage marines and paratroopers. Their savagery was supervised by corporals and sergeants, usually the most sadistic men in the units who didn't get to be NCOs because they were full of the milk of human kindness but because they were horrible. The brutality lasted as long as the British army was on the streets. It was endemic and continuous.

People in nationalist districts dreaded when a regiment was leaving. The 10 days or so before it left saw a rapid increase in violence from soldiers confident that they would soon be in Germany or Cyprus and far from the threat of retribution. They need not have worried. On the rare occasion when any of them was ever brought to court for an assault their officers and their mates lied through their teeth. The compliant courts always believed them rather than the untrustworthy fenian victim.

Woe betide anyone daft enough to complain to the RUC or army about an assault. The soldier who was the subject of the complaint would be told immediately who complained so his mates could go out and beat the complainant to pulp. In the worst units, such as the paras or marines, the same soldier would go out and beat up the complainant again, and again. All with complete impunity. It wasn't because the average soldier was anti-Irish.

He was of course, his small particle of brain stuffed with national stereotypes. It wasn't just that. The sort of casual brutality the recent video in Iraq portrays went on everywhere the British army was deployed: Cyprus, Aden, Kenya and, yes, Iraq where the British army first inflicted itself on its people in the 1920s using machine guns and aerial bombardment to enforce borders, artificially devised by the British government. Remind you of anywhere?

The truth is that the average British soldier was extremely frustrated here simply because he could not behave in the disgusting manner to which he was accustomed when operating farther afield. As one veteran officer complained in 1971: "It's not like shooting gollies in the jungle."

At least the British are quite open about why they are worried about the Iraqi video footage. They're afraid of reprisals from suicide bombers.

Too late. On past evidence around the world the everyday behaviour of British troops in Iraq recruits more insurgents than any video.

Hearts and minds? Lies and videotape.

Establishment be warned – the truth will out

Items seized from lawyer's house


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